Most of us try to break through strength training and muscle-building plateaus by finding ways to make exercises harder or by experimenting with more challenging exercises. This may work, but one often neglected approach to ensure that you keep making progress is to address recovery methods. Let’s look at a few of the more unique, or forgotten, workout recovery methods.
Getting enough sleep should be at the top of the list of what an athlete can do to improve recovery. LeBron James and Roger Federer claim they need up to 12 hours of sleep a night to perform their best, and 10 hours a night is the magic number for Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Usain Bolt. What does the research say?
In a study published in 2009, Stanford researchers wanted to see how collegiate-level male and female swimmers would respond to sleeping 10 hours per day for 6-7 weeks. The benefits of getting extra sleep during the study included positive effects on the athletes’ mood, better reaction times off the block, faster 15-meter sprint and turn times, and more kick strokes.
With that success, Stanford researchers decided to conduct a similar study (published in 2011) with male basketball players. The athletes were told to sleep 10 hours a day for 2-4 weeks. At the beginning of the study, the hoopsters were asked to shoot 10 free throws from 15 feet and 15 shots attempts at three-point goals. The baseline result from the short distance was an average of 7.9 shots, which improved to 8.8 shots at the end. For the long distance the baseline was 10.2, which improved to 11.6.
Subsequently, Stanford researchers repeated the extended-sleep studies on members of their women’s tennis team for 5-6 weeks and their football team for 7-8 weeks. As a result, the tennis players sprinted faster and increased their serving accuracy, and the football players increased their lateral speed and forward sprint speed. Based upon such encouraging results, the Stanford researchers recommend that teens and young adult athletes could benefit from sleeping 9 hours or more a night and young adult athletes 7-9 hours.
Dating back over 2000 years, saunas have long been a stable in athletic training. In contrast to steam rooms that have 100 percent humidity and are usually set at about 120 degrees Fahrenheit, saunas use dry heat and may reach temperatures of up to 200 degrees.
One of the newest champions of saunas for athletic performance is Rhoda Perciavalle Patrick, Ph.D., a biomedical scientist who has done extensive work in metabolism, inflammation, and aging. Patrick says saunas have a positive effect on protein synthesis, the process that enables cells to produce new proteins; this effect should be of special interest to anyone seeking to increase strength and muscle hypertrophy.
As for endurance, a study on runners that appeared in the Journal of Science and Sports Medicine in 2007 measured the results of taking two saunas a week for three weeks; each session lasting 30 minutes. The researchers found that those subjects using the sauna increased their ability to run to exhaustion by 32 percent. As a bonus, consider that there are also many health benefits of sauna, including improving brain health. In a study he was involved with published in 2017 in Age and Aging that involved 2,315 men ages 42 to 60, Jari Laukkanen, M.D., Ph.D., found that regular use of sauna was linked to lower risks of Alzheimer’s.
For those who do not tolerate traditional saunas well, infrared saunas are a good option. Researchers are looking into how infrared saunas can help inflammation after performing intense exercises. One study published in the Canadian Journal of Diabetes in 2010 found that infrared saunas might help lower blood pressure and even reduce waist circumference.
Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy
Used to treat deep-sea divers who acquired a painful and potentially life-threatening condition called the “bends,” the health benefits of hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) were popularized by Michael Jackson and later Michael Phelps. The treatment involves the user spending time in a clean, acrylic chamber that increases atmospheric pressure up to 3 times normal and exposes the body to air that is 100 percent oxygen, which is about 5 times normal. HBOT is especially popular among those in the fighting sports to accelerate wound healing, and the treatment is used to reduce inflammation and increase the growth of blood vessels.
Under Armour should be credited with helping to popularize compressive clothing, which are form-fitting athletic gear designed to improve performance and recovery. Of course, compressive socks have been used to treat venous conditions such as edema and thrombosis, but compressive gear may do much more.
In their book, Recovery for Performance in Sports, authors Christophe Hausswirth and Iñigo Mujika concluded, “…while the information on the effects of compression garments on recovery is still mixed, some benefits may be present.” Further, a study published was published in 2014 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that reviewed 12 studies on compressive garments. Looking at variables that included delayed onset muscle soreness, muscular strength, muscular power and creatine kinase (an enzyme involved in energy production), the authors concluded the following: “These results indicate that compression garments are effective in enhancing recovery from muscle damage.”
In contrast to acupuncture, dry needling is based upon neurophysiology principles whereas acupuncture is focused on treating energy meridians. The promoted benefits of dry needling are that it can increase microcirculation to promote healing, reduce pain, relieve muscle spams, and stimulate the nerve roots to restore muscle function.
The use of antioxidants to enhance exercise recovery has attracted considerable attention. Dr. Kenneth “The Father of Aerobics” Cooper didn’t think much of supplements in his early writings, but became a champion of antioxidants and even wrote a book about their use, Antioxidant Revolution.
Numerous studies on the use of vitamin C to reduce exercise-induced muscle damage have been performed. For example, a study published in Pain in 1992 that looked at the use of Vitamin C on reducing muscle soreness after an intense calf workout caused “…a significant difference between experimental placebo groups at the height of soreness.” Likewise, a study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology found that “…prior vitamin C supplementation may exert a protective effect against eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage,” but that such recovery did not occur in the subjects using vitamin E.
Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) are considered essential amino acids because the body cannot synthesize them itself. They are of special interest to strength athletes because BCAAs make up a large portion of skeletal muscle. In a study published in the Journal of Nutrition in 2006, researchers looked at the use of BCAA supplementation with intense weight training. The researchers concluded, “The results obtained showed that BCAA supplementation prior to squat exercise decreased DOMS and muscle fatigue occurring for a few days after exercise. These findings suggest that BCAAs may be useful for muscle recovery following exercise.”
Another supplement to consider to indirectly improve recovery is the mineral magnesium because it may help with sleep. There are many other supplements associated with restful sleep, such as melatonin, but probably the first you should consider is magnesium. One of the important functions of magnesium is the detoxification of cortisol that is produced by stress. High cortisol levels affect sleep quality. It’s estimated that as much as two thirds of the population in the United States and France are magnesium deficient. Also, consider that athletic activity increases magnesium requirements. Magnesium is involved in more than 300 biochemical reactions in the body, so it’s important to get enough of this mineral.
This article touched on a few neglected or relatively new methods to improve recovery from exercise, and the list is growing. Train hard, train smart, but if you want to achieve your goals faster, take a special interest in determining which recovery methods work best for you.