As an elite athlete, there are dozens of recovery methods, techniques, and tools that you can utilize, in order to keep you at the top of your game day after day. But the problem is knowing which tools to use, and when to use them. With so many different options, it can be difficult and overwhelming. This ultimate guide will help you pick and choose which recovery methods to use, at what stage of training, in order to maximize your athletic performance by effectively minimizing your recovery time.
In this article, we will cover
- What Are The Best Recovery Methods For Athletes?
- Blood Flow Restriction Therapy
- Cupping Therapy
- Dry Needling
- Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS)
- Foam Rolling
- Graston Technique
- Post Workout Nutrition
- Supplements For Recovery
What Are The Best Recovery Methods For Athletes?
Blood Flow Restriction Training
Step into any progressive performance training center and you might see your fellow athletes wrapping a limb with what would appear to be a tourniquet, doing 90 seconds of air squats, and calling that ‘recovery’. Well, actually it is. In the rehab community, this practice is commonly referred to as Blood Flow Restriction Training/Therapy. Although it may seem a little bit ‘out there’, published research shows mounting evidence that it aids significantly in recovery.
“The idea behind blood flow restriction training is to decrease blood flow to commonly sore muscles such as quads, hamstrings, forearms, and calves, creating a hypoxic event occluding 50-80% of blood flow,” says DPT Genevieve Gyulavary. “In doing so, anabolic growth factors, fast-twitch fiber recruitment, and muscle protein synthesis are all increased. This is a dream combination for those looking to recover faster, come back from injury with less muscle mass loss, decrease pain, increase strength, and show improvements in overall movement performance. Using this suggested range (50-80%) the applied pressure is great enough to occlude venous flow to the muscle while maintaining arterial inflow. Therefore, the athlete maintains strength while lifting lighter loads, and reducing the overall stress on the affected muscle. An enticing prescription in order to combat the effects of training or recovering from an injury without losing strength in the process.”
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Well known for its iconic and recognizable circular purple bruises, cupping therapy has been used in traditional ancient medicine for over 5,000 years, to stimulate blood flow and relieve minor aches and pains. Today, athletes of all calibers use cupping therapy to promote faster recovery by reducing inflammation and increasing blood flow [R, R].
Cupping therapy involves creating a suction on the skin using a glass, ceramic, bamboo, or plastic cup. Negative pressure is created by applying a flame to remove the oxygen or with a suction device after the cup is applied. This essentially creates a vacuum, contracting and increasing blood flow. The most common areas of treatment include the upper back, lower back, quads, hamstrings, and calves [R].
According to the International Cupping Therapy Association, Cupping therapy can aid in muscle recovery by
- Draining and removing stagnant fluid
- Relieving inflammation
- Stretching muscle and connective tissue
- Increasing blood flow
- Expelling congestion
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Whole Body Cryotherapy (WBC) is sort of like dipping yourself into a glacial ice-bath. First introduced in 1978, by Dr. Toshiro Yamauchi from Japan, from a simple observation which found that combining cold treatments with physical exercise could have efficacious and beneficial impacts on patients with rheumatoid arthritis, Cryotherapy has now evolved into a medical treatment more commonly used in sports medicine, to help athletes recover from overuse injuries, exercise-induced inflammation, and muscle soreness. WBC ice chambers, range between a frosty and frigid −100° C and −140° C (which is −148° F to −220° F) which essentially flash freezes the body with liquid nitrogen vapors. Participants remain in the chamber no longer than 3 minutes, with only mittens, socks, a headband and some skivvies [R].
Some of the many health benefits proposed from cryotherapy include
- Relieving muscle aches
- Helping joint mobility
- Reducing inflammation
- Reducing muscle soreness
- Improve sleep quality
- Recovering from overuse injuries or trauma
- Reduced anxiety
While many people believe that WBC is beneficial in reducing muscle soreness and post-workout inflammation, clinical studies have exhibited mixed results. Studies have reported that WBC is effective in reducing anti-inflammatory markers, yet there are many studies that do not note any inflammatory changes at all. Yet, nearly all studies have demonstrated some improvement in mood state, pain scores, and overall quality of life, due to increased endorphin release.
When it comes to cryotherapy treatment, the benefits athletes are mainly concerned with is the effect of WBC on muscle damage from injury for faster recovery. A study conducted at the National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance (INSEP) in Paris, France, administered three different recovery modalities WBC, Far Infrared (FIR), and Passive (PAS) randomly over three separate weeks to nine endurance runners, to determine the effects of WBC on exercise-induced muscle damage [EIMD]. The results showed that runners were able to recover immediately post WBC treatment, as opposed to 24 hours with FIR and recovery not being attained with PAS in retaining isometric muscle strength [R].
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A buzzword for recovery inside the gym recently has been the topic of dry needling. Those who have had it swear by it and others who know almost nothing about it are intrigued. There are so many misconceptions floating around about what dry needling therapy truly is, and how exactly dry needling can promote recovery.
The basic treatment of dry needling is characterized by the insertion of a microfilament into a muscle to release a trigger point. Local injection therapies often referred to as ‘wet needling’ use needles to deliver corticosteroids or other agents to localized sites. In contrast, the term “dry” comes from the fact that there is no solution that is injected into the skin and there is no bleeding that occurs from the insertion of the needle [R].
When an injury occurs from repetitive trauma or overuse, commonly seen in metabolic conditioning type activities, micro-tears in the soft tissues can begin to occur. As tissues become damaged they go into a protective state and contract. This process is known as vasoconstriction, whereby blood vessels narrow and cut off the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the damaged tissue. The narrowing of the vessels prevents new oxygen-rich blood from reaching the site of injury, as well as inhibits waste products from leaving. Because new oxygen-rich blood cannot reach damaged tissues, the site becomes hypoxic (oxygen-poor), which promotes scar tissue. This series of events affects the tissue’s ability to function optimally decreasing tissue extensibility, promoting nerve root irritation, and creating disturbances in functional movement [R].
“When a trained practitioner inserts a filament into an affected muscle, it should stimulate a twitch reflex”, says Doctor of Physical Therapy Genevieve Guylavary. This reflex is both therapeutic and diagnostic. When a twitch reflex is activated clients describe this sensation as a deep ache or cramping. According to research, the advancement of a needle into a trigger point is the first step in breaking the pain cycle. When the needle is inserted it produces a controlled lesion, which is seen as an invader by the body and the inflammatory cascade is ignited. This produces a reaction not only locally, but also systemically in the body.”
Looking at a more active population this treatment can be used from a prehab standpoint. An athlete does not need to already be in pain to be a candidate for dry needling. If an athlete is feeling weaker than normal or experiencing decreased performance, they can be assessed for neurogenic inflammation through ‘neuro-trigger points’, akin to muscular trigger points, which can cause inhibition. There is also a proactive/preventative phase for athletes during times like the open, competition prep, or periods of higher volume training, where they would benefit from this treatment prior to the onset of pain. Instead of smashing tissues with lacrosse balls and PVC pipes dry needling can have a more penetrative effect on inflammation and improve performance overall [R].
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Electric Muscle Stimulation
Electric Muscle Stimulators such as PowerDot and Compex, have become increasingly popular as options for optimizing post-workout muscle recovery and minimizing minor aches and pains. Similar to a TENS unit, Electric muscle stimulation or (EMS) causes electrical impulses to contract muscle groups which can benefit muscle recovery. EMS is proven to effectively minimize recovery time, by improving blood flow, and promoting the healing process.
EMS engages Type 1 slow-twitch muscle fibers and Type 2 fast-twitch muscle fibers, sending electrical pulses every 2-3 seconds. Type 1 muscle fibers are responsible for supporting strength and long endurance training. Fast-twitch muscle fibers contract quickly, require more energy and fatigue much faster and are required for explosive movements.
EMS can offer the option for workout recovery, however, despite the marketing hype from athletes and celebrities, most studies suggest that EMS does not actually provide any significant benefits to help workout recovery.
Theoretically, EMS is supposed to provide similar ergogenic effects to active recovery modalities.
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However, very limited evidence exists that even shows a subjective rating of reduced muscle soreness using EMS as a recovery modality [R]. Other studies suggest, that EMS can help improve muscle strength and preserve muscle mass, in critically ill patients [R]. Another well-designed study published in the Journal Of Strength And Conditioning conducted at the University of Wisconsin showed that EMS did not improve muscle strength and decrease body fat as advertised [R].
With a culmination of mixed clinical evidence, it’s hard to say if EMS is a reliable recovery method for elite athletes. Considering the cost which is between $200-500, I would suggest trying other less costly recovery methods such as foam rolling first. If you find that you need more than a studded power strip for myofascial release, then I would try EMS. The one benefit of EMS, however, compared to other therapies, is that once you buy it, you can use it whenever you want.
Foam rollers are used to assist in myofascial release, after a grueling WOD, long-distance run, or gripping powerlifting session. The reason we foam roll, or neglect to foam roll, is to not only make us cringe but to both help you warm up and recover faster after a gut-wrenching workout.
Foam rolling applies direct pressure to troublesome areas of stress or exercise-induced adhesions or calcifications also called knots. These muscle knots can disrupt training and can make you more prone to injury. Self-myofascial release, similar to getting a sports massage, can provide deep release of connective and soft fascia tissue, but without spending a hundred bucks per hour.
To date, there are a limited amount of studies covering the performance benefits of foam rolling for athletes. But, the research that is available suggests that foam rolling does most of what it promises to do – namely helping you warm up before your workout and recover faster. A small study published in the Journal Of Athletic Training examined the effects of foam rolling as a recovery tool after intense exercise protocol through assessment of pressure-pain threshold, sprint time, change-of-direction speed, power (broad-jump distance), and dynamic strength-endurance. The results suggested that foam rolling after a workout is effective and reduced Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) and associated decrements in most dynamic performance measures [R]. Often times, severe soreness and in some cases debilitating pain is what impedes your training sessions.
Therefore some of the benefits of foam rolling for athletes are
- Reduced Exercise-Induced Muscle Soreness: Foam rolling the muscles increases blood flow and oxygen to the fascial tissue, promoting the natural healing process.
- Improve Flexibility: Foam rolling helps release adhesions and tension in your muscles and therefore helps lengthen your muscle tissue.
- Reduced Stress: Oftentimes, calcifications and adhesions can build from stress, which can negatively impact quality of life, sleep, and performance. By foam rolling and myofascial release, you can significantly reduce stress.
- Improved Range Of Motion (ROM): Foam rolling helps to stretch and lengthen muscles, so you have a better range of movement [R].
- Protecting Yourself From Injury Tight muscles can be more prone to injury, so self-release of muscles and fascia can help loosen everything up and increase your overall performance.
- Reduces Post-Workout Muscle Fatigue: With less fatigue, you’ll be able to increase training volume and performance [R, R].
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Overuse injuries can lead to scar tissue build up, calcification, and adhesions in your muscle tissue. This alters muscle function, increasing muscular imbalances, impeding range of motion, abating muscle growth and can even cause acute muscular pain. Often times, athletes will use a lacrosse ball to address muscular tightness and discomfort. But for more competitive athletes, any hindrance in training, can be disruptive and calls for more attention. Graston technique, created by David Graston is an evidence-based form of instrument-assisted soft tissue mobilization (IASTM) that allows for precise detection and treatment of fascial restrictions as well as muscle and tendon dysfunction. Graston technique employs six stainless steel instruments of various shapes and sizes, to scrape and rub problem areas of connective tissue. In turn, this helps resolve muscular adhesions, scar tissue build up, and calcification in the muscles and tendons.
For example, your rotator cuff is a common area that is prone to injury and can take quite a bit of time to heal. By applying the Graston tool to that specific area, you create intentional inflammation, which directs more blood flow and stimulates faster healing. Through the scraping motion, the Graston technique is a great prospecting tool to uncover and detect problem areas. Muscles commonly end up in knots and create chronic soft tissue injuries. Graston technique can break down the scar tissue and fascial restrictions by creating an inflammatory response helping repair soft tissue structures.
As opposed to using a lacrosse ball or foam roller, Graston can help with the precise detection of muscle knots and apply myofascial release to the exact point of muscle discomfort.
If you’re a competitive athlete, the Graston technique is great recovery therapy you can incorporate into your training and it can definitely improve range of motion and mobility by reducing scar tissue formation through inflammation initiating the healing process. However for $60-90 per treatment it can get quite expensive, pretty fast. I would recommend only using the Graston technique when and if other preliminary treatment options have not provided you the effective relief you need.
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Post Workout Nutrition
Without getting the right nutrients before, during, and after your workout, you might as well hang up your speed rope and stop training. Post-workout nutrition is the most important aspect of your training and your overall success. Consuming the right nutrients is fundamental to maximize athletic performance and potential by repairing lean muscle tissue and optimizing recovery. Exercise capacity, performance, and recovery from exercise can be enhanced by evidence-based nutritional interventions through the manipulation of different nutritional variables (i.e., nutrient composition, quantity, and timing of nutrient ingestion.) [R].
There are three fundamental purposes for post-workout nutrition
- Replenishing vital amino acids to initiate the muscle rebuilding process also called protein synthesis
- Repair and decrease muscle mass breakdown to maintain lean muscle mass
- Replenishing glycogen stores from carbohydrates to improve energy
What To Eat Post-Workout
What you eat and include in your post-workout nutrition strategy really depends on two factors; what you ate during the day and how intense your training was. The macronutrients in charge of it all - Protein and Carbohydrates.
Protein plays a vital role in building and rebuilding muscle mass and strength, improving body composition, and optimizing recovery. Protein is rich in branched-chain amino acids BCAAs, Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine which stimulates protein synthesis (muscle building) and decreases proteolysis (muscle mass breakdown.)
Delayed onset muscle soreness or the pain that you typically feel several hours to a couple of days after intense bouts of exercise, is caused by small-scale tissue damage or tears to the muscle fibers. The essential branched-chain amino acids, that you derive from protein post-workout provides the critical fuel you need to reduce exercise-induced muscle damage and accelerate the recovery process [R]. Therefore, adding protein to your post-workout nutrition strategy is vital to fuel your results. Everyone has a goal, and your work out for a reason and I'm guessing you don't just do it just to lift heavy weight as many times as possible.
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For the best results post-workout, opt for a liquid form of protein like Whey Protein Isolate. Whole foods digest slowly and if whole meals aren’t practical after your workout, then toss back a post-workout nutrition shake, to get the nutrients you need quickly and efficiently.
RECOMMENDED PRODUCT Whey Protein Isolate (Chocolate or Vanilla, 30 Servings)
Glycogen is the major fuel source produced from glucose found in Carbohydrates. Glycogen plays a major role in supporting energy demands during pro-longed high-intensity training and moderate exercise. [R]. The depletion of glycogen stores is the main factor in the onset of fatigue during exercise [R]. For rapid recovery from prolonged exercise, it is important to replenish glycogen stores to initiate muscle repair and adaptation [R]. Carbohydrates can be utilized within your post-workout nutrition strategy to influence the restoration of endurance capacity during high-intensity training [R].
Numerous clinical studies have proven that prolonged exercise correlates with low glycogen muscle content [R]. Therefore, if you plan on enduring prolonged exercise bouts, or have multiple WODs in your workouts, it’s crucial to supplement with a clean, natural complex carbohydrate product to help replenish glycogen stores, for long-lasting energy and endurance. We recommend our product Clean Carbs, which contains sweet potatoes, yams, oats, and blueberries.
RECOMMENDED PRODUCT Clean Carbs (45 Servings)
Getting the proper and adequate amounts of essential amino acids from protein and glycogen from carbohydrates is crucial for post-workout nutrition, in order to replenish and initiate the repair process to optimize your training.
Clinical studies have shown that including carbohydrates and protein together into your post-workout nutrition has the greatest benefits on performance optimization [R].
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The Best Supplements For Recovery
In order to keep you healthy, sore-free, and on track to meet your training goals, your body requires essential nutrients to adequately rebuild and repair itself. Supplementing the right nutrients into your post-workout recovery routine can help with faster muscle recovery, promote muscle repair, and reduce muscle mass breakdown and soreness so you can optimize your athletic performance.
RELATED ARTICLE The Best Supplements For Muscle Recovery
There are several different supplements that help with faster muscle recovery. However, the most important thing to consider before buying supplements is to ensure that the products you’re consuming are made with transparent, clinically dosed, and proven ingredients, that do not contain proprietary blends, mixes, or compounded formulas.
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), supplement manufacturers are required to list all of the ingredients in a product, on its label along with the appropriate amount of each in terms of weight. However, if the ingredients are part of a proprietary blend – the specific amount of each individual ingredient in the blend does not have to be listed, only the total.
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That being said, if you use supplements with proprietary blends, you won’t know what’s in your product, and if you don’t know what’s in your supplements, how do you know if you’re getting the right nutrients your body needs for faster recovery? You don’t. You work hard to incorporate wholesome, healthy foods into your diet, why compromise your results by consuming supplements that contain harmful and unhealthy ingredients?
Below you will find our top 5 recommendations for the best supplements for recovery
Whey Protein Isolate
One of the best supplements for faster muscle recovery is Whey Protein Isolate. Whey protein isolate is rich in Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) which are essential to help build, rebuild, and repair muscle mass breakdown, and encourage muscle growth. Whey Isolate also digests faster than other forms of protein, delivering vital nutrients to your muscle tissue faster, for more rapid recovery times.
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BCAAs should be a staple product within everyone’s recovery strategy, to rebuild muscle mass, and recover faster. Branched Chain Amino Acids are comprised of three essential amino acids, Leucine, isoleucine, and Valine. BCAA’s are vital for faster recovery because they are directly responsible for increasing the rate of the biological process of muscle protein synthesis (anabolism, or muscle growth) and decreasing the rate of protein degradation (catabolism, muscle breakdown). They’re the building blocks of protein.
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Whether you love lifting weights or crushing times at the CrossFit box, your body utilizes these essential amino acids for fuel, which increases the rate of protein degradation (muscle mass loss) and BCAA oxidation.
RECOMMENDED PRODUCT BCAA 2:1:1 (50 Servings, Electrolytes + Glutamine Lemon Lime)
L-Glutamine is the most abundant conditionally essential amino acid in the human body. However, with increased training volume, glutamine stores are depleted faster than your body can replenish them, which can cause your body to be catabolic and break down lean muscle mass. Low levels of glutamine can also compromise your immune system, increasing the risk of infection.
Glutamine is one of the best supplements for muscle recovery due to its ability in reducing muscle mass breakdown and post-workout soreness. With less soreness and faster recovery, you can increase training volume. Increased training volume translates to more training, and better results [R].
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RECOMMENDED PRODUCT L-Glutamine (100 Servings, Unflavored)
If your goals are to be a competitive athlete, then supplementing a clean complex carbohydrate supplement is understandable. If you’re going to the gym and lifting weights to maintain your muscle mass and strength, to keep up with your kids at soccer practice, then carbohydrate supplements are probably not for you. So let’s break this down.
if you are a competitive athlete, sometimes it can be hard to get the daily intake of carbohydrates you need, to adequately replenish glycogen stores for added energy and improved performance. In that case, it is important to supplement with a natural carbohydrate that sustains long-lasting glycogen release such as complex carbohydrate supplements, like Clean Carbs for faster muscle recovery and optimized performance. In order for carbohydrate supplements to be effective, protein or BCAA’s must be combined with carbohydrates to have a positive impact on faster muscle recovery and achieving a net positive protein balance.
RECOMMENDED PRODUCT Clean Carbs (45 Servings)
Turmeric contains over 100 unique chemical properties that contribute to its countless therapeutic and anti-inflammatory effects. The most active ingredient in Turmeric is Curcumin a polyphenol that has been shown to target multiple signaling molecules at the cellular level. Curcumin is responsible for giving the turmeric root its beautiful yellow-orange color. Curcuminoids, the group of chemical compounds accountable for the health benefits of turmeric, include curcumin, demethoxycurcumin, and bisdemethoxycurcumin. Turmeric also contains volatile oils, including turmerone, artumerone, and zingiberene. Curcumin has been shown to have multiple health benefits, including inflammatory conditions, metabolic syndrome, and degenerative eye conditions.
One of the main benefits of Turmeric, primarily curcumin is found in its ability to act as an anti-inflammatory agent and reducing inflammation. Research has shown that curcumin is a highly active molecule that modulates the inflammatory response by inhibiting the production of inflammatory cytokines
RELATED ARTICLE The Benefits Of Turmeric On Post Workout Inflammation And Joint Mobility
In addition to chronic inflammation, several studies have been initiated to define Turmeric’s unique role and mechanism of action on arthritic pain, specifically joint inflammation and mobility by reducing joint swelling. In vivo animal studies, have shown that curcuminoids contribute to anti-arthritic effects, helping to reduce joint swelling and inflammation, up to 48% [R, R]
This can be especially beneficial for athletes and active individuals to help reduce exercise-induced inflammation and promote faster recovery. Often times, joints can produce inflammation from stress-related movements and can result in pain and discomfort, and result in further stress-related injury.
RECOMMENDED PRODUCT Turmeric (95% Curcuminoids, 60 Servings)
The Best Recovery Methods For Athletes: Takeaway
It's important to realize that most of these recovery modalities are to be used at the appropriate time when recommended by a medical professional. If you're an elite or collegiate athlete, access to physical therapists, chiropractors, and team physicians gives you easy access to the best treatment options available to maximize your performance. Recovery methods such as cupping, dry needling, Graston, and cryotherapy can be costly and should only be used when needed. Other modalities such as foam rolling and EMS should be utilized on a daily basis to reduce the severity of DOMS, in addition to a healthful diet, comprised of quality carbohydrates, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Supplementation will also help reduce muscle mass breakdown and exercise-induced soreness to maximize performance and minimize recovery time.
Looking for ways to help minimize your recovery time and optimize your performance?
L-Glutamine is a conditionally essential amino acid, which helps rebuild repair and recover muscle mass after strenuous exercise to reduce muscle breakdown and exercise-induced muscle soreness.* Glutamine also supports healthy immune function promotes a positive nitrogen balance and promotes protein synthesis. Faster recovery times between training sessions will help increase training volume and endurance.
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