Recovery Techniques & Practices for Optimal Health

When it comes to recovery, there are many aspects that one may be seeking to address, such as muscle and joint recovery, nervous system recovery, as well as mental recovery. Recovery is a natural process that occurs in all bodily systems, and the reality of it is that recovery takes time. However, certain lifestyle choices and recovery practices can aid to alleviate the time needed for the body to recover well. The purpose of this article is to focus on muscle and joint recovery from an athletic perspective; although, recovery of nervous system and the mind will also be touched on. 

Sleep: 

…sleep will be your best friend in all aspects of recovery. Hence, why it is essential to life.

The one tried and true recovery practice that can’t be overlooked or cut short is sleep. During sleep, many processes occur that help to alleviate the stressors and breakdown that occur during the day. 

Wakefulness is a largely catabolic process in which there is a high proportion of breaking down—degradation—large bio macromolecules that are used to create energy and fuel the body for daily activities [5]. During sleep, the opposite occurs, where anabolism—or the building up of large bio macromolecules from constituents— is prevalent. Anabolism is analogous to renewal. 

Stressors that present themselves in daily life, such as mental stress, acute trauma, muscle fatigue, chemical stress or even infectious agents, can cause the body to release hormones and signaling molecules that promote catabolism. The catabolic agents—cortisol, glucagon, and catecholamines (epinephrine and norepinephrine)—inhibit the release of anabolic agents—testosterone, growth hormone and insulin [5]. 

Thus, during a catabolic state, protein is being degraded; and conversely, during an anabolic state, protein synthesis occurs. One hormone that is released in high amounts during deep—or slow-wave—sleep is growth hormone. Growth hormone, as mentioned previously, is an anabolic hormone, and some of its main functions are to initiate protein synthesis and increase the mobilization of free fatty acids: this aids the body to hold on to precious nitrogen (in the forms of amino acids) and generate ATP (energy) via fatty-acid β-oxidation [5].

https://byjus.com/biology/differences-between-catabolism-and-anabolism/

So sleep can not only help you feel well-rested and ready to take on the following day, but it also helps to preserve lean muscle tissue, increase the utilization of fat for fuel and even directly stimulates the production of bone and red blood cells [5]. Since red blood cells are needed to transport oxygen to bodily tissues, and oxygen is needed to oxidize—utilize—fat for the production of energy, this is a major benefit of getting good quality sleep. 

As discussed previously, cortisol is a catabolic hormone, sometimes deemed as the stress hormone, which is highly associated with the sympathetic—or “fight or flight”—nervous system, so that existing biomolecules can be broken down to create energy to help you deal with your environmental need. It turns out that sleep directly inhibits the release of cortisol and other catecholamines, allowing for the body and mind to reach a more parasympathetic state conducive to healing and anabolism. 

Sleep deprivation can lead to numerous issues that can cause down-stream chronic conditions. Some issues that can occur are severe tissue degradation and chronic inflammation. This may be due to over-stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system and thus chronically elevated cortisol and catecholamines. Long-term elevation of cortisol, being catabolic, also inhibits testosterone (an anabolic hormone) and can suppress the immune system by inhibiting certain cytokine, signaling molecules [2].

In addition, sleep has many neuroprotective qualities, such that sleep is necessary for neurotransmitters to replenish as well as the regeneration of neurons. “Certain stages of sleep are needed for the regeneration of neurons within the cerebral cortex, while other stages of sleep seem to be used for forming new memories and generating new synaptic connections [3]”. 

To help to assure that you are optimizing your sleep, you should focus on developing a good circadian rhythm that is primarily entrained by dark/light cycles. To learn more about the importance of the circadian clock and how the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN)—found in the hypothalamus—uses input from the environment to influence all bodily tissues, check out another article I wrote on the Powers of the Circadian Clock and the Sun

In summary, sleep will be your best friend in all aspects of recovery. Hence, why it is essential to life.

Inflammation:

As mentioned previously, being in an over-stimulated sympathetic state is non-conducive to recovery. When in this chronic fight or flight state, there is a good chance that cortisol levels are  also chronically high. When this occurs then the body and its tissues are never able to fully recover, which can lead to chronic inflammation. We hear a lot about inflammation these days, but what exactly is it and how does it affect physical performance? 

Inflammation is a very necessary and vital response from the immune system to injury or infection. Inflammation is how the bodily tissues notify the immune system that there is an issue, damage, or a foreign invader and that attention is needed. This description is more appropriate to acute inflammation, which is a greeted process. Think about acute inflammation when you get a cut or a laceration and then suddenly the affected area becomes swollen and red. If we didn’t have this acute inflammation response, then every little cut, bump, or bruise could become infected, causing severe damage that would surely end most lives short. 

On the other hand, chronic inflammation is much different and isn’t something propitious to health and well-being. Rather than inflammation to occur in one localized area—like from an injury or infection—chronic inflammation suggests that the inflammation response is at a low-level throughout the whole body—or systemic inflammation. This type of inflammation can lead to other chronic diseases or autoimmune diseases. Because there is systemic inflammation, this causes white blood cells to accumulate to the areas of inflammation—in this case, throughout the body—due to a triggered perceived internal threat even though there isn’t an injury or pathogen to heal or fight against. So when this occurs, the immune system—white blood cells—respond to duty in the area, but since there is nothing for them to actually do or anywhere to go, they may end up attacking and damaging healthy organs, tissues, and cells (https://www.livescience.com/52344-inflammation.html). 

We know chronic inflammation can trigger tissue damage—whether it be to muscle, joints or blood vessels—and thus be an opponent of recovery. So what are some of the causes of chronic inflammation?

Chronic stress is one major factor, whether it comes in the form of work stress, relationship stress, emotional stress, chemical stress or environmental stress. 

It’s important to balance your life with good stress-relieving practices that will help for your body to maintain good parasympathetic nervous system tone. This will help to keep your body striving for homeostasis and allowing for balance and recovery.

What you put into your body is going to have a large impact on the inflammation response. Processed foods, such as refined omega-6 vegetable oils are highly prone to oxidation and when these oils are consumed regularly, these oxidized oils are subject to rapidly fuel the inflammation pathways in the body. It’s not that omega-6 fatty-acids are bad, its that most humans consume much more omega-6 fats compared to omega-3 fatty acids. We need them both and we should consume them at about a 1:1 ratio. However, with the over-industrialization and high production and use of vegetable oils, found in almost all processed foods, most humans consume upward of 20 times the amount of omega-6 fatty-acids compared to the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. This has major implications on our cellular membranes and the high proportions of omega-6 fatty acids tend to displace the omega-3 fatty acids and reduce their availability. The cellular membrane is mostly comprised of fatty-acids and has to remain in a fluid state with the proper fatty-acid ratios so that normal, homeostatic receptor and secretion function is maintained.

 So reducing consumption of refined vegetable oils and replacing them with healthy fats will be a great first step to reduce inflammation and get your body to recover at a higher level. 

Using antioxidants from food or supplements can help to control the damaging effects of inflammation. Consuming a diet rich in color is a good place to start when aiming to increase concentrations of antioxidants

Joint & Muscle Recovery:

When you live a lifestyle that is physically demanding on the body, and when this lifestyle is a passion of yours, then getting the body to recover to near-100% is essential for your performance and happiness. There are several practices—aside from rest and sleep—that may aid an individual to speed up their muscle and joint recovery so that they are able to physically preform at a high-level, day-in and day-out.

We already discussed the importance of controlling inflammation and dialing in on quality sleep. However, we may experience some acute inflammation due to a tough workout.

Some other ways to decrease swelling and local inflammation can be to increase systemic blood flow and venous blood return. For example, there can be a lot of pooling up of blood in the lower extremities due to prolonged sitting or standing so elevating the legs, or inverting the body for several minutes at a time may help with increasing blood flow and decreasing swelling. This can be accomplished using an inversion table or simply lying down on the floor and resting your legs vertically against a wall or door so that your body resembles the shape of an “L”. If you are able to, preforming handstands can also help to stimulate this response. 

The use of ice on locally inflamed areas can also be beneficial. This helps by reducing blood flow to the affected area and since blood is needed for the inflammation response, this may be beneficial. Ice also helps to reduce the conduction velocity of nerves in the affected area. So by slowing down the conduction rate of the nerve impulses, there will be less perceived pain. 

I’m a big fan of cold exposure and submersion for both recovery and fat loss. Taking a cold shower can be beneficial to reduce pain and inflammation. To further this result, one can partake in an ice-bath or cryotherapy. 

Following cold exposure, you could shift to the use of heat to increase blood flow again. When alternating between heat and cold exposure, whether in the shower or from ice bath to sauna, you are effectively creating a pump, redirecting blood-flow from the superficial portions of your body to the deep, or internal, portions of your body. When doing this for multiple sequences, you are assisting in mobilization of lymph and blood flow, which contain metabolic waste products and other byproducts that are in need of processing. 

Fasting can also be a beneficial way for recovery to occur. Fasting is the ultimate anti-inflammation diet. When there is no food intake, then you are allowing the body to deplete liver and muscle glycogen stores. When the glycogen stores are depleted then your body will hold on to less water. Water is needed for the inflammation process to occur. Time-restricted eating has also been shown to increase the production and secretion of growth hormone [4]. Thus, the growth hormone can put you in a good regenerative state while also sparing lean muscle mass and inducing the mobilization of fatty-acids.  Fasting also induces a process called autophagy where the body will break down and reuse inefficient and detrimental cell and cellular components. This may suggest, that when you break your fast, you are then reactivating protein synthesis pathways synonymous with cell-division; and since only your more efficient cells are available for devision, the process of recovery could be enhanced. 

While in a fasted state, one may consider taking proteolytic enzymes such as bromelain. Since there is no food present in the digestive system for these enzymes to assist in the break down of, the enzymes can then enter the blood stream and can help to break down excess scar tissue and proteins in the joints that may be causing pain.

Another way to improve muscle and joint recovery is to maintain a healthy body weight. This makes sense because there will be less pressure and stress on your joints at a lower body weight. In order to lose excess body fat, taking care of inflammation will be key. Thus, consuming low-inflammation foods and partaking in intermittent fasting will be a good place to start for losing weight. Also, low-intensity aerobic exercises where there is chronic stimulation of the cardiac muscle can help to mobilize fatty acids from fat tissue and be utilized for energy. 

For more information on diet and becoming metabolically flexible for more-efficient utilization of fat for fuel, check out the linked article. 

For joints and muscles to feel good after strenuous exercise, it can be helpful to partake in low-impact physical exercises. These generally will also be low-intensity aerobic exercises that will promote cardiovascular health as well as potentially help for you to burn fat. These low-impact exercises may be beneficial for several reasons, including, the increased production of synovial fluid—your joint’s lubrication fluid. Some good low-impact exercises may include walking, swimming, cycling or yoga. 

Also, maintaining active throughout the day is a great way to stay loose and keep the blood flowing. Low-level physical activity—or maintaining a slight degree of activity throughout the day—is highly correlated with longevity. Avoiding prolonged sedentary bouts is an excellent way to keep the body in a healthy and mobile state.  Low-level physical activity can be as simple as performing daily household chores, partaking in yard work, going on frequent walks; or if you are one that needs to work at a computer, then performing continuous bouts of short-burst exercise at least every hour. For example, if I am stuck behind a computer or at a desk for long periods of time, I will try and complete my work while in a standing position, or if that is not an option, then taking 5 minutes to perform some jumping jacks, pushups, high-knees, or planks. Get creative and try some new movements, the most important aspect is that you maintain consistent activity without staying sedentary for prolonged times.

For joints to be stabilized well and free from pain, they have to be strong. Joints become strong by having strong surrounding muscles. This may seem like low-hanging fruit, but often some of the smaller stabilizing muscles surrounding joints have great weakness or are not contracting properly, due to improper activation of the muscles. 

Therefore, warming up properly by focusing on the quality of contraction throughout a wide range of motion is key for joint stability. Joint mobility does not necessarily mean the same thing as flexibility. To me, mobility is having good strength and contractile force throughout the maximal range of motion; as where flexibility—being a component of mobility—is just how long that muscle is able to lengthen to. To increase mobility and strength of joints, one must focus on maintaining a controlled time-under-tension when preforming an exercise. 

Some good tools to strengthen your weakest ranges of motion are to partake in slow and controlled body-weight exercises, isometric—or dynamic isometric—holds, as well as utilizing resistance bands which will force your weakest ranges of motion throughout a movement to be exposed. Think of this kind of training as being similar to physical therapy or rehab. However, when seeking to prevent injury and recover more rapidly it can be deemed prehab. 

Now, when preforming mobility and joint-strengthening movements, it also can be beneficial to preform these movements using single-limb techniques. This is because there may be imbalances between the right and left sides of the body. Imbalances between the halves of the body can be an issue when preforming compound, dual-limbed workouts—due to the over-compensation by one side or the other, thus aggravating the weakness and inducing further injury or pain. 

https://www.sportaid.com/body-tool-trigger-point-self-massager.html

Myofascial trigger points—or myofascial pain syndrome (more severe)— are small areas within the muscle tissue that are comprised of tightly contracted muscle. These trigger points can cause pain in both joints and muscle and and compromise the mobility and range of motion of the joint. Most people have experienced these trigger points or knots in muscle tissue and the first impulse may be to stretch (static stretching) the affected area. Although some people may experience some relief from this, I would advise against it for the first line of defense. I have found for optimal recovery of muscle knots and adhesions, to begin with dynamic stretching—where there is back and forth movements occurring between the muscle groups. A simple example of dynamic stretching can be the leg swing where as you swing forward, your quadriceps muscles are contracting and the hamstrings are stretching; conversely, as you swing back, the hamstrings are contracting and the quadriceps are stretching. This type of movement-based stretching involves the primary mover and the antagonist muscle groups to shift back and forth between contraction and stretching, so there isn’t a constant—static—hold. 

Following the dynamic stretch, I would suggest foam rolling out around the affected area. Foam rolling is one of my favorite recovery tools and is a staple in my program. Foam rolling helps to improve the joint’s range of motion and well as to help shuttle out any metabolic waste from the muscle tissue back into the blood stream for further processing. Foam rolling can also help to break up any knots or adhesions within the muscle tissue. 

Once completing the foam-rolling, for a deeper, more-penetrating result, one may consider to use a dense ball such as a lacrosse ball or a softball to further treat the knot or adhesion. Use of a lacrosse ball is a great way for quick relief to a muscle or joint. 

To take the use of a lacrosse ball further, one may consider duct-taping two or more lacrosse balls together in what may resemble the shape of a peanut.  This can be referred to as a myorope. The use of a myorope can be beneficial to further break up the muscle tissue and aim to increase range of motion for a given joint. 

Two-ball Myorope

Foam-rolling, or use of a lacrosse ball or myorope can be categorized into self-myofascial release (SMR). SMR has been shown to have short-term increases in joint range of motion [1].

Next would be to perform the more-traditional static stretching. The reason I would not suggest to begin with static stretching may be explained by this analogy: if you have a rubber band with a knot in it and pull on either end, the knot only gets tighter. That is essentially what happens with your muscle tissue too. So breaking up the muscle tissue, the knots, and the adhesions first by foam rolling or using a lacrosse ball will help to loosen the knots and adhesions. So now when performing the static stretch, you are assisting in the overall recovery of the muscle. 

After preforming static stretching, you can go back to the foam roller to enhance the recovery benefits. Following the second phase of foam rolling, you could then go back to finish with dynamic stretches to stay loose and increase systemic blood flow.

Summary of the Recovery Protocol:

  • Dynamic stretches or movements 
  • Foam rolling 
  • Trigger point work with lacrosse ball or myorope 
  • Static stretching 
  • Foam rolling
  • Dynamic stretching
  • Hot/Cold shower combo
    • 10 seconds of hot water
    • 20 seconds of cold water
    • Repeat for 5 minutes, ending on cold-exposure 
  • Drink plenty of water and consume a high-quality mineral spectrum

For healthy joints and muscles, some supplements that have shown to be effective for me are the use of collagen peptides, glucosamine chondroitin, and methyl sulfonyl methane (MSM). However, no supplement can replace a healthy, whole-food diet. 

Other Recovery Techniques:

We know that lowering stress and inflammation is key for recovery. Some of my favorite stress relieving techniques include meditation and deep breathing techniques. We live in a high-stress, fast-paced modern society where sleep deprivation is becoming the norm. We, as a society, tend to be in a constant sympathetic nervous system state of being; when really, we should strive for maintaining a parasympathetic nervous state for the majority of our day. Parasympathetic state is conducive to healing, recovery and homeostasis. This is when we are relaxed and our organ systems are working in proper balance. To induce a parasympathetic state, we need to relax. Focusing on the breath and even counting the breaths can help for one to achieve a state of relaxation. 

A simple technique to begin with can be to take a deep breath in through the nose for four seconds and exhale through the mouth for six seconds. When the exhale is longer than the inhale, this promotes a relaxed, parasympathetic state. This may sound strange, but to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, you can also focus to relax the sphincter muscle—especially as you exhale. 

Box-breathing is another way to induce relaxation and to blunt the cortisol release response. This entails using only your nose to breath and breathing in for a count of four, holding your breath for a count of four, exhaling for a count of four, then holding your breath for a count of four. Repeat several times and consider setting a timer for 10+ minutes.

A good way to test how well your nervous system is recovered is to test your heart rate variability (HRV). Heart rate variability is the time variation between individual heartbeats within a specific timeframe. Generally speaking, a high HRV indicates a well-recovered nervous system as where a low HRV may indicate that more recovery is needed. Another metric to help assess your recovery status is your lowest resting heart rate while asleep. This metric is inversely correlated to HRV. So generally if one is well-recovered, they will have a high HRV and a low resting heart rate throughout the night. To help your body to recover further and to aid in reaching a high HRV and low lowest resting heart-rate, it would be wise to avoid eating at least three hours before bedtime, as well as to avoid any late-night moderate to intense exercise.

In conclusion, there are many ways to assist in recovery—several of which were not included in this article such as muscle stimulation, red-light therapy, infrared sauna, acupuncture, massage and many others. If you have access to any of these tools or practices, I encourage you to utilize them as well. This article was more for the person who wants to optimize recovery without the use of many expensive tools. 

I hope you learned something new and enjoyed the read. You’ve just been Maxify’D.

References:

[1] Cheatham, S. W., Kolber, M. J., Cain, M., & Lee, M. (2015). The Effects of Self-Myofascial Release Using a Foam Roll or Roller Massager on Joint Range of Motion, Muscle Recovery, and Performance: A Systematic Review. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 10(6), 827–838. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.libproxy.chapman.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,uid&db=s3h&AN=119252094&site=eds-live

[2] Dahlgren, A., Kecklund, G., & Åkerstedt, T. (2005). Different levels of work-related stress and the effects on sleep, fatigue and cortisol. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 31(4), 277-285. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.libproxy.chapman.edu/stable/40967503

[3] R Eugene, Andy & Jolanta, Masiak. (2015). The Neuroprotective Aspects of Sleep. MEDtube science. 3. 35-40. 

[4] Ho, K. Y., Veldhuis, J. D., Johnson, M. L., Furlanetto, R., Evans, W. S., Alberti, K. G., & Thorner, M. O. (1988). Fasting enhances growth hormone secretion and amplifies the complex rhythms of growth hormone secretion in man. The Journal of clinical investigation, 81(4), 968–975. doi:10.1172/JCI113450 

[5] Kirstine Adam, & Ian Oswald. (1984). Sleep Helps Healing. British Medical Journal (Clinical Research Edition), 289(6456), 1400. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.libproxy.chapman.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,uid&db=edsjsr&AN=edsjsr.29517337&site=eds-live

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