Recovery has become a hot topic for crossfitters and strength athletes, from the newest noob, to elite athletes. As such, it is a topic plagued by misinformation, and flat out lies. It is further complicated by scientific research that, at times, can be contradictory. The good news is that we have done our research, and distilled the key recovery practices, based on research, so you won’t have to keep wasting your time freezing your ass off in an ice bath, or rolling your hamstrings out for hours on end.
The Big Three
These three methods are tried and true, and have an enormous amount of research stating that they are the best methods for recovery, for all types of athletes, 100% of the time. They are also the most boring and common sense methods as well. Here they are: sleep, eat real food, and drink water.
Yes, it’s amazing I know! End of story right? Not so fast. I’m assuming that you are already doing these things, and if you aren’t then you really should be. I’m serious, the recovery methods we will discuss in the rest of the article might give you 3-5% gain, where as the big three will give you double digit returns. You would be a fool to neglect them.
These are the quick takeaway’s for the impatient folks out there.
- Foam Rolling: causes a short term increase in joint range of motion. Best used for those who are limited by flexibility, prior to their workout.
- Cold Water Immersion: blunts long term strength gains, as well as genetic signaling for hypertrophy. Not recommended unless the athlete is competing in intense, long competitions.
- Active Recovery: this is by far the most effective method of recovery. After 12 weeks of training active recovery gained 14% more muscle mass than cold water immersion group.
- Massage: Temporarily increases surface blood flow, no measurable effects on muscle tissue, DOMS, or enhanced recovery. Possibly worth it for the mental relaxation.
- Compression Garment: recommend for short term recovery 2-8 hr. Some evidence of enhanced recover past 24 hours.
Foam rolling, otherwise known as self-myofascial release (SMR), is extremely popular in the crossfit world. In my opinion it is useful, but not for the reasons that most people engage in it.
You will often see athletes, sore from previous workouts, rolling their muscles on foam rollers, lacrosse balls, and other specialty devices, in order to try and relieve muscle soreness.
Unfortunately, SMR only has temporary effects at best. This study examined 14 total studies to see what if any effects SMR had on athletes. They found that it temporarily increased range of motion, and it also temporarily relieved athlete’s perception of soreness. It did not enhance recovery past a few hours.
I will explain my theory why this temporary effect occurs. There is scientific evidence that dopamine is released in response to pain. It can be quite painful to roll your muscles when you are very sore. When you take away that pain stimulus, the dopamine remains, leaving you feeling better.
Key Takeaway: SMR should be used for short term range of motion increases. It can also be used as a relaxation technique, but it will not enhance recovery or DOMS in the long term.
Cold Water Immersion (CWI)
This has become very popular for top level athletes, which is unfortunate, because it seems to only work in a very limited setting, and if used incorrectly, can greatly reduce your strength and hypertrophy gains.
CWI has been studied a great deal in the last decade or so, and it has been shown to have some great anti inflammatory effects, particularly in the short term. This sounds awesome to the lay person, but you actually need inflammation. It is the initial signal to your body that tissue repair must begin. If you blunt inflammation, through CWI or any other cold treatment, you will kill your gains.
This study put athletes on a 12 week, twice per week, lower body training plan. One group sat in cold water up to their chest after each workout, the other peddled very slowly on a bike for active recovery.
Both groups made increases in leg strength but the active recovery killed the CWI group. CWI group saw their leg muscle mass increase 103g in twelve weeks, where as active recovery had a 309g increase. No big deal just 3x increase for the group that did not use cold water!
The active recovery group also increased their strength on the leg press after 12 weeks to 201kg on average, CWI increased to only 133kg. Converting that to american patriotic units, the active recovery group leg pressed 442lbs vs 293lbs for CWI. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to be 150% stronger.
CWI should be used in instances where you are likely to accumulate a lot of muscle damage quickly with little recovery. So those games athletes you see between events in a cold tank are using CWI correctly. You should not rely on CWI in the long term! It is a short term tool only.
Key Takeaway: CWI is used when inflammation will be a problem in the short term, like crossfit competitions. Do not use this as an everyday recovery method.
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As we saw from the study above, active recovery is the best method for recovery; however, there are right and wrong ways to do it. Ideally, you need some full body movement at around 50-60% max heart rate for about 10 minutes or so.
In the study above, participants peddled a bike at about 60 watts for 10 minutes. That is basically just moving your feet, with almost no force, and it worked wonders. Check out this video with Alex Viada.
Resist the urge to turn this into an additional conditioning session. This should almost feel like a waste of time, it’s so slow. You can also row, or even go for a leisurely walk after your workout. The modality doesn’t matter, just keep it easy.
Key Takeaway: Active recovery should be mandatory year round for all crossfit and strength athletes. 10min post workout at a very easy pace is all you need.
Massage feels great, and can temporarily increase blood flow to the surface portion of the muscle, but the science is pretty clear on it’s utility. It doesn’t enhance recovery.
It’s important that you understand that while it doesn’t measurably allow an athlete to return to homeostasis, that does not mean it has no value. It does feel great, and it will cause overall mental relaxation.
If you enjoy it mentally, there is no reason why massage won’t help you recover, but physically there are no significant effects.
Key Takeaway: massage won’t affect your recovery directly, but it will make you feel better, which will lower your overall stress. This mechanism will likely have some benefit to your training.
This is one that most people do not think about which is unfortunate because there is some research that shows it has numerous benefits.
“-The use of compression garments appears to reduce the severity of DOMS, accelerate the recovery of muscle function and attenuate the concentration of CK following strenuous exercise. These findings indicate that wearing a compression garment may improve recovery following intense training and competition; this has implications for both elite athletes and recreational populations.”
The study, linked above, is a meta analysis of 12 different studies regarding wearing compression garments. The quote above summarizes their findings. It’s important to note that CK is creatine kinase, a key marker of muscle damage.
The component studies looked a variety of trained and untrained athletes and found pretty strong effects across the board. The main effects were a decrease in muscle soreness as well as enhanced clearance of muscle wast products.
They note that there are no strong recommendations for type of compression garment; however, I have found good luck with Under Armour Tights (Amazon Affiliate Link).
Key Takeaway: Feel free to wear tights during workouts, or post workout for increased recovery from DOMS, and clearance of muscle waste metabolites.
We’ve reviewed the five most popular recovery methods, and found that only two (active recovery, compression garment) have significant effects on recovery outcomes. That does not mean the others are useless for physical recovery, as they often have benefits psychologically, which can translate to overall readiness to train.
I recommend that you try some of these methods and see what effect they have on you personally, but I would probably try the active recovery, and compression garment first, as they have been shown to be most effective.
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