A simple way to perform better is to make sure you’re recovering optimally from intense training or competition. If you don’t take advantage of the recovery period, subsequent performance may be negatively affected, and you stand to lose a lot in terms of muscle and strength development.
The recovery period is when your body repairs damaged muscle and connective tissue to make you stronger. At the same time, research shows that intense training, and particularly sports training that is typified by collisions such as rugby, judo, lacrosse, or football will cause an inflammatory hormone response with higher cortisol, lower testosterone, and reduced neuromuscular function.
The skewed testosterone-to-cortisol ratio and decreased power and strength can last for as long as 60 hours after a competition or training, during which, you need to actively pursue recovery.
For example, a recent study tested hormone response and neuromuscular strength in elite male rugby players after a competition. Results showed that cortisol increased from baseline by 56 percent and by 59 percent at 12 and 36 hours, respectively. Cortisol was still elevated by 34 percent at 60 hours. Testosterone declined by 26 percent and by 15 percent at 12 and 36 hours, respectively, and was still down 8 percent lower at 60 hours.
Researchers suggest this poor anabolic environment is caused by the combination of large metabolic stress, muscle damage, negative energy balance, and depleted glycogen reserves from an intense competition.
Naturally, a very intense weight training program could cause similar physiological stress, making this study relevant to serious recreational trainees as well.
In addition, power output was reduced by 7 percent for 36 hours and returned to baseline at 60 hours post-match. The players reported increased mood disturbance at 12 hours post-match, but this had dissipated by 36 hours. Low mood is related to the stress hormone response and possibly to a high degree of muscle damage and soreness.
Take away the following points from this study so that you maximize recovery:
1) Whether you are simply training at a high intensity/volume or are competing, allow for at least 60 hours of recovery between intense workouts. Be aware that the study showed recovery is somewhat individualized: At 60 hours 7 of the players’ peak power output had not fully recovered, and 9 players still had a decreased T/C ratio.
2) Competing in a sport that is combative or has repeated collisions likely requires longer recovery than non-combative sports.
3) Ensure adequate glycogen stores and protein consumption pre-competition to decrease muscle damage and optimize energy stores. Also, eat a high-protein, healthy fat meal a few hours before competing or training.
4) Maximize protein synthesis and tissue repair by using 20 grams whey or another supplemental protein during training. When glycogen stores are depleted a high-quality carb supplement can help to support recovery. Research shows that supplementing with protein and carbs can lead to a lower cortisol response and speed the replenishment of glycogen stores.
5) Avoid alcohol and NSAID pain killers post-competition because both will significantly delay recovery and inhibit tissue healing in the long run.
6) Get extra antioxidants in the form of berries and green vegetables. Research shows blueberries can decrease muscle soreness after intense eccentric exercise. In addition, the amino acids taurine and glutamine may be beneficial, as will vitamin C, which can help clear cortisol.
7) Take a few grams of fish oil after competition because it has also been found to reduce muscle soreness after intense training.
References – West, D., et al. The Neuromuscular Function, Hormonal, and Mood Responses to a Professional Rugby Union Match. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2013. Published Ahead of Print.