Remember when it was cool to get really sore after a workout? You know… the “I can barely walk up a flight of stairs without writhing in pain” feeling. Ok, maybe you don’t.
But a long while ago, when I was in my powerlifting prime, and baggy “crazy” pants and fanny packs were the norm, muscle soreness was considered a must-have for maximizing muscle growth. In fact many experts actually considered “no pain, no gain” gospel and it was the only way to ensure that your workout actually had any merit!
Fast forward to a just a few years ago when people decided to listen to scientists and test the research that suggested that not only is muscle soreness not necessary, it may actually be detrimental to your progress.
Around the same time, a group of researchers and practitioners were able to convey a revolutionary approach to nutrition and exercise – it was called “nutrient timing” and still considered a staple requirement of a good training program today. This was good news for the training industry and even better news for the supplement industry.
We all finally believe that you need enough, but not too much stimuli, to get your muscles to grow, and you need to feed them properly. But, we still cannot agree exactly what that stimuli should be and moreover, what, when and how much nutrition we need to provide for maximum growth.
However, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. We definitively know that much of the success that will come from your training is due to proper recovery. A grueling workout can only be beneficial if the fruits of your labor are given enough time to ripen, mature, and be ready to go again.
A Little Science
Ok, so if you have ever read anything I have written, you know I cannot avoid a little look in to the “why” from a factual basis. So to keep with tradition, let’s explore what happens to muscle when it is stressed and set up the reasoning behind the importance of recovery. I should probably preface this little tutorial with the fact that we train to break down muscle and force it to build up stronger, thicker, and more able to handle the future stresses we place on it – but you already know that, right?
The analogy that seems to work without detailing the science that best describes how the body responds to stress, is the one that explains why we do not “bleed-out and die” when we get a paper cut across our finger. The moment you cut your finger, sensors send a signal to the “clean-up crew” to get to work. Within a few moments, clotting agents begin to rush to the cut site and start working on a plan to coagulate and prevent too much blood loss.
The clotting agents repair the damage with a temporary patch, while the rest of the workers get to the site and begin to completely repair the spot back to normal. If the clotting crew didn’t respond immediately, well, we would have to be very careful all the time, and likely, contact sports would not exist.
In the case of deep wounds, the process takes considerably longer, may need outside help, and often the repairs may not look so wonderful, but will make the damaged-site stronger. This analogy works well because the same kind of process albeit different mechanisms, is what happens in muscle tissue during stress.
A light workout is like a small paper cut, a heavy-duty one is like a deep wound. The duration of recovery is directly related to the extent of the damage. And too much damage can have ill-effects on your body in general and could affect the shape and strength of your muscle.
With that reasoning, we understand why this analogy works. Immediately upon exercise, muscle begins to break down. Proteins that maintain cell structure and strength begin to break apart. The repair system is dispatched and a temporary patch holds things together although the muscle is seriously weakened.
Along with the protein degradation comes many other by-products of rigorous exercise. As exercise continues, other muscle fibers follow suit, being worked until they no longer can produce. The body works hard to repair damage and drain off all of the excess build up, but the continued hard pace of the workout doesn’t allow it to get very far. Internal cellular-during-workout competition is brutal, but a necessary step for ultimate success.
And then finally, the workout is over, and internally, the body is paying its last respects to the gods of war. Later on, the “night crew” comes to the rescue and continues the process of rebuilding and repairing. Finally there is reprieve: the repair process can get the edge, as there is no competition. It works tirelessly. Sometimes up to several days, to repair the effects of the hard-fought battle.
An immediate supply of building material was necessary for the short term patch, and a more complete supply, along with a better tool set, is needed for the full repair. But not only are the correct tools and materials necessary, we need to make sure we respect the time it takes and prevent additional stress on the damaged site.
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