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Recovering from high-intensity athletics

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By Lenny Bernstein
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 11:50 AM

Most of us are pretty conscientious about preparing for an upcoming competition, special athletic event or particularly grueling training session. We build our stamina. We hydrate. We take on extra fuel. We get a little extra rest.

But how much attention do you pay to the hours and days after you finish that century ride, alumni soccer game or 20-mile training run? Do you collapse on the couch, spent, and indulge in a double cheeseburger with fries to celebrate your achievement and the extra calories you burned?

Experts and top athletes know that the energy and focus you put into your recovery will go a long way toward determining not only how you feel for the next few days, but how well you perform the next time. (Assuming there is a next time.) And that effort helps prevent injury.

"If you don't recover, you wind up getting into overuse syndromes" and suffering injuries such as stress fractures, says Karen Merrill, a master trainer for the American Council on Exercise, who recommends at least 10 minutes of stretching after a good workout.

While this knowledge has slowly seeped down to the rest of us - Gatorade now markets "before," "during" and "after" sports drinks - it's not as ingrained as pre-event regimens. And how to go about it is somewhat more confusing.

I learned this the hard way (seems like the only way for me) after I ran my first marathon in 2005. My wife and I scheduled a walking tour of New Orleans for the next morning. In theory I was doing the right thing: keeping those legs moving, gently, is the best way to recover from 26.2 miles of pounding. But I didn't know anything about post-race care and soon was having trouble walking down stairs on stiff quads and swollen feet. (I also ate a great post-race bacon cheeseburger. Which I don't regret.)

Here are a few things you might consider after your next tough outing.

Active recovery

You're exhausted, you're proud, you've earned a few hours with your feet up and the ballgame on. Don't do it. At least not right away. That burning in your legs while you were working so hard came from lactate, a byproduct of exercise. You want to keep your blood circulating well so your body can get rid of it as efficiently as possible, and you want to keep those tired muscles limber.

Distance runners, from high school on up, take cool-down runs right after competition. You should do something, too. Take a walk, do some yoga, slowly pedal an exercise bike. And by all means, stretch as much as you can as part of the cool-down.

Under no circumstances "should anyone just stop," says Lynn Millar, a professor of physical therapy at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Mich. Although conventional wisdom calls for stretching muscles while they're warm, Millar has found that some people need an additional, gentle stretching session later.

"It may be more important to do some of that stretching three hours later," she says. "That may help better at preventing that tightness or lack of range of motion."

In a small 2008 study of women rock climbers, French and Belgian researchers found that active recovery - in this case, pedaling a stationary bike - removed lactate more quickly than other methods and led to better performance when the women went back onto the climbing wall 20 minutes later.

Ice baths

Nothing feels better on sore muscles after a tough workout than a hot shower or, if you have access to one, a steaming whirlpool. Haven't we seen pro athletes doing this for years? Unfortunately, it may be the wrong way to go. It seems wherever you go now, someone is touting the benefits of an ice bath or, more technically, cold-water immersion.

It seems intuitive that cold would reduce the inflammation in overworked legs. Distance runners swear by the practice; they've been standing in buckets of icy water after races and workouts for years. An ice bath "constricts blood vessels and decreases metabolic activity, which reduces swelling and tissue breakdown," top ultra-marathoner Nikki Kimball wrote in Runner's World in 2008. (For ultra-wusses like me, Kimball notes that she wears a down jacket, a hat and neoprene booties and drinks hot tea during her 20 minutes in a 50- to 59-degree tub.)

This idea is not universally accepted, however. Kenneth L. Knight, a professor of athletic training at Brigham Young University who has spent his career studying cryotherapy for athletes, says there is no research to support or refute the effect of ice baths on inflammation, even if so many say it feels so good.

"There's no evidence that it's not good, but there's no evidence to support it, either," Knight says. "It's just out there."

In that 2008 study of rock climbers, cold-water immersion was the other method that researchers found helped maintain performance. (Passive recovery and electric stimulation were the ones that didn't pan out as well.)

Chocolate milk?

I don't have the space here to help you navigate the river of commercial post-workout beverages or foods that make similar claims about aiding recovery. I did check into one of the latest fads, chocolate milk, because so many people seem to be drinking it after workouts. Turns out it makes sense.

Nancy Clark, a registered dietitian and author of "Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook," says chocolate milk provides fluid, carbohydrates (sugar) to replenish your body's supply, protein to promote muscle healing and the sodium that you've sweated away. Plus, it gives you that sated feeling that other products may not. A small University of Connecticut study found that fat-free chocolate milk seems to protect muscles better than a carbohydrate recovery drink.

For noncompetitive athletes, Clark says, there are myriad ways to take in the same essentials in the 24 to 48 hours after a workout, from protein shakes to the small, low-fat meals you should be eating anyway.

In most instances, "the body will take care of it on its own" by signaling what it needs, she says. "Your job is to make sure there's food around."


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