Regardless of whether you’re an experienced CrossFitter or a beginner, you know what those first few weeks felt like. You hurt! In fact, even now your days off feel oh so good. Experienced CrossFit athletes will tell you that in time you adapt to the rigor, but perhaps the more pertinent question is this: How do you know when you’ve optimized your recovery between WODs? The answer is: You don’t.
There are no signs or markers of recovery. You can’t even go by delayed onset muscle soreness (i.e., how sore you are the next day or two). And that’s why you can always improve your recovery efforts, even if you think you’re getting progressively better at handling WODs. Optimal recovery for each of us is a dynamic, systematic physiological process that changes as we change. But — and this is an important “but” — if you are actively working a sound, synchronized recovery program, you are doing everything you can to reach your potential. Here’s what you should know to do exactly that.
You’ve likely heard the term “oxygen deficit.” That’s the state that occurs when more oxygen is being used than is being supplied, at which point something has to give, some “payback” has to occur. Similarly, in exercise science, researchers are starting to speak more about a “recovery deficit” — a condition in which the body is not so much overtrained as it is under-recovered.
In recovery deficit, payback is hell. You feel weak from the start. You never really get going, and you can’t wait for someone to yell, “Time!” The problem is that your body has not yet fully recovered from the stress of your last WOD, and now you’re asking it to respond to a new stressor. It can’t and it won’t.
It’s important to remember that muscle adaptations from exercise stress are a luxury, not a priority, for your body. That is, only after your body takes care of its basic physiological needs (nutrition, repair of tissues, etc.) will it begin to “supercompensate” from any stressor and bring about growth.
With that in mind, here are 10 ways to optimize recovery and kill your next WOD.
1. Clean Up Your Diet
We know, you wanted something sexier, right? Unfortunately, what and how you eat on a daily basis is one of the biggest factors in how well you recover. Remember, the WOD is just a stimulus for growth. The body doesn’t grow and progress during a workout; it grows during the repair and recovery process. And if you are going to bust your butt in the box, you might as well support that work at home, too.
A clean diet includes lots of lean protein to support muscle growth and lots of fruits and veggies. Fruits and veggies contain good antioxidants, which can protect against muscle cell damage, and the phytochemicals in dark-green leafy veggies can repair connective tissue and may be able to reduce inflammation.
But you also have to watch your total caloric intake. If you’re dieting to drop a few pounds, your recovery will suffer. Trust us, fat loss will occur over time if you keep training. And if you don’t recover well, then you won’t be able to keep training anyway, right?
Lastly, make sure you show up to a particularly tough WOD having eaten sufficient carbohydrates. Remember, carbs are the body’s fuel source during high-intensity activity. So make sure you take in plenty of pasta, rice, potatoes or bread before a grueling WOD.
2. Pre-WOD Snack
One way to enhance recovery is to minimize the amount of stress your body encounters during the workout, and one way to do that is to ensure you eat enough energy-packed nutrients before the session. Every body is a bit different when it comes to handling food before a WOD, but you should try to consume a snack or small meal one to two hours before training. The snack should contain 250 to 350 calories with roughly 60 percent of those calories coming from non-sucrose carbohydrate sources. Some commercial sports drinks fit the bill, as do salads, whole-wheat bagels, granola bars and fruit.
3. Post-WOD Work
Immediately after finishing your WOD, cool down with some light activity. Get on the rower or bike or jog or even work (lightly) on your gymnastics skills. By continuing to push blood through your vessels, you are helping to circulate out the waste products of muscle contraction.
After your light activity cool-down, stretch while your muscles are still warm. A nice, relaxed static stretch of muscles worked that day also can help enhance muscle elasticity and plasticity as well as recovery. Make post-WOD stretching part of your standard routine.
4. Break It Up!
Physical manipulation of affected muscles can reduce swelling of tissues and muscle damage. What we know is this: When muscles are compressed after intense exercise, muscle function improves and there are fewer signs of inflammation. That compression can come from anything that will provide direct pressure on the affected muscles. Sure, regular visits to a sports-massage therapist can be costly, so save those for the times you are feeling particularly beaten up. Instead, take advantage of inexpensive alternatives. Use a roller, lacrosse ball or even partner massage to break up muscle tightness.
5. Post-WOD Nutrition
When the clock stops on your WOD, it starts on the next one. During your training session, glycogen synthase — an enzyme whose mission is to help you replenish the energy you lost — is circulating in high concentration. It’s trying to find glucose to store for your next session, and you have 45 minutes to an hour to capitalize on it, so don’t wait to get home before you ingest carbs. Get a post-WOD recovery drink or other fast-digesting carbohydrate in you as soon as possible. Interestingly, most recent research is showing that a recovery drink with a little protein added to the carbohydrate solution actually results in greater glycogen storage than one with carbs alone.
If you’re not sleeping well, you are guaranteed to be sacrificing growth and progress. Not only does a significant amount of the anabolic process (i.e., muscle growth) occur during sleep, but it is also when the body tends to regulate growth hormone, melatonin, cortisol and other hormones that can affect how muscles adapt to training.
Try to get at least eight hours a night. It may not be easy, but if you commit to it, you will notice an improvement in your workouts. To help, keep a check on your intake of caffeine, sugar, alcohol and water the last few hours before you hit the sack.
7. Stay Hydrated
You’ve got to show up at the box hydrated for optimal performance, and you need to maintain hydration during the next 24 hours. If you don’t stay hydrated, you’re hurting your body’s ability to reduce swelling and soreness, and you could even promote rhabdomyolysis.
How much water should you drink? After a WOD, drink 1 pint for every pound you’ve lost on the scale. What about during the whole day? A reasonable formula is to take your bodyweight in pounds and divide by two. That’s how many ounces you need. Probably more than you thought, huh?
The more we look at supplements and muscle recovery, the more we recognize the role many have in repairing and replenishing cells. Here are the top five:
- Omega-3 fatty acids. These oils from fish and plants can reduce cell inflammation resulting from an intense exercise session.
- Vitamins A, C and E. These vitamins have antioxidant properties, meaning they can prevent the destruction of muscle cell membranes.
- Branched-chain amino acids. Leucine, isoleucine and valine can be used directly by muscle cells for energy. Keep circulating levels high.
- Creatine. Study after study shows that creatine supplementation enhances performance in repeated anaerobic bouts — exercise that is very much like a typical WOD. Supplementing with it ensures you are ready for the next hard workout.
- Calcium and iron for women. Women have particular needs for adequate calcium and iron. Ladies, if you are not a big dairy or meat eater, please consider calcium and iron supplements — or a good multivitamin that contains 100 percent of the Daily Value for your age of these two important micronutrients.
9. Thermal Therapies
After a tough WOD, you could benefit from cold therapy, also called “cryotherapy” (an ice bath, etc.), which calms muscle and tissue inflammation, thereby minimizing oxygen depletion on the cellular level and even soreness. The vasoconstriction that occurs from that icy plunge also can help flush hydrogen ions and metabolic waste from affected muscles.
But what if you don’t have access to an ice bath — or you just hate freezing cold water? Try a contrast shower. In either a shower or a tub, alternate between cycles of hot and cold water. Try 60 seconds of hot (up to 110 degrees), followed by 30 seconds of cold (as low as 60 degrees) for five to seven cycles. Studies show that contrast hydrotherapy, which alternately dilates and constricts blood vessels, reduces inflammation and promotes lymphatic drainage of waste products.
10. Know When to Back Off
We all like to hit WODs all-out, all the time. The problem is that there are times when we need more rest despite the fact that we’re doing everything right. For instance, the ability to recover could be hampered by a training regimen that’s not appropriate, emotional or psychological stress, or even something like the common cold.
So listen to your body. Ask yourself: Do I feel weak today? How is my enthusiasm for training? Am I prepared with adequate sleep and nutrition? If you are not ready for another WOD, don’t be afraid to take a day — or a few days — off. That may be just what your body needs, and you will likely come back stronger.
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