There’s been a fitness revolution over the past few years, with day-to-day office workers smashing marathons, beasting bootcamps and crushing Tour de France style cycles. Forgive the aggro verbs, but even the meekest of us are getting pretty gung-ho about these things.
Even if you’re not putting yourself through gladiator-esque challenges, it’s highly likely you’ve stepped up to the HIIT plate at some point, and experienced the resulting afterburn and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) that comes with weighted squats, burpees sets and any form of exertion that causes tiny, weeny, painy tears in your muscles. Those tears are a good thing by the way- the microtrauma to your muscles means that they’re adapting to exercise and becoming stronger. Equally, if you’re not hobbling about after a circuits class, don’t stress- just take it from personal trainer, blogger and co-founder of #girlgains Zanna Van Dijk :
“It is important to note that if you don't experience DOMS, it doesn't mean you're not training hard enough. As long as you're using the principles of progressive overload (gradually increasing stress on the body during exercise) and constantly challenging your body then you will be making progress. Don't judge the success of a workout on how severe your DOMS are. Instead, be happy if you wake up without any soreness as it means that you're taking good care of your body!”
Speaking of which, Zanna reckons that revved-up recovery will become a key focus in fitness from here on. Rather than pushing ourselves to the brink seven days a week, smart recovery will attain the same kudos as hard training:
“We will be seeing a rise in the use of advanced recovery techniques usually reserved for athletes. Gyms will also be introducing recovery based classes and workouts, which focus on stretching, releasing and mobilising your joints and muscles.”
Basically, a token lunge at the end of a run ain’t gonna cut it. If you want to recover better, quicker and faster, and maximise your fitness gains in the process, having a post-workout rehab plan is non-negotiable, as is not going hell for leather when you’re exhausted (if that sounds familiar, here’s how to know if you’re overtraining ). Refreshingly, this new year fitness trend is more about looking after yourself rather than beating yourself up as is so often the message, but we can’t promise it’s totally pain-free. Here are your advanced recovery rules…
Sandwich your workout
Accustomed to a cursory minute long cool-down? If you’re jumping into a workout all guns blazing (literally) and then scrambling to the showers afterwards, it could pay to bookend your workouts with preparatory and recovery exercises to boost performance, develop healthier muscles and lower your risk of injury. Zanna gives a rough guide as to what you’re after:
“I would say that for the average person a good place to start is by adding on 10-15 minutes of stretching to the end of your workout, with five to ten minutes of mobility beforehand. Obviously this is in an ideal world, but both can really pay off.”
If you’re wondering where to get started with prehab at home or in the gym, these eight moves will prep muscles to squat deeper, lift more fluidly and lunge lower, whatever your workout. As for stretching and melting post sweat session tension, if you’re flying solo or there’s no allocated recovery time within your fitness class (this is becoming more of a rarity), ensure to stretch all key areas including hip flexors, glutes, calves, quads and abs. If you need a hand with that, see Zanna’s stretching video below.
If you fancy something juicier, it’s time to bring in a recovery prop that athletes have been using for donkeys, and amateur exercisers are increasingly adopting…
Rolling with the foamies
If you think that a foam roller applies more to painting your front room than getting life back into your heavy limbs, we’ve got news for you. A foam roller is a firm, often nobbly textured device that aids myofascial release, i.e, ironing out tension in your body’s connective tissue. Using your own body weight, the idea is to ease the roller along limbs and muscles to break down stiffness, knots and restrictions around tissue, ultimately making your body more supple and reducing pain and niggles in the long run. Zanna explains how regular foaming complements your usual post-workout stretches:
“While stretching your muscles can lead to improved flexibility, range of motion and posture, foam rolling helps to break up adhesions between muscle layers and their surroundings, releasing muscular tightness. Both of these techniques can reduce the risk of injury, as well as support recovery and contribute to less severe DOMS. Try to stretch after every workout and foam roll a minimum of three times a week.”
A small study of thirteen healthy men and women published by Rhode Island University in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning in 2014 found that, while foam rolling didn’t boost fitness performance in itself, it significantly reduced post-exercise fatigue after strength exercises such as planks. Using a foam roller is essentially a more affordable manner of giving yourself a deep tissue massage of sorts, and FYI, it’s about as comfortable, depending on how torturous and spiky your foam roller of choice happens to be. Barrecore founder Niki Rein (the barre shake and ache is like NOTHING else) recommends a particular model called ‘The Grid’ , as “it has softer and more firm areas on the roller. I also love rolling my spine on the ‘Mini Grid’.”
If you’re unsure where to begin with behaving like a human steamroller, or not 100 per cent as to whether you want to buy your own foam roller or not (although as gym paraphernalia goes a foam roller is relatively inexpensive- you can pick them up for under a tenner), you can now book into classes up and down the country that teach you effective foam rolling exercises and techniques so that you leave safe in the knowledge that your fascia has been fully foamed. Try Roll & Release at Third Space or S&M (...that’s Stretch and Massage) at Gymbox if you’re a Londoner. Alternatively check with your instructor, PT, local pilates studio or a physiotherapist to see whether they offer foam rolling tuition or masterclasses. You can also follow online foam rolling tutorials such as those offered by US pilates instructor Lauren Roxborough , although go easy and never exert pressure on joints and bones- it’s muscle melt you’re after.
Speaking of heat…
The sauna the better
Just as building heat in the body by way way of foam rolling and massage is thought to help to unwind ravaged muscles, so some fitness experts and trainers swear by a post-exercise sauna session. The new Sloane Square luxe fitness outpost KXU has introduced an entire Recovery suite, with facilities including an infrared sauna (£35 for a 25 minute session) to not only aid after-HIIT relaxation but supposedly take the edge off of stiffness and inflammation, increase circulation and speed up cell renewal. A small study conducted by the University of Jyväskylä in Finland in 2015 found infrared saunas to be marginally more beneficial for neuromuscular recovery after endurance training sessions than traditional Finnish style saunas, however, given that the research focused on just ten male participants, more investigation is required to verify any tangible benefits of the treatment, beyond the ‘ahhh’ factor of course’ Many schools of thought prefer an altogether cooler means of recovery…
Cryo-ing out for relief
Zanna highlights “cryotherapy- using cold air to support recovery” as a growing trend in fitness rehab, and given that icing an injury or swelling is a common anti-inflammatory tactic, it could follow that enduring three minutes in a -90º ‘cryo chamber’ might indeed take the edge off of post-exercise soreness. Athletes and sporting pros use cryotherapy sessions in order to temporarily constrict blood vessels, resulting in improved circulation afterwards and enhanced recovery as a result (the Welsh rugby team are big fans, as are pro footballers such as Cristiano Ronaldo). It’s a similar practice to more old-skool ice bath techniques, as showcased by Andy Murray post-Wimbledon win, only apparently less bracing, although it’s also astronomically expensive (think £95 for a three minute session at KXU). If money is no object in your quest for limber limbs, read our editor Victoria’s account of a cryotherapy session . The more economical alternative could be filling the tub with ice cubes, although what a faf, and we don’t much fancy that mid-Jan.
Even the toughest of bootcamps are now segmenting rigorous routines with more contemplative warm-ups and cool-downs, and with Olympians using yogic breathing techniques to enhance weight-lifting performance in particular, the mental and physical benefits of a spot of mindfulness and decompression after exertion are being taken seriously in both professional and amateur sport. Lowering stress levels can pay off both pre and post workout, as Zanna emphasises:
“Stress has a surprisingly powerful effect on your recovery from exercise, plus high stress levels are linked with fatigue and muscular tension which can affect your energy levels and make it harder to train in the first place.”
Alongside breathwork, your post-gym soundtrack could also have a bearing on how much you’re burning after boxfit. A study published by researchers at Brunel University at the end of last year found that what you listen to after working out could affect recovery in the same way that a high bmp might bump up your PB during training. Scientists found that “sedative music can positively influence psychological and psychophysiological aspects of recovery”, meaning that your favourite chill-out tracks could help you to forget the pain and prime you for your next set of drills. Compared to more upbeat music, when participants listed to slow, calm, lyric free songs, stress hormone (cortisol) levels were reduced and the emotional state of the exercisers was optimised. Better still, women appeared to benefit from drifting off to a serene soundtrack more than men in terms of emotional recovery from exhaustive exercise. Combine your stretches with a Spotify spa playlist and you’ll be bounding into your next fitness challenge.
Not a new trend this one, but probably the most vital aspect of proper recovery, as Zanna reminds us:
“While I personally have the likes of regular sports massages, due to the fact that my physical health and functionality is a prominent part of my job, I understand that treatments like this aren’t affordable for all, so I can’t recommend such measures to everyone.
“The main thing is to listen to your body- if you feel tight, tired or sore then rest and support your recovery. Drink water, eat well, sleep. The basics are more than enough for the average person. If you want to take it to the next level then you can look into advanced techniques but they come with a price.”
With that, I’m off to make a hearty meal and I might even chase it with an epsom salt bath and a nap. I’ll leave the cryogenic freezing to the professionals.
Still struggling to recover after intense exercise? Six fitness and nutrition experts share their rehab secrets
Follow Zanna on Instagram and Twitter