CrossFit is an incredible way to build strength, but to get the best results you must properly recover between workouts.
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) — also known as the sore, achy feeling a day or two after a hard workout— is caused by inflammation and microscopic tears in the muscles. It’s not a bad thing, but uncomfortable enough to compromise your athletic performance if you hit the gym again too soon.
Fast and effective recovery can help you make it to more CrossFit classes, so you can reap the benefits of your next workout sooner.
The biological processes of athletic recovery
The body goes through a series of changes during exercise: body temperature goes up, sweat glands excrete moisture, and endorphins are pumped into the bloodstream.
Once the workout is over, the body has to return to its pre-exercise state of homeostasis (equilibrium). Here is what your body does during recovery.
Removal of metabolic byproducts
When our bodies are working hard during exercise, they use different metabolic processes to give muscles the energy they need. These processes cause a build up of metabolic byproducts, such as lactic acid, hydrogen ions and magnesium ions, in the bloodstream. Once energy needs go down, the liver and kidneys remove these byproducts from your blood, allowing the body to return to pre-exercise levels before the next workout.
Lowering inflammation levels
Moderate and high-intensity workouts cause a spike in white blood cells and other inflammatory markers. After the workout, the body’s inflammatory response naturally subsides and eventually clears. Outside influences (such as cold therapy) can help clear the inflammation more quickly.
Sports physicians point out that high-intensity exercise may increase an athlete’s susceptibility to illness when the recovery periods are reduced (and the immune system is overstressed). It’s another reason why a full recovery between workouts is key.
Reducing heart rate
The sympathetic nervous system accelerates your heart rate during a workout. When you’re done, it’s up to the parasympathetic nervous system to slow it down by releasing the hormone acetylcholine into the bloodstream. Those two systems are also responsible for your heart rate variability, a data point that can give you a picture of your cardiovascular health.
The body does a terrific job of repairing muscle tissue after an intense workout. But your body might not heal quickly enough on its own to meet your ambitious CrossFit goals. When that’s the case, incorporate these tips into your post-workout routine.
1. Hydrate post-workout
Exercise causes your body to lose water primarily through sweat. The more intense the workout, the more water is lost. Replenishing the water you lost is key to a speedy recovery.
According to a 2020 study, being dehydrated hampers athletic performance and may even exacerbate exercise-induced muscle damage. In other words, your body will take longer to recover, and you likely won’t make it to as many CrossFit classes as you’d like.
To optimize your athletic performance, be sure to drink water before a workout. When you’re done exercising, start hydrating again immediately. To make hydration more enjoyable, consider adding flavors (for example, lemon or cucumber slices) to your water.
2. Massage sore muscles
Researchers found in 2020 that muscle massages helped healthy male athletes recover more quickly after strenuous workouts. Gentle massages were shown to help clear systemic inflammation at a faster rate than not intervening at all.
Additional research done on foam rollers has also yielded positive results. This lightweight tool can attenuate the symptoms of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), making the post-workout period less painful.
3. Get quality sleep
Sleep is key for adequate muscle recovery. While athletes sleep, there’s an increase in blood flow to the muscles, which means more nutrients and oxygen reach the tissues that need to be repaired and regenerated.
Additionally, the pituitary gland secretes human growth hormones (HGH) into the bloodstream during sleep. Once those secretions reach the damaged tissues, they start repairing the injured muscles.
Strive for good sleep hygiene by establishing clear night and morning routines you’ll stick to.
4. Wear compression garments
Wearing compression garments (such as tights or elbow sleeves) can speed up muscle recovery, according to a 2019 study. They seem to have anti-inflammatory and anti-swelling properties, but scientists are still trying to pinpoint the exact physiological mechanisms responsible.
Either way, compression has been a go-to of professional athletes for years: it’s one of the components of the RICE (rest, ice, compression, and elevation) method of injury treatment. CrossFit enthusiasts can wear these tight-fitting garments around over worked muscles for an added boost to their athletic recovery.
5. Practice cold water immersion
A 2021 study has shown that cold water immersion can lower the concentration of blood lactic acid (BLA; a metabolic byproduct). The reduction in BLA indicates that ice baths promote a quicker return to a pre-exercise level of blood fatigue factors and exercise-induced hormones than passive recovery. Researchers also noted that athletes who take ice baths report feeling less muscle fatigue and pain.
Ice packs are often applied to sprains and other injuries. As a form of cold therapy, they can help with localized muscle recovery, which is what’s most needed to treat strains and sprains. But for muscle recovery of the large muscle groups, cold water immersion therapy is the gold standard. CrossFit athletes will benefit the most from ice baths. Just 2 to 10 minutes is enough to reap the recovery benefits of cold water immersion.
Take your CrossFit performance to the next level with ice baths
Elite athletes take advantage of all the scientifically backed benefits of cold water immersion. Why not do the same? From reducing muscle soreness to alleviating inflammation, there are more than a handful of perks you can reap from an ice bath.
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