Is Aching The Only Predictor Of Recovery Needs Post Exertion?

The need for recovery

This week’s post is squarely aimed at those being physically active, either in normal life, or as a result of more time on their hands in lockdown. 

I want to cover the topic of “Recovery” and the major pitfall I see people making that leads to injury. This is important to all my clients, whether you exercise regularly or not because exercise and any other form of continued physical exertion are the same thing.

I am going to go a little deep, so be warned!

Preamble 

People tend to use ‘Pain’ as a primary measure of whether tissue is healthy or not. We covered this problem in an article previously but a few days ago I had a conversation with a neighbour that made me realise – people also think ‘Pain’ is an indication of ‘Recovery Needs’

The Conversation

On the 26th of April 2020, the London Marathon was cancelled due to the Coronavirus lockdown. So, to help raise money for charity, many people took on the “2.6 challenge”. Basically you do 2.6 or 26 of something to show your support. People did anything from 26 press ups to baking 26 cupcakes. My neighbour, a keen cyclist, decided to climb Steyning Bostal – an 8% gradient (spiking to 14.5%), 1.5 kilometre hill in Sussex, 26 times. 


In our conversation the following day I mentioned he’ll need a couple of days to recover from it. But his response was “No, my legs feel fine. I just feel a little tired today”. 

This made me realise that people view only muscular aches as a sign that they need to recover, rather than the true systemic needs of their body. For those interested, I’ll explain. 

DOMS vs EPOC

Pain is vaguely associated with tissue damage but only vaguely. The aches you get the following day, known as DOMS, are somewhat related to mild tissue damage but largely related to immune reactions. 

If you haven’t done an activity in a long while then the mild damage caused by the activity is reacted to by the immune system, which causes an acidic environment that is uncomfortable for a day or so. The more you do the activity, the less you get this immune reaction because the system knows to expect a little damage. Therefore you are much less likely to experience pain despite micro-trauma to the tissues possibly still occurring. 

The reason this is a problem is because if people don’t get obvious post exercise pain they believe one of two things – “I didn’t train hard enough”, or “I’m invincible!” Both of these beliefs lead to over training and injury.

So the lack of discomfort in my neighbour’s legs only tells us one thing: That he is well adapted to hard and hilly, six hour cycle rides.

So why should he still rest for day or two?

The secret lies in the second half of his reply to me – “my legs feel fine, I just feel a little tired today”.

DOMS is clearly not the right measure for his recovery needs but his EPOC is. EPOC stands for Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption. It’s a measure of how much work your body needs to do to process enough oxygen to repair itself after exertion. It applies whether it’s 26 reps of a steep hill in Sussex or a day spent digging in the garden. Either way, you exerted energy and you need to recover. 

The maths of EPOC are typically complex but in simple terms it is based on your current aerobic fitness levels, indicated by how much oxygen you can process per kilogramme of body mass (called a VO2 Max). We don’t need to get into that here because I want to bring this to the important point. 

The important point

The reason I felt compelled to use this example as a lesson to my clients is rather simple:

How you feel in your energy is just as important to good recovery as responding to any aches and pains you have.

A dip in energy after exercise is a great indicator of your need to recover. ‘Under Recovery’ leads to stress hormones in the body building up, suppression of the immune system and problems sleeping, to name a few. These expose you to injury because they slow down tissue healing.

The simple answer

If you feel tired from any exertion then take an active rest day or two. A hard day in the garden or a long walk you don’t usually do can be enough to drop your energy for many. Others need 6 hours of hard hill climbing on their bike. Don’t compare yourself to others and simply respect how you feel.

Reduced energy? Then take a break. Feel good? Then crack on. 

Remember also that work/life stress affects energy in a similar way. So combining work/life stress and over-exertion is a perfect storm for injury potential.

We all need to commit ourselves to a good recovery plan, so I suggest: Active rest days, stretching or prehab exercise, quality food and water eaten at reasonable hours of the day, 8 hours of sleep every night and good regular massage to keep on top of niggles. 😉 

About the author

Chris has been helping people in pain since 2005. Over the years he has developed a deep understanding of the many contributing factors to pain and enjoys helping people work out solutions that work for them as an individual.

Chris Newton

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