Why do you train? Unless it’s just for fun, you’re likely after some form of training adaptation like gaining muscle, losing fat, or increasing athletic performance. Those adaptations to training can be simplified into a three-step process: stress, recovery, and compensation.
Simply put, training is a catabolic stress. The breakdown from training-related stress leads to a cascade of physiological mechanisms causing the body to recover and bounce back stronger than before to handle repetitive stress. This compensation builds upon itself and is responsible for progressive improvements, i.e. the things that make you bigger, stronger, leaner and generally better at stuff.
This article will focus on the physiological responses of recovery — more specifically, three popular methods that may blunt or impede these responses and how they may limit long-term performance enhancements. If you’re doing any of these things, it may be time to alter your approach.
Ice and Cold Water Immersion Baths
Athletes have been icing and jumping into tubs of ice post-training for decades. Icing for recovery may seem like common knowledge (and an all too common practice) at this point, but a growing body of research demonstrates that cold therapy may blunt the response to training. For example, a study in the Journal of Physiology found that cold water immersion disrupts anabolic signals after a workout which led to reduced muscle and strength gains.
On the other hand, heat seems to do the exact opposite by promoting these signals. A promising area of research is surfacing on something called heat shock proteins (HSPs). Production of HSPs is increased during periods of training-related stress like elevated body temperature, decreased blood glucose and a lack of oxygen in skeletal muscle. This is noteworthy since HSPs have been shown to increase muscle protein synthesis and the activation of satellite cells, both leading to increased muscle growth. When you combine the lackluster cold therapy research with the promising studies on heat, it appears that heat may be the way to go for maximum training effects.
Also known as Ibuprofen, Aleve, or Aspirin, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) drugs reduce pain by blocking enzymes that promote inflammation. The problem with blocking these enzymes is that they’ve been shown to play an important role in the regeneration of muscle tissue. Furthermore, NSAIDs may also decrease satellite cell activity, which could negatively impact long-term muscle gains. You’d think this data would be enough to rule out NSAIDs for athletes, but a few studies still show no ill effects.
For now, it looks like best practice would be to keep your NSAID use to a bare minimum and away from training times. When it comes to your gains, better safe than sorry. Lastly, acetaminophen (Tylenol) does not affect the same mechanisms and has been shown to actually improve performance.
With stress comes the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS), molecules closely associated with the negative effects of aging and chronic disease. Scary, right? The good news is that antioxidants like Vitamins A, C and E have been shown to limit reactions that produce oxidative molecules like ROS.
The bad news is that ROS have been shown decrease post-workout insulin sensitivity, mitochondrial biogenesis and clearance rate of metabolic waste — all extremely important factors in recovery and hypertrophy. So while antioxidants are essential for optimal health and aging, you should probably check your multivitamin and pre-workout to avoid large doses around training. Antioxidants from whole foods shouldn’t be an issue since they are lower doses and have to be digested and absorbed.
• Effective training elicits recovery and compensation through stress and physical damage. Muscle soreness and inflammation are natural responses to training-related stress.
• Cold therapy may block anabolic signals, limiting muscle growth and recovery. Heat has been shown to enhance these signals.
• Use OTC pain relievers sparingly (injuries, headaches, etc.). When you must, use acetaminophen over NSAIDs around training.
• Avoid antioxidant mega-doses around training to maximize potential training adaptation.