In Sports and Exercise, Recovery Therapies are All the Rage…But Do They Work?

In the world of sports and fitness, gaining a competitive edge or attaining a higher level of performance are ongoing goals that become harder to reach as your fitness level increases. In addition to training and nutrition, recovery plays an important role in achieving your performance goals. Beyond sleep and relaxation, a number of recovery therapies have emerged to help athletes and fitness enthusiasts recover, improve performance and avoid over training.

The Science of Post-Exercise Recovery

After intense bouts of sports and exercise, there are essentially three key areas of muscle recovery:

1. Skeletal Muscle Damage: Post-exercise pain and soreness stems from damage to muscle and connective tissues, in particular to the sarcolemma and contractile proteins of the muscle cells. Cellular damage reduces your ability to generate peak contractile forces, and interferes with the transport of glucose to damaged muscle cells, reducing available energy in the short run.

2. Depleted Energy Substrates: Your muscles store fuel for on-demand ATP production — the energy molecule necessary for muscle contraction. For short, high intensity bursts of exercise, phosphocreatine provides quick fuel that lasts about 10 seconds. For longer bouts of effort, glycogen, the storage form of glucose, kicks in. Once depleted, those energy substrates must be replenished in the cells during recovery.

3. Metabolic Waste Accumulation: Just as the combustion that makes your car run produces exhaust as a byproduct, muscle contraction produces its own waste products that must be removed before the muscle can once again produce peak forces. Accumulation of lactate and protons within damaged muscle cells can impair ATP synthesis and hinder the electrical stimulus for muscle contraction. Proton accumulation decreases muscle pH, leading to cellular acidosis and slowing the restoration of phosphocreatine.

During the recovery process, muscle cells gradually heal and replenish substrate levels, as waste is moved out of the cells and into the bloodstream for elimination.

Popular Recovery Therapies

Cryotherapy: Whether you choose to soak in an ice bath or chill in a cryochamber, cryotherapy is centuries-old approach to promoting muscle recovery. While the exact mechanisms are unclear, cryotherapy is believed to reduce inflammation, muscle fatigue and soreness, and speed recovery. While the effectiveness of cryotherapy has recently been challenged by the idea that an inflamed state may actually facilitate muscle recovery, many professional athletes swear by cryotherapy as an effective recovery tool.

Cupping Therapy: Another age-old therapy from ancient Asia, cupping therapy creates negative pressure on recovering tissue by strategically placing inverted domes on the skin and creating a vacuum within, pulling the skin and superficial tissues into the cup to increase circulation to the treatment site. The procedure leaves round purplish welts on the skin, as seen on the backs, arms and shoulders of the 2016 US Olympic Swim Team. While the science behind cupping therapy is sparse, it remains popular among athletes and the physically active.

Massage: Therapeutic massage can be relaxing and your muscles may feel better afterward, but there is little supporting scientific evidence for the effectiveness of massage therapy in promoting post-exercise muscle recovery. Nevertheless, massage therapy is embraced by many as a proactive strategy for post-exercise recovery.

Sauna: Yet another therapy that has stood the test of time, the Finns often topped off a sweaty sauna session with a roll in the snow, bringing cryotherapy into the mix. In theory, a sauna promotes blood circulation to the recovering muscles, boosting oxygen and nutrient delivery to the cells, and carrying away waste products. Again, the science behind sauna therapy for post-exercise recovery is flimsy, but that doesn’t stop millions from relaxing a sauna after a tough workout.

Float Tanks: Sensory deprivation is the underlying mechanism behind float tank therapy, where you float in a dark, soundproof pod, in a warm pool of water infused with Epsom salts. Fans of float tank therapy enjoy the peaceful sensation of floating without the intrusion of light and noise. Let your muscles relax while your brain goes on holiday for 30 minutes to an hour. It may not speed recovery, but you will feel relaxed after your session.

Mind Over Matter

While the science behind popular recovery therapies remains uncertain, we cannot overlook the psychological and emotional aspects of recovery. In essence, if you think you feel better, you’re right, no matter which recovery strategy you choose. If floating in a sensory deprivation tank or subjecting your bare flesh to sub-freezing temperatures lifts your spirits, it is a positive step toward recovery.

Moreover, ongoing mental stress negatively alters your body chemistry and promotes systemic inflammation, a precursor to metabolic disease that slows the recovery process. Feeling relaxed and happy after a therapy session can go a long way toward post-exercise recovery, so if a therapy session makes you feel good, enjoy it!

Sports Medicine NYC

Whether you are recovering from an intense bout of exercise or rehabbing an athletic injury, the sports physical therapy team at NYDNRehab has a solution for you. Our state-of-the-art clinic features advanced technologies and innovative therapies not found in most physical therapy clinics.