Why It's Okay To Be Sore

    You hear it all the time from coaches, “make sure you guys go home and recovery properly. Recovery is key.” Well, what if I told you that in the true sense of the word, that might not actually be true? I’m sure most people lump the words recovery and adaptation together, but realistically they are two separate pieces. If you would like to learn why your primary goal shouldn’t be recovery, and learn a little more background behind both topics, then click here to read this article before coming back here. If your goal is to continue to improve and add size (hypertrophy) or strength, then you need to focus on adaptation. If you are not looking to get better, or if you have a lot of time on your hands and aren’t in a rush to get better, then maybe recovery is for you.

    Recovery, in the true meaning of the word is to return to baseline of where you were when you began your training session. Some may know this as homeostasis. The graphic below this paragraph is a depiction of the recovery/adaptation process. There are many benefits to recovery. By utilizing recovery techniques you are able to reduce pain and inflammation that was caused by the bout of exercise that just occurred. This leads to an increase in short term performance, which would allow you to get back to the gym the next day, or even the same day, for another session. Normally, without using recovery techniques you might have a longer waiting period before you feel good enough to train again.

    Adaptation, by definition is the result of supercompensation after a stimulus, which leads to a new baseline that is higher than the start point. This concept is referred to as allostasis. The benefits of adaptation are increases in long term performance, and everyone’s favorite: #GAINZ. Adaptation allows for long term muscle growth, although sometimes at the expense of short term performance or feeling of soreness. In order to effectively get bigger, faster, and stronger, adaptation must be the focus. The graphic below this paragraph is another depiction of the adaptation process.

    The issues with recovery and adaptation today can be seen in multiple different areas. People see their favorite athletes at the Crossfit Games taking ice baths and being hooked up to their Compex machine (hopefully not at the same time) and as a result, they believe that they also need to use those modalities every day. What people fail to realize is those athletes are in the middle of a grueling 4 day competition with multiple events per day. Their only focus is on recovery and preparing for the next event. They have spent an entire year, or more, adapting to their training stress to get them ready for The Games.

    Another issue is that people generally don’t like being in pain. That part is understandable, but high level athletes know that inflammation and pain means that growth is happening. The adaptation process is based off an inflammation response. When you exercise, you cause microtrauma to the muscles, which leads to inflammation, which causes the immune system to respond by sending the proper materials needed to rebuild the tissue. This is your body’s way of saying, “okay asshole, you hurt me this time, but next time we’re going to be stronger so that same workload won’t hurt us again.”

    So what do people do to combat training pain? Pop NSAIDs (advil, motrin, tylenol, aleve, etc.). Unfortunately, NSAIDs directly inhibit the anabolic pathways of the body. Think about it, if your body needs to respond to inflammation in the muscle tissue in order to make it grow stronger and you take NSAIDs to remove that inflammation, your body can’t recognize the microtrauma, and proper adaptation is blocked.

    Recovery based companies also do a great job marketing and advertising to the public. Compex, Marc Pro, NormaTec, and cryotherapy companies have top level athletes endorsing their equipment. And let’s be real, their stuff looks pretty cool too. Those products are actually great for recovery, but like I’ve mentioned before, recovery should not be the goal everyday.

    The best time to use recovery techniques would be when someone is “in-season”. When a person is in the middle of competition, there is no need to try for new growth and adaptation. That person needs to be at the top of their game at all times. Conversely, adaption should be the goal during the off-season. When there are no competitions near then it is okay to be sore and have a slight decrease in short term performance. If improvement in the long term is the goal (there are very rare occasions when it shouldn’t be) then you should be focusing on your adaptation, not recovery. So the next time your coach or someone else tells you to “focus on your recovery” you can tell them that they probably mean adaptation instead.

 

References:

Hoffman, J. (2012). NSCA's guide to program design. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Palmer, RM. Prostaglandins and the control of muscle protein synthesis and degradation. Prostaglandins Leukot. Essent. Fatty Acids 39: 95-104, 1990.

Soltow, QA, Betters, JL, Sellman, JE, Lira, VA, Long, JH, and Criswell, DS. Ibuprofen inhibits skeletal muscle hypertrophy in rats. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 38: 840-846, 2006.