Exercise Recovery

Recovery is an important factor in endurance races, especially in back-to-back events. I have a few thoughts on the best practices for maximizing subsequent performance. By no means comprehensive, these are just a few principles that I try to follow. Recovery begins immediately after an exercise event and the following concepts are a few of the important ones.

Fluid Replacement

It is sometimes necessary to replenish sodium lost with sweat during exercise. I covered this in a previous post so not much to add here. Basic rule of thumb is that if it was really hot and you exercised for more than two hours, add some sort of electrolytes to your post-exercise fluids. Most commercially available electrolyte replacement drinks are completely sufficient. Some common brands from a gas station might have a lower sodium content (~10-25 mmol/L) while on a really hot day it may be necessary to have closer to 50-90mmol/L.

Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption

During intense exercise, our oxygen consumption (VO2 – an estimate of energy expenditure) is high. After exercise it remains elevated because of a variety of factors including, replenishment of energy stores, elevated HR and ventilation rate, among others. When VO2 remains elevated after cessation of exercise this is called the excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). The intensity and duration of the exercise bout determine the level of EPOC with more exhausting exercise increasing EPOC. An intense, multi-effort event like a skimo race could result in an elevated EPOC beyond two hours. Recovery & nutrition strategy must be planned accordingly.

Lactate Clearance and Muscle Soreness

Exercising between 30% and 50% of max has been shown to increase removal of lactate from the blood after fatiguing exercise. An active cool down (10-20 min at 20-50% HR max) should be part of every athletes recovery from training or racing. Usually the last thing I want to do after a skimo or hard trail race is cool down but even just going for a walk is better than jumping straight into the car.

Compression garments (socks) have been shown in several studies to facilitate lactate removal after exercise. These garments are used in clinical situations to promote venous blood flow, decrease venous stasis, and prevent thrombosis. In athletes, they are believed to promote lactate removal, reduce soreness, reduce swelling, and promote recovery of force production. Compression garments have been shown to enhance performance during successive bouts of exercise when worn during rest between bouts. One study had subjects wear compression socks during an 80min rest after intense exercise. These subjects then showed significant improvement (2.1%) on a maximal cycling test. Several studies have also shown that compression garments reduce muscle soreness following intense exercise.

In a review of 10 studies examining compression garments, only two showed performance enhancement during exercise. Only one of these used a time trial as their outcome measure and neither study was blinded. At the moment, evidence does not support the use of compression garments during exercise.

It is important to select a garment that provides sufficient compression (20-40 mmHg). Typically a medical grade product is preferable and caution should be used when purchasing athletic branded socks that may not provide necessary compression. Socks should be fitted by measuring calf diameter and selecting the proper size. CEP and Compressport each make excellent compression socks. Distance Runwear is the place to get socks in Vancouver.

Glycogen Resynthesis

Intense exercise will utilize glycogen stored in the skeletal muscles, diminishing these stores and eventually impairing performance. Glycogen resynthesis begins immediately after exercise and to ensure optimal performance on successive bouts of exercise it is important to promote carbohydrate (CHO) loading. Studies have shown that optimal resynthesis can take place when ingesting 50-75grams of CHO withing the first 30-45 min after exercise and 1.5 grams CHO/ kg body weight/hour for the next 2-3 hours. This should have a CHO to Protein ratio of 3:1. Chocolate milk, which contains this ideal ratio, has been shown to be an effective alternative to commercially available carbohydrate replacement drinks. For example, according to the guidelines, a 70kg male would consume approx. 17 – 27 fluid ounces of chocolate milk after exercise.


Light massage is commonly used by athletes for exercise recovery and has been shown to reduce inflammation in damaged muscles. A stick or foam roller can be used in place of a masseuse.

Recovery Guidelines:

  • Perform active cool down – walk, jog or ski easy for 10-20 min.
  • Ensure proper sodium and carbohydrate/protein replacement beginning immediately after cessation of exercise. (500-800 ml Chocolate Milk or Gu Recovery Brew)
  • Add electrolyte replacement to aid rehydration if it was really hot and exercise >2hrs.
  • Compression socks should be worn especially if extended inactivity/travel is anticipated.
  • Massage to prevent muscle soreness.
  • Earplugs and blinders might be necessary if sharing a hotel room with teammates.

Further Reading

  1. Burke. (1997) Aus J Sci Med Sport. Nutrition for post-exercise recovery.
  2. Crane et al. (2012) Sci Transl Med. Massage attenuates inflammatory signaling after exercise-induced muscle damage.
  3. Karp et al. (2006) Int J Sport Nut Ex Metab. Chocolate milk as a post-exercise recovery aid.
  4. Robergs and Roberts (1997) Exercise Physiology.
  5. Wallace et al. (2008) Aus Sport. Compression garments: Do they influence athletic performance and recovery?
  6. Argus et al. (2012) Int J Sports Physiol Perform. The Effects of Four Different Recovery Strategies on Repeat Sprint Cycling Performance

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