Athletic recovery is an important process that allows your body not just to bounce back from a training session but also to improve your next performance. Yoga is the perfect tool to help you make the most of it.
The science of training and recovery
You’ve done a tough workout or long trail run, your body is aching, muscles getting stiff and you’re tired. What’s happening in your body and what’s the best way to recover?
When you train and push your muscles to work hard, you deplete your energy stores, produce some metabolic waste products, and your muscles get a little damaged. What you need afterwards is good nutrition to provide all the building blocks for muscle repair, and energy for topping up your glycogen (energy) stores. This should be followed by rest for muscle recovery but that doesn’t mean doing nothing. Active recovery, when you engage in lower-intensity activity, such as Yoga, the day after intense training can help your muscles flush out the waste products and recover faster.
What follows then, usually about three days after your training, is something called ‘supercompensation’ – you have mostly recovered, and in response to your training, your body has been stimulated to prepare for a similar workload by building itself up a bit more than it was before. If you schedule your next training to fall into this window and slightly increase intensity/load, you’ll ride the wave of your muscles being primed to perform better and more than before. Following this pattern, you can greatly improve your performance and results. This method is called “progressive overload” and was explained in our yoga and strength article.
If you train too hard too soon or leave too much time between training sessions, you won’t improve as much, and you can even get stuck. That’s why allowing time for active recovery is a great athletic tool and will motivate you to train again a couple of days later.
Yoga as active recovery
There are many factors that have an impact on your recovery – including how fast you achieve full recovery and the phase of supercompensation. These factors include how hard you trained and if you were fully recovered from your previous training, your activity post-training, your nutrient intake, hydration, stress, how long and well you sleep, and also environmental factors such as temperature, altitude, etc.
Yoga is one of the tools you can use to facilitate your recovery. It offers a lower-intensity workout that increases blood flow to all those aching muscles. This, in turn, can relieve some stiffness and soreness, particularly in notoriously troublesome areas like the lower back, hips, thighs, and calves. There’s just one catch – you mustn’t push yourself too hard so you don’t tear your muscles! If you can’t reach your toes, so be it, you’ll reach them another day.
Practicing Yoga on your recovery days doesn’t just make you feel better physically, it also improves your mental health, decreases stress levels, and can sharpen your focus. And that’s not all! It may bring your attention to areas that may need more work – whether it’s stretching, fascia release or a disbalance between your body parts.
If you tend to struggle with an achy back, why not try a Yoga session targeting precisely that area? Or dedicate 20 minutes to seated stretches that offer some much needed release to your legs, back and arms?
Research shows that while a single Yoga session offers many physical benefits, it also lowers your stress response, makes you recover faster from a challenging situation and boosts your self-confidence.
The deep stuff
Your heart beats faster or slower in response to thousands of different internal and external impulses. The time between subsequent beats also fluctuates, especially when your heart is beating slower. Ideally, your heart rate should be very responsive and speed up when you’re in danger, stressed or excited, and then slow down again when you’re resting with varying frequency of single beats. However, for some of us, it beats too fast even when we’re sitting on the sofa. This can be a sign of lasting stress, exhaustion, anxiety or other mental tension.
The official term for the fluctuations in the time between single heart beats is heart rate variability (HRV). This variation is controlled by the autonomic nervous system – that’s the part we cannot control with our will, it runs automatically and reflects our current physical and mental state. When you’re in a fight-or-flight mode, your heart automatically beats fast and there’s little variation in HRV (low HRV). When you relax, your heart not only slows down but your HRV is high, which is a good thing. It means the autonomous nervous system switched gears into the rest-and-digest regime, allowing better tissue repair and recovery.
Low HRV, indicates lasting stress and has been linked to depression, anxiety, increased risk of death and cardiovascular disease. On the other hand, people who have a high HRV are likely to have greater cardiovascular fitness and be either less stressed or cope with stress much better.
What does it have to do with recovery? A lot! Increased levels of stress hormones can interfere with your body’s ability to rest and repair. A comprehensive review revealed that regular Yoga practice not only lowers your stress response – in other words, calms you down – but increases your HRV!
If you feel like you may be in need of some proper calming practice, try our Meditation for Recovery.
Sleep is crucial
Sleep is another important aspect of athletic recovery. Your muscles need sleep to repair and recharge – there’s no getting around it! And it just so happens that Yoga also helps us sleep better – it improves the quality of sleep, its duration and makes you fall asleep faster.
If you have trouble falling asleep, you can even use slow Yoga breathing at bedtime to wind down – or combine a forward fold position with slow, deep breathing. That will prepare both your body and mind for sleep.
Combining Yoga with athletic training
Not all of us can schedule training and recovery days in an ideal manner so what if you want to do Yoga before or after your training? Don’t worry, you will still reap benefits if you follow a few basic rules.
In general, it’s best to do Yoga after a workout. That’s because practicing Yoga stretches your muscles, and if you hold the poses for over 45 seconds (performing static stretching), this may negatively affect your maximum muscle strength immediately afterwards. To put it simply, if you thoroughly stretch your muscles before a workout, they have to work harder to contract during your training and may not be able to contract as much as they normally would. This is only a temporary effect but important to take into consideration if your workout relies primarily on strength.
On the other hand, if your Yoga practice is more dynamic, it can nicely warm you up before the workout and prepare your body for what’s coming. A short mobility flow activates your joints and muscles, gets the blood flowing and can be the perfect start to your athletic training.
However, there are a few more advantages to practicing Yoga after training. One is that it helps you wind down after an intense workout, both physically and mentally. It stretches muscles that have just worked hard and may still be somewhat contracted. Yoga can help you release any residual tension.
Another benefit is that it increases blood supply to the muscles that have just suffered minor damage during your training. An increased blood supply means more oxygen and vital nutrients flowing into your muscles, enabling them to start healing. Research shows that people who supplement their athletic training with Yoga suffer less muscle soreness than people who don’t.
And there’s another advantage to practicing Yoga post-training. High-intensity exercise can increase your stress hormone levels, so the fact that Yoga decreases them makes it ideal to counterbalance your training.
Recover better and faster with Yoga
We always search for new tricks to make our bodies work better and repair faster. It turns out, Yoga is the perfect practice to achieve exactly that.
If you can, schedule your Yoga session for the day following your main athletic training to make the most of it. If that’s not possible, practice Yoga just after your workout. Alternatively, use dynamic Yoga as a warm-up before training, and slow Yoga for recovery either directly afterwards or the day after. It will help you recover in the best possible way.