When it comes to exercise, recovery is the name of the game. Being
able to recover faster, and having a better recovery routine will make
or break any athlete’s long-term success. Understanding this critical component of exercise is of the utmost importance.
A variety of things occur to our body during and intense exercise.
Muscle damage is one such event, and can result in the delayed onset
muscle soreness (DOMS)
with which we are all familiar. This muscle damage leads to
inflammation that can persist for some time, and which may be
responsible for signaling various recovery mechanisms in the body. A recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning went into detail about each of these processes and how long they take.
the study, researchers subjected the participants to a workout designed
to induce a need for recovery. They then tested the blood of each
subject three times that same day following the exercise. They tested
again a full day, two days, and three days afterward. The participants
were elite cyclists who did a squat and bench workout of six sets each,
and then cycled for an hour. The workout was pretty intense, probably
more so than a normal workout, but within the realm of something a
person might actually do.
Researchers found that strength was reduced by about 14%
three hours after exercise, but had returned to normal some time between
twelve and 24 hours later. Good thing for those of us doing two-a-days.
Researchers also found injury markers in the blood, indicative of the muscular damage that had been done. These
took longer to return to normal than the strength, being elevated still
after a full day, but returning to normal after 48 hours. The
researchers did note that other studies indicated these markers
typically took longer to show up and then return to normal, being as
long as 72 hours after exercise.
In addition to injury, participants experienced an immune response
as well. First, there were neutrophils, which are a kind of white blood
cell that removes cellular debris, essentially cleaning out the blood
from damaging waste post exercise. These appeared within three hours and were gone after a day.
This would indicate a good window in which to keep blood flow high
through massage and other recovery means. You don’t want neutrophils to
hang out for too long or they may damage the cells as well.
Second to appear were the lymphocytes, which didn’t begin
showing up until twelve hours and stuck it through the three days of the
study. These probably helped mediate larger cellular damage,
but appeared to decline in the presence of antioxidants, and the
researchers suggested that recovery was more or less complete by 72
Interestingly, researchers also learned that the inflammation caused by exercise was only local to the damaged muscles, and had no systemic effect after exercise.
The oxidative stress markers also seemed to be non-existent, which they
attributed to these particular athletes having a greater level of
Ultimately it was inflammation that carried the greatest recovery time within the 72-hour window. The
inflammation was ameliorated by white blood cells carried in the blood,
and I would guess could be hastened by methods that improve blood flow.
I’d also suggest that this study shows people may be waiting too long
between working the same muscle, which seemingly needs only about three
days to recover.