Or the curious incident of my sore calves in the night time... and the day time and the night time again and then the day time again.
Welcome to 2020! Okay, I know I'm a bit slow, it's already March as I'm writing this but this is the internet so years in the future when we look back at this article (to laugh and probably facepalm) the 3 month delay won't be so glaring and I wanted to talk about my New Year's Eve.
So I had a lovely, quite* night where I stayed up until the sun rose. A bit of not-so-good-for-you food and a lot of very-good-for-my-mood alcohol. I walked a little bit, had a boogie on the d-floor and stood around chatting to similarly merry people. So why in the morning after were my calves SO DAMN SORE!!!?
I had gone to gym the day of New Year's Eve and I had trained calves (Pro tip: if you've got a big night planned, go to gym during the day because you can enjoy the binge more knowing you've worked hard and you're unlikely to go the following day...). Thanks to following an individualised progressive program I knew that I had not gone super hard on my calves and I had never even felt close to this sore after previous sessions (Just another reason why you should be following a gym program). So what had done so much damage to my calf muscles? Sure dancing and standing around definitely wouldn't help but I believe the answer lies not in how much damage was done but in the lack of recovery I gave my *perfectly adequately* sized calves.
Before we look at recovery let's get on the same page about some basic exercise knowledge. Exercise damages the muscles, which incites the muscles to rebuild themselves bigger and stronger than before. This adaptation is called supercompensation.
As you can see in the graph above, there is a training stimulus (e.g. lifting weights) which actually weakens the performance of muscles, then there is a period of recovery and hopefully if everything goes correctly, the body repairs the damage and makes the structures which were damaged stronger by overcompensating for the loss (hence, the term supercompensation).
The coloured lines show what happens when varying amounts of stimulus are applied to the muscle (how hard you went at gym). The yellow line is what happens when you don't cause much stress to the muscles so they only display a small amount of growth. The red line shows what happens if you cause too much damage to the muscles: the recovery time is extended and the body can no longer improve upon structures as it attempts to return them back to normal function. The green line is what we should always be chasing in the gym, a real challenge to the muscles which encourages them to grow without causing excess fatigue.
But what I haven't touched on yet is that where the graph curves upwards after the initial dip, labelled "Recovery", can be influenced by a whole range of factors, meaning you can speed up recovery to maximise gains or completely nullify any potential supercompensation by neglecting recovery. I believe this is what happened to my calves. I didn't overdo the initial stimulus, but I did completely obliterate the recovery portion.
Recovery is a complex area for study. This is due to the fact that there are just SO many factors that go into how your body recovers. Even if a study limits how much you exercise, how much you eat and how much you sleep there can still be confounding variables (unexplained changes in how much you recover). Spent the whole next day playing xbox? That affects recovery. Spent that evening staying "active" on Tinder? (eyebrow pump) That affects recovery. Stayed out until the sun rose eating microwavable finger foods and drinking alcohol on New Year's Eve? You better believe that affects recovery.
What the research has shown so far is that the major modifiable determinants of recovery length are:
Exercise intensity: Working at higher intensities will create more fatigue than working at lower intensities, even when the volume (total work done) is the same. (1) So you will need more time to recover if you go for your 3 rep maximum on deadlifts compared to if you do your 6 rep maximum. Basically, the harder you go at gym, the more sore you'll be the day afterwards. But the type of exercise you do as well will also have a large role to play in the recovery time for example: eccentric (lengthening the muscle) exercise takes longer to recover from (2) and single joint exercises may also take longer to recover from (3) so be mindful of the types of exercises you choose and how they affect your recovery.
Nutrition: The body needs nutrients to build the damaged structures back up, this includes hydrating yourself with water. Now this isn't really my area to cover so I'll keep things basic. A lot of the building up is done by amino acids (found in protein) but carbohydrates can also be important to recover your glycogen stores (your energy), depending on what type of exercise you've done^. Eat a balanced meal with a large protein source, a source of carbohydrates and plenty of vegetables. If you eat fast food your recovery is straight up going to take longer.
^Carbs are more important for recovery from forms of exercise that last >90 minutes so if you're just going to gym carbs won't have a huge effect.
Need more info on how much protein to have? I explain this in a previous article
Sleep: We all know that sleep is the body's chance to recover after all the stresses of the day, so it makes sense that most of our muscular recovery occurs at night too. If you're not getting more than 7 hours of sleep, you're doing yourself a disservice in so many different ways including but not limited to: impaired muscle glycogen repletion, impaired muscle damage repair, alterations in cognitive function and an increase in mental fatigue (4). And that's just looking at it from a sports perspective! This meta-analysis states that sleep deprivation strongly impairs human functioning, especially your mood (6). I don't know about you but human functioning is rather important to me, a human. If you are not getting enough sleep overnight, napping during the day can be an effective alternative to catch up on sleep (5). This is such a simple factor we can change, honestly give getting enough sleep a shot and see how much better you feel.
Other determinants of recovery include:
Age: As we get older, recovery starts to take longer
Gender: Females generally take less time to recover than males
Genetics: I'm talking about natural athletes here but no, genetics are not a good excuse for you to stop exercising there are still plenty of factors you DO have control over.
Occupation: Working physically demanding jobs can slow down recovery.
Stress levels: How stressed you are in the rest of your life can definitely affect how fast you recover, I believe this is mainly due to cortisol levels in the body. If you're making major life changes it's probably not the best time to go for the heaviest lift of your life.
and supplementary recovery methods: Wow there are a lot of these... I'm talking cold water immersion, hot water immersion, massage guns, foam rolling, compression garments etc. There are varying levels of evidence for every single one of these and new methods coming out constantly. Some are very effective, some can help and some are little more than placebos. If you want to find out more about these methods I may make an article later if there is interest, otherwise here is a position stand showing the level of evidence compared to how much it is put into practice in the industry. (7)
So to summarise, recovery is a vital part of the supercompensation process which is the main reason we all exercise. If you're missing out on recovery, for example by having a very big New Year's Eve celebration, you may find yourself feeling more sore than usual. This can lead to missing workouts and an overall decrease in the speed of your progress. The good news is that you can aid the process by working on the factors that affect recovery speed such as nutrition, sleep and stress control. Or if you're like me, at least you'll know for next time why your calves are so sore for literally a week after a workout. P.S. Sore calves suck!
*Quite big night! No I did not just spell quiet wrong. Haha wow that payoff was worth the long wait!
(7) Vaile, J., Halson, S. and Graham, S., 2010. Recovery review: science vs. practice. J Aust Strength Cond, 18(Suppl 2), pp.5-21.