The Road to RecoveryBy Joe Taiabjee
Keith Pyne and other sports medicine experts believe that limiting chronic inflammation is key.
Gym Jones, located in Salt Lake City, describes itself as a training project, a physical location and an ideal, dedicated to "The Art of Suffering." Our facility “draws a certain type of masochist,” said Rob “Bobby Maximus” MacDonald, GM and training director, in Men’s Health. Athletes, professionals and individuals who want to “explore [their] physical and mental limits every single workout.”
But there’s a flip side to this mindset: “Going all out is a skill that needs to be honed,” explained MacDonald. “If you go hard every single time you step into the gym, you’ll fry yourself. Hence, this motto, which we live by: ‘Don’t do the work if you don’t have the balls to rest.’ ”
Rest and recovery are how your body adapts and improves, whether you’re looking to lift more, run faster or hit farther. It’s the process by which your body repairs and rebuilds itself. “Recovery is just as important as the training,” says Keith Pyne, medical consultant with the Washington Nationals baseball team, whose job is to keep high-performing athletes healthy throughout a season that spans six months, regularly requires competing back-to-back-to-back, and sometimes demands playing twice in a day. Mix in lots of travel, jumps between time zones, and frequent schedule changes (night game, day game, night game), and you’ll start to see why Pyne is equally concerned about what players do off the field as he is with what they do on it.
Like any great field general, Pyne has a clear understanding of the enemy. “Our biggest problem is inflammation,” he says. “When you play 162 games in 180 days, that’s what you’re constantly battling.”
Inflammation is part of your body’s immune response, and can be a good thing if it’s a reaction to something like an infection, or an injury. But the type of chronic inflammation Pyne is referring to is different. In this case, the wear-and-tear of sports and exercise cause the body’s defense systems to remain activated even in the absence of a threat, which can contribute to fatigue, muscle weakness, and even cardiovascular disease.
To help the body repair, Pyne and other sports medicine experts take a foundational and holistic approach, working in day-to-day habits that improve recovery and limit chronic inflammation. Here are some of Pyne’s key tips for coming back from your workouts like a pro.
Step 1: Get to know thyself.
Any good coach will tell you it’s impossible to draw up a plan without having a baseline. For Pyne and his athletes, that means gaining a fundamental understanding of an individual’s specific needs through a genetic test. (Pyne recommends the service 23andMe.) “One of the first things I recommend is genetic testing,” Pyne says. These analyses, which can be done with saliva (no blood draw), examine your DNA and identify various genetic conditions you might not be aware of.
“All of our guys also do a food allergy test too,” says Pyne. “If I’m eating something I’m allergic to, then I’m creating inflammation,” which impedes recovery. Although a genetic test may yield some information, a food allergy examination like the ALCAT test provides a more complete picture. These tests, which are offered by labs like Cyrex and Genova, typically require a blood draw, and can reveal ways that your diet—even a healthy one—may be working against you.
“For instance, if you’re eating gluten, dairy, or something else you’re allergic to, you’re creating a histamine reaction, and inflaming your body, so you’re compounding the problem,” Pyne explains. And if you’re doing that every day, you’re never going to get the inflammation down.”
Step 2: Eat for your needs.
Armed with information from the tests, Pyne draws up eating guidelines. “We supplement a lot for athletes based on their genetic profiles,” Pyne says. “We use curcumin [the chemical contained in turmeric, which has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties]. We use B vitamins. It’s specific for each guy.”
While supplements play a role, they aren’t the focus. In fact, Pyne and other sport specialists say that how you chow down at the dinner table has a more potent impact on performance.
“A clean diet is really important,” says Ian MacIntyre, a sports specialist chiropractor based in Toronto. “You want the right amount of each category: healthy fats, plenty of protein and proper carbohydrates, limiting your intake of sugar, and—of course—hydration.” Pyne suggests choosing organic food whenever possible.
Of course, a concern for any athlete is protein, which helps repair and rebuild damaged muscle tissue. And here’s where allergy tests can steer you away from problems, since most of the widely-available protein powders are made from milk or eggs.
“A lot of people are allergic to animal-based proteins,” Pyne says. “If you do the allergy testing, [you find that] many people have whey or dairy issues.” Even if there’s not a full-blown allergy, sensitivities can still be a problem. “When that’s the case, if someone drinks a whey protein shake, they won’t fully absorb the protein—plus it’ll create inflammatory effects in the body.”
For those who are reactive to meat or dairy—or vegans, vegetarians, and anyone else looking to avoid animal products—there are a growing number of plant-based protein powders available. Pyne says that, in some cases, people may absorb more of the protein from a plant-based source than an animal-based one—and that absorption is what’s really key. “It’s all about what you take in,” Pyne says.
Step 3: Know when to stretch—and how.
Stretching increases blood flow to muscles, and while studies of the benefits of stretching have been mixed, a number of athletes find that regular stretching can help improve their mobility and the way their muscles “feel” overall. Pyne’s athletes will typically stretch before and after workouts or games, but it’s important to know which type of stretching to do when.
Pyne has a four-word rule that sums it up for you: “Dynamic before, static after.”
Dynamic stretching, in which you move through positions relatively quickly, holding each for a couple of seconds at most, is a staple in most athletic warm-ups. In these sequences you avoid long holds for a simple reason: extended duration stretching has been shown to impair strength and power temporarily. But after your workout, static stretches are a good idea because they improve range of motion.
Step 4: Sleep smart.
For athletes, good sleep is the ultimate performance enhancer—it’s during sleep that our body releases the hormones that promote muscle growth and repair. The trouble is that, for many of us, getting the sleep we need can be a real challenge—one that sports performance consultants are all too familiar with.
“When you have to perform in front of 20,000 people, then be in bed in two hours because you have to be awake for practice six hours after that, sleep is difficult,” MacIntyre says. Athletes in that situation may turn to pharmaceuticals or other sleep aids, but MacIntyre cautions against them because they can disrupt sleep cycles and inhibit REM sleep. (If someone feels they truly need a sleep, MacIntyre—who consults with several NHL players—recommends Power Off. “In hockey, the Power Off supplement is very popular,” MacIntyre says. “Most teams use it. It’s popular with the sport as a natural means of helping sleep.”)
MacIntyre adds that there are several good habits to get into that will improve the quality of your rest. First and foremost: “Set a time that you want to be asleep by, and for half an hour before that, do something calming that doesn’t involve electronics,” he says. A good idea, since the blue light emitted by most computers, tablets and smartphones can throw your circadian rhythm out of sync. You also want to turn down the thermostat in your room—having an elevated core temperature at night is associated with insomnia. Experts say the ideal sleeping temperature is between 60 and 67 degrees.
How well you sleep at night should inform how hard you train during the day, believes Pyne. “We talk about sleep all year long. Every day we ask people to rate how well they slept, and for how many hours. You start to base your routine on how you’re scoring. If you haven’t slept well for three nights in a row, you shouldn’t go out there and do a heavy workout load. You may [want to] change your routine from a highly explosive heavy workout to something more moderate.”
After all, the last thing you want to do if you haven’t fully recovered from your last workout is crush yourself with the next one.