The gains in muscle size, strength, and endurance take place between and not during your workouts. In part one we discussed the pivotal contributions of nutrition, hydration, and sleep. In part 2 we consider the importance of a balanced workout schedule, the role of adjunctive tools such as massage, compression, and cold, and the metrics for recovery.
BALANCED WORKOUT SCHEDULE
A critical element of building strength, muscle size, and even endurance is progressive overload, gradual exposure of our bodies to incremental increases in workout stress (longer duration, increased weight, increased duration, increased speed of movement, etc). This is followed by a period of adaptation– our bodies are initially broken down by increased stress and then rebuild to become stronger and more efficient. When an initially challenging workout becomes comfortable your body needs an incremental increase in stress to continue to grow.
When building strength, muscle size, or endurance it is best to focus on long-term progress with small steady increases in the stresses to your body. Pushing too hard in the short term may speed initial progress but also increase muscle damage and require longer recovery periods and increase the risk of injury. When lifting weights or riding a bike, it may be better to end your workouts at 80 or 90% of maximal effort versus pushing to failure.
It is also important to appreciate that the right amount of exercise intensity and volume is dynamic and decreases with age. Older athletes perform better with decreased intensity and volume of workouts and longer recovery periods.
A sample workout schedule might involve five days of cardio and two days of resistance. The cardio portion of your workouts would be split between 1-2 more intense cardio days and 3 light to moderate cardio days. Additionally, we favor cross-training. The cardio may be divided between walking/jogging, biking, swimming, or a recreational sport such as singles tennis. Each form of cardio uses different muscles and avoids over stressing a specific set of muscles. This allows us to exercise daily while providing at least 48 hours of rest for a specific group of muscles. Another strategy to decrease recovery time for people over 50 is to increase the proportion of low-impact cardio like swimming and hiking.
Some lighter cardio days may be used as active recovery, engaging in a low-intensity exercise that elevates circulation to replace metabolic waste in soft tissue with oxygen-rich, nutrient-rich blood to repair and rebuild the muscles. Examples include yoga or a medium duration walk or bike ride at 50 percent of maximal exertion. Active recovery decreases delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) that follows intense exercise and helps maintain flexibility.
ADJUNCTIVE RECOVERY TOOLS: Massage, Cold, and Compression Garments
Massage (such as a foam roller), cold therapy (ice bath below 15 degrees Celsius for 10-15 minutes), and compression garments can decrease DOMS and perceived fatigue following exercise. Massage has the most significant impact on DOMS and perceived fatigue and also decreases muscle damage markers (creatine kinase) and inflammatory markers (c reactive protein and IL-6). Compression garments and cold therapy have smaller effects on DOMS and perceived fatigue and no significant impact on markers of inflammation and muscle damage.
There are many metrics of recovery but the most important ones are how you feel and perform. Common metrics for how your feel include muscle soreness and fatigue. DOMS is related to muscle damage from a novel stimulus (a new exercise or significant change in mechanical load, repetitions, or the number of sets) and it is attributed to inflammation caused by microscopic tears in the connective tissue. While some muscle damage is necessary for progressive overload and related increase in muscle strength and size, it is absolutely possible to gain muscle strength and size without steadily incurring muscle soreness on post-workout days. Furthermore, higher levels of soreness should be avoided because they indicate that a person has pushed beyond a muscle’s capacity to a degree that will require excessive recovery and make it harder to maintain the rhythm of slow, steady progression that maximizes long-term gains.
The most reliable recovery indicator is long-term performance. If you are gradually improving in lean body mass, strength, and cardio endurance, your rhythm of exercise and recovery is on track.