No pain, no gain — a slogan so good that sports marketing agencies around the world are kicking themselves for not being first to the punch on that one. It resonates though, doesn’t it? In terms of sports recovery, it’s pretty much the name of the game, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t smart ways to approach your workouts and recovery time in order to maximize the gains you’re getting for all the pain (and time) you’re investing.
From looking at the current landscape of tips for smarter recovery, you might see blood circulation get a brief mention here and there, but it’s rarely a focus. This seems like a bit of an odd omission to us, though, since the core mechanisms your body enacts to begin recovery in your muscles relies on proper blood circulation — specifically in your microcirculatory system, which is where the rubber meets the road in terms of your blood cells being able to deliver that fresh oxygen and nutrients to your muscle tissue.
First, let’s lay some groundwork on the process your body goes through to help recover and heal inflamed muscle tissue, and then we can explore some natural methods to help improve your circulation.
The Pain: Why Do We Get Sore After Working out Anyway?
That aching after a workout is called delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), and is the cumulative result of the muscle tissue damage that was caused by your workout. This triggers an inflammatory response for the injured tissue, accumulating fluid in your muscles, putting pressure on the affected areas, which is what gives you that sensation of tightness in the muscles you worked.
If we take a step into physiology 101 for a second, our bodies take advantage of two forms of movement in working our muscles; eccentric and concentric. To get an idea of what the difference between these two movements is, let’s take a look at a bicep curl:
The muscle increases tension to contract and shorten its overall length. In the case of a curl, this means increasing the tension enough to overcome the weight, contracting the bicep and lifting the weight up towards you. In kinesiology this is referred to as enacting positive work on the muscle.
The muscle lengthens as the resistance placed on your bicep becomes greater than the force being produced by the muscle. This is the downstroke of the curl, letting off enough tension in the muscle to allow the weight to bring your arm down in a controlled fashion. This is referred to as negative work on the muscle.
Between these two, eccentric movement puts more anabolic stress on the muscles, and leads to the most tissue damage because fewer muscle fibers are enacted to let the weight down. Because of this increased anabolic response to eccentric movement, more inflammation occurs, and it is generally agreed upon that this response builds more muscle mass as a result.
Ever notice you feel a little more shaky when letting the weight down on a bench press than you did pushing it up? Or why jogging downhill seems to be a little more punishing than up? This negative work is relatively inefficient compared to the positive work, and is really what causes the lion’s share of those microtears.
The Gain: Some Soreness Is a Good Thing (Within Reason)
Yes, everywhere you go these days you are bombarded with products and services that decrease inflammation, but some inflammation is a necessary evil. Inflammation in your muscles is a clear sign that your body is responding to that stress and tissue damage, and is supplying the fluids, oxygen, and nutrients to those areas in order to not only heal what was damaged, but to build up more muscle mass in an effort to better fend against future stresses in that area.
The product of this, as we know, is that you become stronger and better equipped to handle more and more weight, and have more endurance in these exercises in the future. Makes sense why that sore feeling can be pretty satisfying in a way when you think about it. Of course it’s important to not overdo this, and pain that occurs during the exercise itself is an indication that you might be pushing your limits or be practicing bad form, and should not be continued.
Where Blood Circulation Comes Into Play
Your bloodstream is the superhighway of your body. Oxygen, nutrients, chemical messengers (such as hormones), immune cells, and metabolic waste are all transported through your circulatory system. On the cellular level, you are relying on the smallest blood vessels that make up your microvasculature: the arterioles, metarterioles, capillaries, and venules.
This extensive network of microvessels makes up the vast majority of vasculature in our bodies, and if strung out end-to-end would add up to more than 74,000 miles. That’s a lot of ground to cover, and not an easy task for your heart to pump with enough pressure to adequately distribute blood to all your extremities. From there smooth muscle cells in the venules and arterioles help blood flow through your capillaries to supply your cells with those precious nutrients and oxygen.
Four Natural Ways You Can Help Your Microcirculation and Fight Muscle Soreness:
1: Stay Hydrated!
Yes, this is a bit of a given, but this is one of those things that can’t really be stated enough. Water makes up the majority of your blood by volume, and is what keeps fluids flowing smoothly and easily through your body to help deliver that oxygen and nutrients to the cells that need it and transport away waste.
See, the tricky part is that you have likely already reached dehydration by the time you actually feel thirst. The color of your urine is a good indicator of your hydration levels, but that is still a late reaction versus maintaining that hydration from the start. Drink water regularly throughout your workout (and the day), and monitor from there on how you need to adjust.
2: Make Sure to Eat Within 1/2 an Hour After a Workout:
Supplying your muscles with the nutrients they need after a workout is what they need to recover, heal, and build up stronger. This applies to your muscle tissue as well as your circulatory system, as those smooth muscle cells in your venules are working hard during an inflammatory response.
After a particularly intense workout, experts recommend kickstarting your recovery with 20-40 grams of protein, and 20-40 grams of carbs. An example would be a serving of Greek yogurt with honey, and a handful of berries. The protein is crucial for supplying the amino acids needed to help your muscles rebuild, and the extra carbs serve as fuel to help alleviate a post-workout crash, and keep you going while your body is working hard to recover.
It’s important to keep up on nutritious meals throughout the day, not just post-workout. This will keep your tissue sated with a steady supply of amino acids throughout the day. Plenty of fruits, vegetables, and legumes are ideal for supplying your body with the needed vitamins and minerals to promote tissue recovery, like vitamin C and zinc.
3: Be Weary of Alcohol Intake and NSAIDs:
While alcohol might act as a vasodilator in smaller amounts, at higher levels it can act as a vasoconstrictor, limiting blood flow to the key areas where your body is needing it the most. On top of that, alcohol can also be quite dehydrating, which is the enemy of good microcirculation. Some alcohol intake is fine in moderation, and actually has some health benefits overall, but following a workout with a few shots might not be the best thing for your recovery.
NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) like ibuprofen may seem like a good thing to take in order to cool down that inflammation response and ease some of that soreness, but this is not the way to go about it. Like mentioned earlier, inflammation is generally seen as something to be avoided at all cost, but in muscle recovery, it is essential in not only muscle recovery, but in growth as well. Short term relief, yes, but it’s very counterproductive for your overall goals!
4: Keep up on Your Sleep, and Space out Your Workouts:
Here’s another one you could chaulk up as being a given, but this is one of the most important contributors towards good long term exercise recovery. NREM sleep (non-rapid eye movement) is a critical time for protein synthesis within the body, which is key for supplying your body with plenty of those helpful amino acids during and also after a workout.
Everyone is different of course, but the National Sleep Foundation recommends getting at least 7 hours of sleep a night — this is especially important post-workout for optimal recovery. This combined with spacing out tougher workouts will give your tissue plenty of time for recovery, so feel free to take things easier on the day following an intense workout.
Of course this doesn’t mean you should lounge around all day, as staying active and moving around is crucial for circulation as well. Low-stress activities such as walking, swimming, yoga, or light resistance training are great for helping blood flow, even on the microcirculatory level. Sitting on the couch or at a desk at work for extended periods is not going to do you many favors in recovery, so be sure to throw in a few breaks here and there to walk around at least.
With a well informed and well rounded approach to your excercise routine — whether that be hardcore strength training, going on a weekend hike, or even getting in a few rounds of golf — keeping good circulation habits in mind is key to optimizing your recovery. Looking to read up on more ways you can increase microcirculation? Check out these resources here on how Bemer products (link https://life.bemergroup.com/) can help you get the most of that time you’ve invested!