As an athlete, you push yourself to the limit as often as possible. You do long endurance-training sessions, where the aerobic system is maxed out for hours; anaerobic interval training, where high intensity is mixed with lower-intensity recovery; and strength-training sessions, where your muscles are put under so much pressure they literally tear at the microscopic level.

So far in this module, I’ve talked about recovery techniques that deal mostly with removing waste products formed during the training session, and with refuelling the body with sugars for energy and proteins for rebuilding and adaptation. But the rebuilding and adaptation process takes more work and time than simply removing lactate from the muscle and blood and replenishing muscle glycogen.

When muscle fibres are damaged—for example, after a hard weights session when your muscles are sore—inflammatory cells rush to the area to clean up the damaged tissue and stimulate new fibres to regenerate. These inflammatory cells are called macrophages. They are present in the blood, and when a tissue is injured these cells are often first on the scene. The macrophages literally eat up the damaged tissues. Gaps in the damaged cell walls open, allowing fluids to rush in and causing inflammation and swelling.

Meanwhile, the inflammatory process stimulates production of a substance called insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). This powerful hormone circulates through the body and works on areas such as damaged muscle fibres that have been cleaned up by macrophages. The IGF-1 signals growth cells in the muscle tissue (called satellite cells) to build new muscle fibres and repair damaged ones. The end results are newer, stronger and more numerous muscle fibres. The benefit of this process is that it stimulates new and stronger tissues. The drawback is that it is very painful, and it takes some time for this process to run its natural course. In fact, the healing process I’ve just described can take as much as 72 hours for muscles or even longer for tendons and other soft tissues.

Until very recently, we thought that the faster you could return the body to its baseline homeostasis point, the better—because this condition was most conducive to the next training session. This process involved applying techniques to minimize inflammation in the body as quickly as possible. But recent research has highlighted how helpful tissue inflammation is in stimulating the body to rebuild itself to be stronger.

Most of the time as an athlete you don’t have 72 hours to heal—you usually have two practice sessions a day. So we are currently attempting a balanced approach. We allow healing to occur on its own as often as possible, but if you're in competition, or absolutely have to have another quality practice session within 12 to 24 hours, then we use techniques like cold therapy or compression clothing to reduce inflammation as quickly as possible.

Today's POWER-UP: Try a Cold Bath!

Research indicates that cold-water immersion seems to reduce inflammation and improve nervous-system function to facilitate the processes in the body that are governed by the parasympathetic nervous system (e.g., digestion and circulation).

The best support for the effectiveness of this technique comes from the large numbers of athletes who continue to use cold-water immersion—athletes and their coaches are often years ahead of researchers in figuring out what works best for improving human performance and health.

For example, Peter Brukner of the University of Melbourne, one of the researchers who published results that show no benefits for recovery of muscle strength after cold therapy, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail that “Even though our research [on ice baths] was unconvincing, I still encourage their use.”

The simplest thing to do is to have a very cold shower or bath after exercising. Make sure that you keep the water flowing on an area of your skin until it is cold to the touch, and that you cover as much of your body as possible. Try to keep this up for about 5 minutes—this should activate your parasympathetic nervous system and speed your recovery from your workout.