The CrossFit Recovery Conundrum
by Meredith Thomas, SPT
May 13, 2021
Train, compete, and repeat. CrossFit is an elite sport that incorporates high-intensity exercise with functional movement.1 Each year thousands enter competitions and test their limits.1 This sport for lack of better words has “no chill.” But how do these athletes keep going? Aside from intense motivation and team encouragement, how do they keep their muscles in peak performance shape and optimize workouts?
We spoke to some of our CrossFit friends and heard several answers as to their favorite ways to recover following an intense competition or workout. Common answers included dry needling, drinking lots of water, eating sugar immediately following a workout, compression devices like Normatec sleeves, and sleeping at least 10 hours. These all seem to be pretty logical ways to feel better following an exercise. However, we wanted to know the BEST way to recover. Where is the science? Or is it all simply placebo effect? How do we recover quickly to get maximal benefits from workouts?
When looking at exercise recovery and effects, one of the biggest challenges that athletes face is delayed onset muscle soreness better known as “DOMS.2” To address this among other difficulties like fatigue, research demonstrates that athletes should focus on a few key “modalities” as we physical therapists like to call them. Let’s take a deeper look into these recovery mechanisms.
- Massage: Though often thought of as a way to relax and clear the mind, soft tissue massage can have great benefits for athletes. One study showed that when massage techniques were provided to muscles within 2 hours following a workout for approximately 20-30 minutes, DOMS was significantly decreased after 24 hours and up to 96 hours following workouts.2 How does this occur? Quite simply it all goes back to physiology. Muscle soreness occurs due to microscopic injury to muscles worked.2 Massage allows for blood perfusion to the area to increase and pump any swelling out of the muscle. 2 The same study also noted that athletes report less fatigue following massages.2 This potentially is due to massages assisting with an upsurge in beta-endorphins to the area of muscle damage.2 Beta-endorphins are known for assisting with pain as the body’s natural morphine.3 Finally, massage can decrease the presence of chemicals like creatine kinase which have been found to be associated with soreness.2 Basically, we are giving you an excuse to go get a massage! Wahoo! You’re welcome.
- Compression: Compression garments are not as effective as massage but still beneficial.2 Research shows that when worn for 24 hours post-workout, full-body compression clothing can decrease exhaustion after strenuous lifting activity and muscle soreness.2 It is believed this is due to the decreased area for swelling to occur and potential for improved blood flow return from venous tissues.2
- Cryotherapy: The research on the benefits of cryotherapy as it relates to muscular recovery are very vague. Sadly, more research is needed in this area. We found research that suggested the use of cryotherapy for pain and exhaustion of muscles but no solid evidence. Some studies suggest that cryotherapy to the whole body following exercise within 6 hours can have an effect on soreness, but it is not lasting.2 So, our philosophy is, whatever “floats your boat.”
- Dry needling: Though this is a newer area of treatment, we at Physiolete have had incredible results following dry needling. Patients often find improved range of motion, decreased pain, and relief of trigger points following a session. Research in the area is still developing, however, it is very promising. One study showed that patients have decreased pain instantly and 12 weeks after treatment.4 Pain free = faster return to exercise.
Aside from modalities, there are several areas CrossFit-trained athletes should be aware of. It is important to be cautious not only in how you treat your body following a workout but before as well.
- Sleep: This was an area particularly interesting to research. It turns out that athletes typically have difficulty sleeping due to traveling, intensive training calendars, and anxiety before a performance.5 Unfortunately, lack of sleep or poor sleep CAN affect an athlete’s performance.5 Even one night of decreased sleep can alter performance on a metabolic level.5 All of this suggests that sleep is key to optimal workouts.
To help, we found some research-based sleep hygiene tips:
- Avoid looking at your phone, tablet, or tv.5
- Sleep in a dark room and wake up with natural lighting.5
- Nutrition should include a high protein plan.5
- Tryptophan in pumpkin seeds and turkey improves sleep quality and the amount of time needed to fall asleep.5
- Water: This is not an area we have to discuss thoroughly. We have known for years that water is important for a multitude of things like I don’t know exercise, life, fish, swimming, etc. But allow us to review, shall we? It turns out that research shows water can affect your performance in resistance exercises.6 That’s right CrossFitters, your repetitions are directly affected by your hydration levels. When you are not fully hydrated, your maximum repetitions will be decreased as well as your ability to recover.6 It has also even been suggested that when dehydrated, your perceived effort is increased limiting your ability.6 Basically, you feel tired with less work.6
It is well known that in the world of sports, strange habits and superstitions exist. Examples you may have heard or seen include never touching the baseline when going to/from the dugout in baseball, always wearing your same tumbling shoes that we all know should’ve been thrown out long ago, unnecessarily taping the same ankle before every football game, or no shave November because somehow people still think beards are lucky. SO, we have dived into some pretty odd CrossFit recommendations for recovery and discovered that they may not be all talk.
- Sugar: Normally, we are told elite athletes should avoid sugar. When we heard many CrossFit athletes eat simple candies such as Sour Patch kids or gummy bears after working out, we were surprised. Turns out, this isn’t the worst thing to do. Studies show that consuming carbohydrates consistently following an intense workout can be beneficial.7 One study, in particular, recommended eating carbohydrates in 30-minute intervals following one long workout and 24 hours prior to a second.7 Specifically, the article recommends a blend of glucose and fructose (sugar) for the improved ability of the body to tolerate the digestion and improved repletion of the liver allowing for increased storage of glycogen.7 (AKA energy to your muscles)
- Beetroot Juice: Unfortunately, research in this area is not promising. If you are a juicer and have been drinking all the beetroot juice, hold on. We found research that suggests though juice has been found to help with daily workouts, it was only beneficial when rest breaks were taken between exercises.8 Which, as you know, is not ideal when competing. It also showed that muscle fatigue was increased following a workout.8
Overall, recovery from exercise can be affected in a number of ways. One tip to go by is that if it doesn’t harm and makes you feel better or more comfortable, then go for it! For CrossFit in particular, limited research exists. With the increased momentum the sport is gaining, we hope that research will be more thorough and readily available. That being said, the ladies of Physiolete are all ears! We would love to know your go-to post-workout methods. Hopefully, these tips and tricks will assist you with maintaining and training.
- Crossfit.com. 2021. What Is CrossFit?. [online] Available at: <https://www.crossfit.com/what-is-crossfit/> [Accessed 26 April 2021].
- Dupuy, O., Douzi, W., Theurot, D., Bosquet, L. and Dugué, B., 2018. An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in Physiology, 9.
- Sprouse-Blum BA, A., Smith, BS, G., Sugai, BA, D. and Don Parsa, MD, FACS, F., 2010. Understanding Endorphins and Their Importance in Pain Management. HAWAI‘I MEDICAL JOURNAL, 69, pp.70-71.
- Gattie, E., Cleland, J. and Snodgrass, S., 2017. The Effectiveness of Trigger Point Dry Needling for Musculoskeletal Conditions by Physical Therapists: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 47(3), pp.133-149.
- Dolezal, B., Neufeld, E., Boland, D., Martin, J. and Cooper, C., 2017. Interrelationship between Sleep and Exercise: A Systematic Review. Advances in Preventive Medicine, 2017, pp.1-14.
- Kraft, J., Green, J., Bishop, P., Richardson, M., Neggers, Y. and Leeper, J., 2010. Impact of dehydration on a full body resistance exercise protocol. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 109, pp.259-267.
- Gonzalez, J., Fuchs, C., Betts, J. and van Loon, L., 2021. Glucose Plus Fructose Ingestion for Post-Exercise Recovery—Greater than the Sum of Its Parts?.
- Garnacho-Castaño, M., Palau-Salvà, G., Serra-Payá, N., Ruiz-Hermosel, M., Berbell, M., Viñals, X., Bataller, M., Carbonell, T., Vilches-Saez, S., Cobo, E. and Molina-Raya, L., 2020. Understanding the effects of beetroot juice intake on CrossFit performance by assessing hormonal, metabolic and mechanical response: a randomized, double-blind, crossover design. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 17(1).