If you’re interested in health and wellness, you’ve likely come across the topic of inflammation, which has been widely covered. The vast majority of that coverage, however, has focused on the damage inflammation can do to the body. But that’s not the whole story. Certain kinds of inflammation can be highly beneficial, including what’s known as post-workout inflammation.
As Shawn Talbott, PhD, a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, put it, “You need enough inflammation to trigger a physiological response that makes your body fitter and stronger and helps it recover after a workout, but not so much inflammation that it slows the body’s natural repair process.”
The reason many work out is to see and feel results, which can make even muscle aches and pains feel gratifying. We often see muscle pain as evidence that, say, the 50 weighted squats we completed the day before are going to make our muscles bigger and stronger. And that’s true, to a point. Post-workout inflammation can work for the greater good of our muscles and bodies, but when inflammation becomes too elevated, its flames can begin to burn away all the gains you’ve been working for.
The Inflammatory Response Explained
The inflammatory response is the immune system’s reaction to tissue damage. When we work out we naturally and inadvertently cause microscopic trauma to muscle fibers, connective tissues, bones, and joints. After workouts, the inflammatory response kicks in, sending a flood of chemicals and hormones throughout the body to repair the damage done to affected tissues; fill in the divots strength training creates in weak areas of bones with new, stronger bone; and build stronger muscle fibers. According to Joanne Donoghue, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic medicine, this type of inflammation is crucial to overall immune system function and has potent healing effects.
You might see and feel this inflammation in the form of swelling, heat, stiffness, muscle pain, or joint aches. Alternately, this inflammatory response may be so mild that you might not experience any perceptible physical symptoms.
Post-workout inflammation typically sets in between 2 and 48 hours after exercise. In an ideal world, this transpires during your recovery time between workouts, allowing pro-inflammatory molecules called cytokines to work uninterrupted as they rejuvenate soft tissue cells in muscles, ligaments, and tendons so that they are stronger for subsequent workouts of a similar nature.
Understanding how inflammation works will help you learn how to recover more quickly after intense bouts of physical activity. Post-workout inflammation follows the same trajectory as any other inflammatory response, whether it’s an acute, short-term flare in response to a sprained ankle or chronic, low-level inflammation resulting from an ongoing condition such as Crohn’s disease.
Let’s break the inflammatory response down in phases.
- Phase 1: Blood rushes to the affected area or areas, inducing the familiar symptoms of inflammation, such as redness and swelling.
- Phase 2: White blood cells called neutrophils sweep away the remains of damaged cells.
- Phase 3: Macrophages, another type of white blood cell, flood the site of injury, clear up the remaining debris, and activate tissue rebuilding.
Inflammation Phase One
When your immune system detects an injury or threat, it responds by delivering a rapid infusion of blood and expanding blood vessels leading to the affected area or areas and sealing those leading away from it.
Inflammation Phase Two
Next, the immune system directs pro-inflammatory cytokines and a specialized type of white blood cell called neutrophils to the injured area. They sail through the wide-open blood vessels leading to the area, then pile up when they encounter the sealed-off vessels leading away.
This creates an environment in which a concentrated supply of cytokines and neutrophils can rapidly flush out damaged or infected cells.
Inflammation Phase Three
Finally, the immune system sends in macrophages, another type of white blood cell, to complete the clean-up process and begin repairing the damage caused by the injury or infection.
When the area appears to be stabilized, meaning the trauma has been reduced and any infections resolved, the immune system reopens the blood vessels leading away, allowing the extra blood cells that have accumulated to evacuate and bringing swelling and redness down.
Differentiating Between Healthy and Unhealthy Inflammation
As you can see, the intended purpose of inflammation is to heal. However, when inflammation levels rise too high or remain elevated for too long, this can result in damage to healthy muscle and tissue cells that present as chronic aches and pains.
When it comes to post-workout inflammation, issues often arise when individuals neglect to leave adequate time for the healing process to transpire between sessions. If you put too much strain on your joints and don’t take time off to let your body repair the tendons and ligaments, you may develop arthritis.
The goal should not be to avoid inflammation altogether, but rather to ensure it remains at healthy, healing levels.
The Healing Benefits of Inflammation
Post-workout inflammation is important to muscle recovery and growth because it helps accelerate the healing process and keeps us from working out already depleted muscles and joints before they are ready to once again perform at top function.
Inflammation can also help to accelerate fitness gains due to satellite cell proliferation, which is crucial to the building of stronger and better adapted muscle fibers.
Furthermore, inflammation builds up a resistance to future injury due to an occurrence called the “repeated bout effect.” Essentially, inflammation after strenuous exercise increases neutrophil activity for the next round of exercise, thereby shielding muscle fibers from redundant and extreme damage.
In the same way that regular workouts expand your muscles’ strength capacity, they also improve your body’s ability to regulate inflammation levels to contain them within the healthy range. This translates to the capacity to work out longer and harder with decreased muscle breakdown, and subsequently, decreased recovery time.
Scientists have found, too, that routine physical activity can lower systemic inflammation. A 2016 study showed that a combination of endurance and resistance training reduced markers of inflammation, which the authors believe could have exciting implications for the treatment of diseases caused by inflammation.
When Inflammation Goes Wrong
Post-workout inflammation, if not appropriately managed, does have downsides—slow recovery, increased risk of injuries from overuse, and constrained fitness gains due to secondary muscle damage between workouts, of which delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is a primary cause.
DOMS is that peculiar type of muscle pain that begins the day after a hard workout, and becomes even more severe the day after that. Exercise scientists attribute DOMS in part due to free radicals that are produced as byproducts of neutrophil activity. The degree of muscle damage that has triggered DOMS can greatly impact the quality of your workouts and training, and place undue stress on your joints, increasing your risk of future injuries.
Muscles aren’t the only part of the body affected by post-workout inflammation. The joints also experience microtrauma during exercise and must be restored and fortified during the healing process instigated by post-workout inflammation. However, if joint tissues aren’t fully revived during the recovery process, unrelenting chronic inflammation can take over and slowly whittle away joint stability, resulting in long-term joint pain and even acute joint injuries.
Those who enjoy physical exertion and pushing their limits face particularly high risks for inflammation-related injuries. Take Alia Malley’s experience. She committed to a serious yoga practice after discovering a style and instructor she loved, and assumed that the harder she worked, the greater the rewards would be. After several months of attending vinyasa classes practically every other day, Malley developed knee pain extreme enough to compel her to schedule an appointment with her doctor, who diagnosed her with partially-torn ACLs in both knees. By the time she sought medical care, the condition had progressed to the point at which it would take a combination of surgery and physical therapy to restore function to her knees. “I was ignoring the warning signs—soreness and swelling,” Malley told Fitness Magazine. “I kept pushing myself until I got hurt because I thought I could handle it.”
The challenge with addressing joint, tendon, and muscle inflammation, according to Tom Hackett, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at the Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colorado and lead physician for the U.S. men’s and women’s snowboarding and raft teams, is that you can’t see the inflammation that affects your fascia or muscle tissue. This makes it more likely to be ignored until a problem like tendinitis, arthritis, or even fibromyalgia develops.
To avoid this, Dr. Hackett advises tuning into which muscles and joints are most vulnerable. This will depend on your own physiology as well as the activity you’re engaged in. Tennis, for example, puts a significant amount of strain on the shoulders and elbows while runners often develop knee and ankle issues. Any time you experience pain or swelling in a muscle, joint, or tendon, that’s a sign you need to let it rest. If you’re dealing with chronic issues in the same area, it can be helpful to consult with a doctor, trainer, or physical therapist for guidance on how best to rest and restore the problem area.
Your doctor may also want to check inflammatory markers such as the ratio of arachidonic acid to eciposapentaenoic acid, which can help them ascertain whether your global anti-inflammatory response has been compromised. If this occurs, inflammation can begin to spread throughout your body, setting off a cascade of adverse events such as increased belly and body fat, decreased immune function, and higher levels of fatigue and depression.
How to Manage Post-Workout Inflammation
Your muscles, joints, bones, and connective tissues need adequate rest between workouts to fully recover so that they can rebuild stronger and more durable. You can subdue inflammation and trim down the time it takes for your body to regenerate with the following eight tips for managing post-workout inflammation.
1. Alternate Workouts
You most likely know that the consensus among experts is that you should allow your muscles a full 48 hours to recover before working them in the same way. That doesn’t mean you need to abstain from all physical activity during that time, though.
Adding one or two alternate workouts to your preferred form of exercise is a great way to maximize your strength and fitness gains. That might mean experimenting with cardio and resistance-training workouts between your strength-training sessions. You can lift heavy on Monday, go for a run or bike ride on Tuesday, run through a set of body-weight exercises on Wednesday, and circle back to strength training on Thursday.
2. Develop a Post-Workout Stretching Routine
It can be tempting to allow yourself to just collapse after a tough workout, but this takes a toll on your muscles.
After you’ve exerted them, your muscles excrete a protein called creatine kinase, which your kidneys must filter from your blood. Sitting still allows this substance to accumulate, which can delay recovery time.
When you move your muscles by engaging in a light cool down and stretching routine, you increase blood flow, which helps flush creatine kinase from your body more quickly. This, in turn, facilitates a speedier cellular repair process.
3. Exercise in the Morning
Researchers have found that certain hormones that mitigate post-workout inflammation, including testosterone and cortisol, are at their highest levels in the morning. Take advantage by timing your workouts to take place early in the day so you can make rapid recoveries from even the most strenuous training sessions.
4. Sleep Well
Though you’re not consciously aware it’s transpiring, your body carries out many functions, including healing ones, while you’re asleep. Be sure to get a minimum of 8 hours of quality sleep nightly to help your body move through the inflammation and repair process as rapidly as possible.
5. Feed Your Muscles
Your post-exercise meals can significantly impact the time it takes your body to recover. The more intense the workout, the more strategic you’ll need to be about the timing and nutrient profile of your food choices. Typically, experts advise ingesting a combination of protein and carbs within 20 minutes of the conclusion of an intense workout.
Foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids also show promise as a means of fueling major recovery gains due to their ability to lower inflammation levels. Though fish oil supplements can seem like the easiest way to load up on these potent nutrients, not all formulations are made from high-quality ingredients or contain sufficient quantities of omega-3 fatty acids to produce results. Because of this, it can be a better option to meet your body’s needs through strategic food choices. Tuna, salmon, and herring all contain high levels of an omega-3 fatty acid called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
6. Get a Massage
Recent studies indicate that massage can be key to quicker recoveries after high-intensity workouts.
A particular massage technique known as myofascial release manipulates connective tissues to reduce inflammation. Fans say that it reduces soreness and improves performance in subsequent workouts.
If you can’t find a massage therapist near you who practices myofascial release, or want to try it on your own first, self-massage with a foam roller can produce similar results, though it can be challenging to apply to certain areas of the body.
7. Address Your Stress
Stress can intensify the inflammation that occurs after workouts. Any time your brain perceives anxiety or danger, inflammation levels rise. This can be beneficial in the short term, since the release of cortisol and other chemicals keep you extra alert. When it becomes chronic, however, inflammation can be quite damaging, as previously discussed.
Scientists have identified a number of ways to lower stress levels, including spending time in nature, practicing meditation, and eating more probiotic foods.
8. Give Your Body a Boost with Amino Acids
Taking amino acids is a proven technique for maximizing your workout gains and minimizing the time needed to recover between training sessions.
Research consistently shows that a well-formulated blend of essential amino acids can accelerate muscle growth during recovery by boosting muscle protein synthesis. If you’d like to learn more about the science behind how amino acids support muscle recovery, check out this article.