After a workout, what’s the next step? To recover, of course. Exercise, whether strength training or an aerobic workout, places substantial stress on the body. Once a workout ends is when the real work begins! After strength training, the muscle fibers you damaged must be repaired. Along with this repair, the muscle rebuilds itself to become stronger and more capable.
Cardiovascular workouts stress your system too. In response to training, your body releases stress hormones and you lose fluid and electrolytes. So, rehydration is an important part of the recovery equation as well. Don’t forget about nutrition! After a training session, your muscles need protein for muscle protein synthesis. Without enough amino acid building blocks to form new proteins, the muscles you worked won’t increase in size. Of course, your body also needs enough sleep for a full recovery.
So, recovery from a workout is multi-faceted – and each aspect is important. You need adequate rest and recovery time, regardless of age, but you might wonder whether age is a factor in exercise recovery. Do younger people recover more quickly than older guys and gals? Here’s the scoop.
Exercise Recovery and Age
You might think that younger people have an advantage in terms of exercise recovery, but studies looking at the issue have yielded conflicting results. So many variables can impact the results of such a study – the type of training, duration of training, training intensity, how physically fit and trained the participants are, health status, etc. So, it’s hard to get a clear-cut answer.
One study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that older masters athletes (average of 45) who ran a 55-kilometer trail race had a slower recovery of muscle strength after running compared to younger athletes with an average age of around 30. This was true, despite the participants sustaining similar amounts of muscle damage. Their markers of muscle damage came down more slowly and their cycling efficiency was slower to recover.
Another study that looked at recovery among younger and older cyclists over 3 days of cycling found no differences in performance between the groups on time trials. However, the older subjects reported more fatigue afterward and felt like they were slower to recover. Yet another study published in the same journal in 2012 found no difference in recovery rates for younger and older participants in a triathlon.
So, the issue isn’t settled. The optimal recovery period may depend on the type of exercise and the age of the participants. For example, an 80-year-old might recover more slowly than a 50-year-old. There are so many variables to consider and insufficient research has looked at each these variables.
What about Strength Training?
You need recovery after a strength workout too. Strength training breaks down muscle fibers and muscles need recovery time to repair the damage. One study looked at triathletes, both young and old after a 30-minute downhill run. Downhill running is an eccentric movement that damages muscle fibers more than concentric movements. After the runs, the researchers analyzed muscle biopsies from the participants. The biopsies showed that muscle protein synthesis was less pronounced in the older downhill runners. That’s important because muscle protein synthesis helps repair the damage and speed up recovery from exercise
People over the age of 60 also develop anabolic resistance, a state where muscles don’t respond robustly to anabolic stimuli which help them repair and grow. Because of this, some experts believe that older people need more total protein to help compensate for anabolic resistance. It’s not clear what causes anabolic resistance, although one factor may be reduced delivery of amino acids to skeletal muscles. However, one study suggests that this isn’t the primary cause of anabolic resistance. Another contributing factor may be a reduced ability to break down and absorb amino acids from the gut.
Nevertheless, older people may not repair muscle tissue as quickly due to anabolic resistance and may need more protein for recovery from muscle-damaging exercise. Some studies also suggest that omega-3 fatty acids counter anabolic resistance to some degree, although research is limited in this area. One theory is that an age-related increase in inflammation contributes to anabolic resistance, and omega-3’s may work by reigning in the inflammatory response.
Downsides to Inadequate Recovery
Regardless of age, we all need enough recovery time between workouts. Strength gains and muscle growth occurs between workouts, not at the time you do the exercises. A recovery time that’s too short can limit the training effects from a workout. Yes, training too hard without adequate rest between sessions really can interfere with strength and hypertrophy gains – but that’s not all. Training without adequate recovery reduces performance during a subsequent session and can even boost the risk of injury. This applies to people of all ages.
Based on the current literature, it’s hard to make firm recommendations based solely on age. We’re all a little different. At the very least, don’t strength train the same muscle group until at least 48 hours have passed. If you do high-intensity interval exercise, two sessions per week are enough to offer benefits without leading to excess fatigue. Beyond these general guidelines, it’s best to listen to your body. Your level of fatigue, the degree of soreness, and overall mood should give you some indication as to whether you’re pushing too hard.
Also, if you’re stuck in a plateau, despite using progressive overload, and your workouts are feeling more like drudgery than a workout, scale back the intensity. When in doubt, extend your recovery time. It’s better to take a little longer to reach your training goals than to burn out or injure yourself. Be aware that changes in mood and problems sleeping at night can be a sign you’re pushing yourself too hard and not giving your body enough time to recover. Finally, keep a training journal, so you’ll be aware of these changes and can react accordingly.
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