Accelerating Medium-Term Recovery (Part 3 in a series)

A few months ago, I detailed several strategies for accelerating recovery at midclimb rests and between climbs. Now in this lesson, we’ll examine intraday recovery, which is the medium-term recuperation that occurs throughout the day and up to twenty-four hours following exercise. What you do (or don’t do) during this recovery period plays a direct role in how much energy you will have during the latter part of a long day of climbing; it’s also the primary factor in how much recovery you acquire during an overnight rest period between days of climbing.

Earlier I referred to this medium-term recovery phase as the refuel period, since restoring a normal blood glucose level and replenishing glycogen is the basis for most recovery gained from thirty minutes to twenty-four hours following exercise. Consequently, consuming the right carbohydrates at the right time is the single most vital action to accelerate recovery. Still, stretching, massage, and the use of relaxation exercises will also increase your rate of recuperation. Let’s delve deeper into each of these areas.

#1: Refuel Early and Often While you Climb
The single biggest error in recovery strategy by most climbers is delayed consumption of calories during and after a day of climbing. The natural tendency is to become so engaged in the activity of climbing that you forget to eat and drink. This is compounded by the fact that strenuous exercise naturally suppresses hunger.

In the previous podcast, I explained that consuming calories throughout the day would help maintain blood glucose and, thus, help slow the use of your limited supply of glycogen. Toward this end, you should consume your first dose of calories between one to two hours after beginning your climb. If you are cragging, this might mean eating a piece of fruit, a Balance Bar, or a cup of sports drink after completing the first strenuous climb of the day. Continue eating a small serving of food every two hours throughout the day; in the case of all-day climbing, this means eating two pieces of fruit, two energy bars, and of course drinking a couple quarts of water.

This may seem like an awful lot of food, and it is if you are only climbing for half a day or going bouldering (halve these amounts in these situations). To keep climbing hard throughout the day and to speed recovery for a second day of climbing, however, you should consume a minimum of 600 to 800 calories during the course of the day.

#2: Kick-starting Glycogen Replenishment After Climbing or Training
As incredible as it may seem, recent research has shown that waiting two hours after exercise to consume carbohydrates will reduce muscular glycogen replenishment by 50 percent compared to eating immediately upon cessation of the activity. Therefore, when planning to climb a second day, you significantly handicap your next day’s performance by delaying refueling. Similarly, delayed refueling after training slows the recovery and rebuilding processes and, possibly, delays complete recovery by as much as a full day.

Let’s take a closer look at the best refueling strategies in the hours following climbing or a vigorous workout.

• Ingestion of easily digestible, carbohydrate-rich foods immediately after exercise will substantially increase the rate of muscle glycogen replacement. What’s more, studies have shown that glycogen synthesis may take place another 40 percent faster if carbohydrate and protein are consumed together in a 4-to-1 ratio. Since solid foods enter the bloodstream more slowly than liquids, it’s best to drink this carbohydrate–protein blend as soon after exercises as possible. For example, a 160-pound climber would want to consume approximately one hundred grams of carbohydrate and twenty-five grams of protein. Drinking a quart of Gatorade, juice, or other sports drink would provide nearly a hundred grams of carbohydrate. Consuming a high-protein energy bar or a whey protein shake would provide roughly twenty-five grams of protein. Fortunately, there are now a couple sports drinks on the market, such as Accelerade, that make it even easier to consume the ideal 4-to-1 ratio of carbohydrate and protein—consuming a large serving of such a protein-containing sports drink immediately following your workout will jump-start recovery, big time!

• Now, assuming that you consumed the initial feeding of carbohydrates and protein within the thirty-minutes after training or climbing, you can wait up to two hours to eat a complete meal. Ideally, the meal should be comprised of foods providing caloric breakdown of 65 % carbohydrate, 15% protein, and 20% fat. For example, the meal might include a large serving of pasta, a piece of lean meat, and a salad or some vegetables. And, by the way, one thing you want to avoid after exercise is alcohol, since it will lead to dehydration, slow recovery, and lower the growth hormone response during sleep. If you must have an adult beverage with your meal—hey, I enjoy a good beer after a day of climbing as much as the next guy—try to limit yourself to just one serving.

• And finally, consume a small meal of carbohydrate and protein within thirty minutes of going to sleep—this will further support glycogen resynthesis and tissue rebuilding overnight. Skim milk may be the perfect before-bedtime food—it possesses some carbohydrate, a good dose of high-quality protein, and the amino acid tryptophan, which helps slows down brain activity and induce sleep. Other good bedtime snacks include a whey protein shake, a serving of low-fat yogurt, and a small bowl of whole-grain cereal topped with skim milk.

#3: Stretch and Massage the Working Muscles
Sports massage is also an effective practice to enhance medium- and long-term recovery as well as an excellent complement to preclimbing warm-up activities. Sports massage utilizes a deep-fiber-spreading technique that produces hyperemia (a dilation of the blood vessels) through the full depth of the muscle. The effects of this therapy last long after the procedure has ended, so the increased blood flow can enhance performance and recovery.

Sports massage also helps reduce the number of small and often unfelt spasms that regularly occur in the muscle. These spasms may go unchallenged by conventional stretching and warm-up exercises and, left unchecked, may rob you of coordination and induce mechanical resistance and premature fatigue. Furthermore, your body has inherent mechanical weaknesses where sport-specific movements can trigger stress overload. In climbing, these overload areas are the forearms, upper arms, and back. These muscles are the first to tire, and they are typically the slowest to recover. Fortunately, you can modulate fatigue and hasten recovery through application of sport massage to the specific stress points—often calledtrigger points—inherent to climbing movements.

You can best address these trigger points with what is called the direct-pressure stroke. Simply push straight in with a braced finger, a wooden Bodo, or a shepherd’s crook (available from and hold for fifteen to thirty seconds. Direct pressure is especially useful when applied to the trigger points near the insertion end of the muscle; for example, bicep’s trigger points are most likely to develop in the lower, elbow end of the biceps. Use of massage and direct pressure will increase blood flow, help relieve spasms or trigger points, and help speed recovery. Conclude your massage or trigger point therapy with some mild stretch of the muscles.

#4: Get a Good Night’s Sleep
Sleep is vital for any climber serious about training and passionate about maximizing ability. The bare minimum amount of sleep per night is seven to eight hours, though nine to ten hours is ideal following an extremely strenuous workout or a long day of climbing. No doubt, it’s a busy world—and sleep often seems like the only activity that’s expendable. If you closely evaluate a typical day, however, you will likely be able to identify some low-value activities like surfing the Net, watching TV, and certain social events, that can be reduced or eliminated to all for more sleep. It can take great discipline to give up some of these activities—visualize your climbing goals!—but the long-term payoffs of getting more sleep and accelerating recovery will dwarf the hollow pleasure of these low-value pastimes!

Read the first article in the series, an Overview of Fatigue and Recovery.

Copyright 2007 Eric J. Hörst. All rights reserved.