Gather round, friends, and grab a cup of tea, a green juice, or your favourite bevvy of choice because we’ve got lots to talk about today!
Inflammation. You might have also heard it nicknamed ‘the silent killer’, and it’s often uttered in sentences that also include words like heart disease, cancer, obesity, arthritis. Even without those diseases, the word on its own just sounds threatening, don’t ya think? For the last couple of years or so, inflammation has been a big buzzword in the health community and we know it as something we want to avoid. But what is it really, and are all types bad?
First things first: Inflammation is your body’s natural self-defence mechanism: It’s a process that aims to get rid of anything doing harm, and repair any damage caused. There are 2 types: acute and chronic. Think of acute as the quick one – perhaps you burn your hand on your hair straightener, or you stub your toe while making the bed (and perhaps proceed to either yell a 4-letter word or bite your lip to avoid one from slipping out). Maybe you get a sunburn or twist your ankle while out on your morning run. Almost immediately, blood starts rushing to the irritated area and the body begins to try to heal it. (If you need a visual, think of it like a bunch of ambulances rushing to an accident, only rather than a road, they’re driving through your veins.) Wounds might start to become visible, and without inflammation, the wound would never heal. So really, there’s nothing cute about acute inflammation – chances are, you’re in pain when you experience it!
Now for the chronic kind. Chronic inflammation is a bit like Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory who knocks incessantly on Penny’s door.
The first few knocks, Penny stays fairly calm when she answers. But after lots of knocking, she gets pretty pissed off. Pretend that Penny is your body’s immune system and Sheldon is something that causes your body stress – it could be a diet full of processed or refined foods, a particular food that you’re allergic to, too many nights of not enough sleep, being constantly under stress, not enough physical movement, or too much. For a while (days, weeks, and years), you can get away with this ‘knocking’ without being yelled at. Your body responds, then does the natural healing thing. But add up all that knocking over all those years and eventually, it’ll answer like a PMS-ing Penny, or worse yet, not at all. By that time, you might have a scary chronic illness on your hands.
Now here’s where you (and I) come in.
As you’re all aware, I like my long runs. I like to work hard, to sweat, and I like to do it very regularly. The fact that you’re reading my blog is evidence that you probably do too. But just as too little exercise is a known cause of inflammation in our bodies, lots of exercise can do it too.
In order to make any sort of gains, be it strength, stamina, speed, or otherwise in your physical fitness, there has to be at least a bit of inflammation. Think of a single workout (a run, a weight room session, a spin class, etc) as an incidence of acute inflammation. No, it’s not the kind that leaves you visibly wounded (ideally), but still, your body experiences stress and small muscle tears are produced. Each time, your immune system responds by repairing that damage. As a result, you get stronger over time.
Here’s the kicker though: In order for that immune response to happen, you need to let your body recover. If you don’t, the stress doesn’t go away. Overtraining and burnout occur. Keep going and the inflammation becomes chronic, putting you at risk for more serious health issues.
Speeding up recovery
If the key to getting that superhero immune response to occur is recovery, that means we need to rest. But what if you could decrease the amount of time your body needs to recover, and as a result, complete another epic training session, even better than your last? You’d be able to get fitter faster and hit new PRs, all while avoiding buildup of inflammation in your body. Wouldn’t that be awesome?
The great news is that you can, and here are the 5 ways that I do it:
1. Periodize your workouts.
Sounds like a fancy word, but all it means is alternating periods of high intensity with periods of low intensity. For example, if you plan to do sprint intervals on Monday and a tough hill run on Wednesday, try doing some lower-impact cross training (cycling, swimming, elliptical, etc) on Tuesday. If you do high intensity Crossfit workouts on Wednesday and Friday, try yoga on Thursday. And be honest with yourself: If your body is telling you no, maybe you just need a total rest day. I take one religiously every week.
2. Use food as your secret weapon.
There are 2 things to look after here: Type and timing. Ideally, you’ll want to consume high quality foods that have strong anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties. Here are some of my favourites:
- Turmeric – The compound curcumin, found in turmeric, is mainly responsible for this bright yellow spice’s anti-inflammatory super powers. Add it to Indian-inspired dishes, or supplement with turmeric in tablet or capsule form.
- Ginger – One of my all-time favourites, ginger is fabulous for reducing nausea, headaches, and inflammation, and is super versatile. Add some next time you’re making a green juice or smoothie, toss it into stir fried veggies, or blend it into Asian-inspired dips and salad dressings.
- Cinnamon – Like turmeric and ginger, this spice can help ease swelling and inflammation, and tastes lovely. Sprinkle it on apple slices, toss some in your smoothie, whisk it into your next latte, or stir it into yogurt.
- Omega-3 fatty acids – These are found in nuts, oily fish, fish oil, flax seed, chia seeds, and savi seeds.
- Fresh fruits and veggies – Sometimes, simple is best! Incorporate as many different colours as you can from dark leafy greens, broccoli, berries, carrots, tomatoes, bell peppers, pineapple… or whatever is freshest and grown closest to home.
- Maca root powder and other adaptogens – Adaptogenic plants are those that help to reduce stress and maintain homeostasis in the body. There are several, but maca root is by far my favourite. I like to add the powder to smoothies, but you can also find it in capsule form.
3. Focus on proper post-workout nutrient timing.
While you may just need a small snack after short, lower-intensity bouts of exercise, longer and more intense sessions call for more re-fueling. As someone who focuses more on endurance, with most of my runs lasting 45-60 minutes or more, I do my best to rehydrate and get some form of simple carbohydrates into my body within 20-30 minutes of my cool-down stretch. Carbs are the focus here because they become stored as glycogen in our muscles, and that’s the body’s easiest energy source. After a long run, the faster you can replenish that glycogen, the better. Some of my go-to choices:
- an apple
- a banana
- a green juice
- Vega Recovery Accelerator
Since I normally work out first thing in the morning, breakfast happens as soon as I get home – typically within 1 hour. In this meal, my focus is pairing protein (to help muscle fibers re-build) and quality carbs. Top choices include:
- An omelette stuffed with peppers, mushrooms, and greens
- My usual post-workout recovery smoothie
- A soft boiled or poached egg on toast with steamed greens and a slice of avocado
- Greek yogurt parfaits with heaps of fruit and a sprinkle of hemp seeds or granola
- Homemade pancakes and waffles (Chocolate-Covered Almond Protein Pancakes and Lemon Poppyseed Protein Waffles are my 2 current favourites)
- A green smoothie full of kale, romaine, high-quality plant-based protein powder, berries, maca, ginger, and almond milk.
- Oats with grated apple, ground ginger, cinnamon, and flaked almonds
- Chia pudding parfaits
4. Get your zzz’s.
Call me a baby in a 25 year old’s body, but most week nights, you’ll find me in bed by 9pm. While many people I know haven’t been to bed that early since they were kids, those of you who are early-morning exercisers might not think this is so strange. I’ve found that my body does best on 7-8 solid hours of sleep, not just from an athletic performance perspective, but in terms of ability to concentrate at work too. It’s when your body is in very deep sleep that the best recovery happens, so set yourself up for this by avoiding electronics and any stimulants (ie caffeine) before bed, making sure your room is completely dark, and dropping the thermostat a few degrees.
5. Drink like a fish – water, that is.
During exercise, you lose water through your sweat. Naturally, you probably carry a water bottle around with you in the gym, or if you’re out on a run or ride, you might have a Camelbak or a bottle clipped to your bike. Water and sports drinks containing electrolytes can help to keep you hydrated while you’re working out, but don’t just stop there. Drinking plenty throughout your day helps prevent muscle cramping, detoxifies the kidneys and liver, and flushes out waste products.
Phew. That was a lot. If you’re still with me and want to read even more about decreasing inflammation and speeding up recovery, I’ve gathered up a few resources for you:
- Top 10 natural ways to reduce inflammation – via Mark’s Daily Apple
- My top 6 anti-inflammatory foods – via Mark’s Daily Apple
- Vega’s Thrive Forward Program – Specifically, check out the Sports Nutrition chapters on The Importance of Recovery for Athletes and Recovery for Endurance Athletes.
So now it’s over to you. I’d love to know…
- What are some of your favourite post-workout or post-race recovery meals?
- Which of the above 5 areas would you say you’re good at, and which ones do you think could do with a little more attention?