You may have not given it much thought in the past, but it’s pretty interesting, and it can be quite useful for your your to understand the post-workout time-period, so you can be as prepared as you can be for your next workout.
When you workout – particularly when it’s strength-training focused – your muscles, tendons, ligaments, and cartilage all experience what’s called “microtrauma”.
Microtrauma is essentially a bunch of microscopic damage that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re injured or damaged in any significant fashion, but is just a result of the “stress” of exercise. It’s like taking your car down to the beach & back – while your car has experienced a very small amount of wear-and-tear, it’s most definitely drive-able after the fact.
For us homo sapiens, it’s a bit different though, and in two ways.
First, our bodies react to this microtrauma with an inflammatory response.
Our immune systems have evolved over time to immediately recognize tissue damage and respond to it with swelling, inflammation, white blood cells, etc. as a means of keeping us from dying from infection. And even when the damage is internal, our bodies still react the same way.
That’s partly why you feel so sore the day after the workout, especially when it was a new experience. If you’ve ever had an infected cut before, you know how painful it can be. Now imagine a very low-grade version of that happening all over your musculoskeletal system. That’s the soreness, alright.
Second, our bodies are able to adapt to this microtrauma.
Humans are incredibly adaptable to a wide variety of activities & environments.
That’s how we can survive in the bitter cold of northern Alaska, as well as the terrible heat of the equatorial regions of Brazil & Kenya. That’s how we can have people who can run 26.2 miles in a little over two hours, and people who can also deadlift over 1000lbs.
Our bodies are amazing at recognizing these stressors & microtraumas and rebuilding themselves not just back to baseline, but beyond it. Every time you workout, your body eventually becomes better than it was.
So, how do we work with our adaptation mechanisms instead of fighting against it?
Sleep. You cannot live without it. And the world’s fittest, healthiest people get plenty of it.
Eat. Even if you’re trying to lose weight, you need a certain amount of protein, vitamins, & minerals to go through the healing process. You need your protein sources, fruits, and veggies. See how long you can survive without food (that’s not an actual invitation, by the way! The point is, your body cannot survive without food).
Avoid overdoing it. There’s only so much trauma & stress your body can take before it breaks down completely, i.e. get injured. At the point, you’ll need weeks or months to get better, instead of 2 or 3 days.
Use active recovery. Your circulatory is responsible for getting your blood – AKA oxygen, nutrients, water, healing factors – to the rest of your body, and it’s 100% required for recovering & adapting to exercise. And by mildly elevating your heartrate the day after exercise through, let’s say, walking, you’re giving your circulation a little boost and helping all the good stuff get to where they need.