Ever find yourself struggling to get in and out of your office chair days after a workout? It happens to the best of us. But why exactly does it seem like your body is punishing you for giving it a healthy dose of exercise? Here are four possible reasons why your recovery is moving at a glacial pace.
You Used Up Your Brain Power
You probably already know that a tough workout or race depletes the energy stored in your muscles (called glycogen). But did you know that it can also wipe out your brain chemicals?
“Neurochemicals like norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine are all released to keep you motivated and focused, and send signals to your muscles throughout a race or intense workout,” says Craig Weller, Exercise Specialist for Precision Nutrition. “While your muscles usually restore glycogen within 24 hours, it can take days for your brain to restock the chemicals it used up.” Since stress hormones like norepinephrine help get your heart pumping and prep your muscles for work, your body might feel like dead weight when you’re running low, he explains.
So what’s the fix? “Eating lots of antioxidants supports your brain as you restock these chemicals, but the only true fix is time,” Weller adds.
You Tried A New Workout
We’ve all been there: You run a few miles for the first time in years or spontaneously decide to test out a trendy exercise class, then wake up the next day feeling like you got mowed over by a T-Rex. “When you do a workout that your body isn’t adapted to, you’re more likely to feel sore afterward,” says Weller. “The stress of exercise can cause ‘microtraumas,’ or ‘micro tears,’ in the muscle tissue which we think explains that aching sensation.”
But don’t let the word ‘microtraumas’ freak you out too much. The pain—called delayed-onset muscle soreness—is usually harmless.
If you’re just as sore after the second, third, and fourth time you do that workout, then you might have a problem. “Consistent soreness indicates you’re not adapting to the stress a workout puts on your body,” says Weller. “You may need to reevaluate the workouts you do and the attention you give to recovery.”
You Haven’t Been Sleeping Well
If you follow up an intense gym session with a late-night Netflix binge, you might slow recovery and prolong soreness. “You have to really treat sleep as a skill,” says Weller. When you’re snoozing, your nervous system shifts into parasympathetic mode, or ‘recovery’ mode. This is when your stress hormone levels drop, and your body repairs, he says.
According to Harvard Health Publications, the average adult needs seven to nine hours of sleep per night. So prioritize sleep just as much as you prioritize exercise or a healthy diet, and hit the hay, stat.
You Told Yourself The Workout Was Torture
Behold the power of your brain: Tell yourself a workout is killing you and you might actually feel more exhausted after.
“Your perception of an activity has a huge impact on how your body feels after,” Weller says. “There are lots of theories about soreness, but they indicate that your brain and nervous system are as involved as your muscles.” The biopsychosocial pain model, for example, suggests that we feel pain based on a combination of psychological, biological, and social factors, he adds.
If you push yourself through a bootcamp workout thinking ‘no pain, no gain’ or spend all day feeling nervous before CrossFit, your brain reacts differently than it would to your excitement about activities you love, like surfing or skiing, explains Weller.
Long-term you may want to consider swapping out some of those dreaded runs for a swim or dance class, but for now, you can always try the fake it ‘til you make it approach.