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How Long Does Your Body REALLY Need to Recover After a CrossFit Workout? (Here’s the Science)

 Written by 

Julien Raby

 Last updated on 


Ever wondered how long your body really needs to bounce back after a killer CrossFit workout? What if you could optimize your recovery, avoid burnout, and actually see faster gains?

In this article, we’ll break down the science behind CrossFit intensity, reveal how your body recovers, and give you actionable tips to accelerate that recovery. 

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You’ll learn why rest days are NOT wasted days, how to use nutrition to your advantage, and the surprising truth about gadgets like massage guns.

Whether you’re a seasoned CrossFit veteran or just starting out, this guide will help you train smarter, recover harder, and finally break through those plateaus.

Note: This article is based on a recent video by the guys at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lf0rW2AnNZc.

How Intense is CrossFit?

Physiological Impact of CrossFit Workouts

CrossFit is renowned for its intensity. The combination of interval-style workouts using various exercise modalities impacts not only the heart and cardiovascular system but also the entire neuromuscular system.

Oxygen Deficit and Anaerobic Energy Production

During a CrossFit workout like Fran, oxygen uptake spikes immediately. This indicates a high demand for oxygen by the muscles. The large accumulated oxygen deficit shows that a significant portion of energy comes from anaerobic sources, highlighting the workout’s intensity.

Respiratory Exchange Ratio (RER)

The Respiratory Exchange Ratio (RER) measures the amount of carbon dioxide produced relative to the oxygen consumed. An RER above 1 indicates anaerobic energy production. Studies show that during CrossFit workouts, RER often exceeds 1, confirming their high intensity. For instance, during the benchmark workout Isabel, RER values reached 1.08.

Measuring CrossFit Intensity

Case Study: Fran and Isabel Workouts

Oxygen consumption and RER values during Fran and Isabel demonstrate the intensity of these workouts. Both workouts show high RER values and significant oxygen deficits, indicating reliance on anaerobic energy.

Comparison with Other Workouts

Comparing shorter workouts like Fran with longer ones like Cindy reveals differences in intensity. While Fran has higher peak intensities, Cindy maintains a significant level of anaerobic energy production over a longer duration.

Lactate Production as an Intensity Indicator

Lactate levels rise significantly during intense anaerobic activity. Studies show lactate concentrations of 15 to 20 mmol/L after CrossFit workouts, levels indicative of extreme exercise intensity.

Recovery from CrossFit Workouts

Performance Measurement: Counter Movement Jump

Performance can be a good indicator of recovery. The counter movement jump (CMJ) test measures how high an athlete can jump after a workout. Following a Fran workout, athletes showed a 15% decrease in jump height immediately post-workout, with full recovery observed after 24 to 48 hours.

Subjective Recovery Scores

Athletes’ self-reported recovery feelings also provide valuable insights. Lower limb recovery typically takes 48 to 72 hours, while upper body recovery is faster, often within 24 hours. These subjective scores align well with other recovery measurements.

Creatine Kinase Levels

Creatine kinase (CK) levels in the blood indicate muscle damage. Post-workout CK levels can triple within 24 hours, showing significant muscle damage. However, CK levels generally return to near baseline within 48 to 72 hours, indicating recovery.

Energy Replenishment and Recovery

Glycogen Depletion and Replenishment

Glycogen, stored glucose in the muscles, is a crucial energy source during high-intensity workouts like CrossFit. Studies show that glycogen depletes rapidly during these workouts. For example, a 10-minute intense CrossFit session can deplete glycogen levels as much as a two to three-hour moderate bike ride. To replenish glycogen stores, it’s essential to consume carbohydrates immediately post-workout. The muscle is more receptive to glucose in the hours following exercise, making it an optimal time for glycogen restoration.

Effects of Training Adaptation

The repeated bout effect describes how the body adapts to regular intense exercise, reducing muscle damage and soreness over time. While an initial Fran workout might require 24 to 48 hours for full recovery, subsequent sessions typically need less recovery time. This adaptation helps athletes manage the demands of regular CrossFit training more effectively.

Tips for Accelerating Recovery

Intense vs. Moderate Workouts

Recovery needs differ between intense and moderate workouts. After a particularly intense session, recovery can take up to 48 hours or more. However, for a typical moderate CrossFit workout, recovery might only require around 24 hours.

Light Activities and Nutrition

Engaging in light activities such as biking, stretching, or mobility exercises can aid recovery from intense workouts. Nutritionally, consuming 40 to 60 grams of carbohydrates immediately after exercise is crucial. This helps replenish glycogen stores more efficiently. During moderate workout recovery, maintaining a balanced diet with adequate carbohydrates suffices.

Additional Recovery Methods

While gadgets like massage guns and cold baths may provide some benefit, they are supplementary. The priority should be on proper nutrition and allowing adequate time for recovery. Sleep is paramount; aim for 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep each night to enhance recovery and the overall effects of exercise.

Avoiding Overtraining

Periodization and Rest

One common pitfall in CrossFit is overtraining. Athletes often push themselves too hard without allowing sufficient recovery time. Effective periodization is crucial—alternating between intense sessions and rest or light activity days ensures optimal recovery and performance gains. A well-structured plan might include a hard session followed by a rest day or light activities such as mobility work or easy cycling. This approach prevents the constant up-and-down cycle of performance dips without adequate recovery.

Training Programs

To help athletes manage their training and recovery, new programming options are available. These programs cater to individual athletes and groups, offering fixed training regimens that focus on strength, conditioning, and specific skills like weightlifting. Seasonal programming prepares athletes for competitions, such as the CrossFit Open, with targeted training phases that ensure well-rounded development and adequate recovery.

Conclusion

Understanding the intensity and recovery needs of CrossFit workouts is essential for optimal performance and avoiding overtraining. Implementing effective recovery strategies, including proper nutrition, adequate rest, and periodized training, can significantly enhance an athlete’s progress. By following these guidelines, athletes can ensure they are not only training hard but also recovering well to maximize their CrossFit potential.

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