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Some amount of inflammation and hard exercise go hand in hand: If you’ve ever felt sore the day or two after a workout (and who hasn’t?), that’s inflammation. The key is how much you experience it, and for how long.
“Inflammation is a product of the immune system, but it’s not inherently bad,” says functional medicine expert Will Cole, author of The Inflammation Spectrum. “We need healthy balanced inflammation levels in the body. Inflammation helps fight off viruses. Assists in healing wounds. And it’s needed to defend the human body against infection. So, in balance, it’s very important.
“It’s when inflammation is thrown out of balance, when there’s a breaking of that balance, that problems can ensue,” Cole adds. “Chronic inflammation is the problem.”
Chronic inflammation is no joke: It’s correlated with serious medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, stroke, and others. Plus, it can interfere with athletic performance, potentially even keeping us from participating in our favorite activities.
So you can see that it’s worth the effort to get inflammation in check. “If somebody is less inflamed throughout their body, they will feel better and they will perform better and they will have more success in their activities,” says physical therapist David Gershkovich, founder of Riser Physical Medicine in New York City.
How can taming inflammation make you a better athlete?
Here are some ways that taming inflammation can make you a better athlete, and some expert-recommended strategies to do it.
You get stronger and faster
Overall, “If you have less inflammation, you’ll have more energy,” Cole says. “Your output will be increased. Your performance will increase. You’ll actually have more energy to work out. You’ll have more to give, because you have this resilience capacity to put more into the workout and get more out of it.”
On a more granular level, if you have chronic inflammation in one part of your body, such as your ankle or knee, “that part of your body is most probably compromised,” meaning it likely has some underlying pathology, Gershkovich says. Once you manage that problem and eliminate the chronic inflammation, you’re able to perform better.
Once you tame the inflammation in that spot, an athlete “could probably move through various ranges of motion, so could perform the various activities of their sports from a mobility perspective, with less restriction,” Gershkovich says. “And I would also argue that they’d probably have a quicker loop firing to those muscles and those muscles working on those joints without any inflammatory disruption in the way.
“If you manage the inflammation throughout your body, you’ll be able to run better and perform spinning better and do pilates better and play basketball better and all that,” he adds.
Plus, research suggests that chronic inflammation may be associated with less muscle mass and strength, the opposite of what we need to improve at athletic pursuits.
You recover more efficiently
“An athlete who is utilizing recovery methods to manage inflammation—such as nutrition, ice, compression, rest, or light mobility work—will recuperate more efficiently hence allowing them to perform better,” Gershkovich says. “If athletes overtrain and don’t manage their post-activity stress, inflammation, and allow optimal recovery time, this could lead to injury.”
Exercise is effective in part because it elicits an inflammatory response, but an acute one, not the damaging chronic type. Microtears in your muscles from the exertion of a hard workout cause the area to become temporarily inflamed as the body repairs itself while you rest. That’s what causes you to feel the not-unpleasant sore sensation after trying a new type of movement, lifting heavier weight, or however you challenge yourself.
When you recover more strategically, you avoid chronic inflammation, and you both perform better at your next workout and avoid injuries that can set you back.
“Recovery afterward is just exponentially improved when you have lowered inflammation levels,” Cole says, “so your body will rebound out of it faster.”
You feel more confident
When there’s an underlying weakness or instability causing chronic inflammation, you may avoid going all-out in an effort to protect that part of yourself.
“When you start to avoid taking your body through the demands of a sport, or when you start avoiding certain movements because you’re worried either about pain and stability and in some cases, it’s swelling up on you, you’re not going to perform optimally,” Gershkovich says. “You’re not going to rely on yourself.”
Without that inflammation and the compromise that caused it, you can fully commit to the movement, and know that your body will support you. “If somebody’s able to move better and are less concerned about swelling up, I think they’ll perform better,” Gershkovich says.
You have more fun
Most of us are better at activities we enjoy, so it stands to reason that finding more joy in your sport(s) of choice will yield you better results.
“So many people, they’re just pushing through, because that’s the thing to do, or because they’re type A and that’s their regimen,” Cole says. “But the reality is, if you feel better in your body, you’ll actually enjoy it, instead of it being this arduous thing that you have to get through, because you feel better in your own skin.”
As a bonus: You’ll enjoy the blissed-out post-workout feeling more, too. “All those proper dopamine hits of working out, and the positive impact on somebody’s mood, will be shown very evidently, if they don’t have chronic inflammation,” Cole adds. When you’re more motivated to train, and you feel better after, you’re more likely to be consistent and improve.
You feel better in general
Along with extreme soreness (the kind that interferes with your daily activity) and joint pain, chronic inflammation can show up as feeling being burned out or lethargic, frequent colds, digestive problems, mood disorders such as anxiety or depression, and more. When you’re dealing with any of those issues, you’re definitely not performing at your best–and that’s if you’re even well enough to participate at all. Managing inflammation helps your body and mind to feel better overall, so you can give your best to your sport of choice.
5 Ways to Reduce Inflammation
Fortunately, there are several strategies for reducing inflammation. Some are active, such as adjusting your diet and stretching; others are passive, including getting quality sleep. Combining a few of these strategies can bring even better results.
1. Eat an anti-inflammatory diet
What we eat (and avoid) can have a profound effect on inflammation. To reduce it or keep it low, “The emphasis is on eating whole, minimally processed foods and avoiding excess amounts of added sugar, refined grains, trans fats, and hydrogenated oils,” says Angie Asche, MS, RD, founder of Eleat Sports Nutrition and author of Fuel Your Body. Emphasize “foods such as avocados, cold-water fish containing omega-3 fatty acids, berries, beets, citrus fruits, cherries, leafy greens, vegetables, nuts and seeds, to name a few.”
Making this effort can be truly impactful for performance and recovery, Asche notes. “Making nutrition a top priority helps [my clients] to overall feel better in their practices and competitions,” she says. “I especially notice a difference in my athletes that are older or at the professional level, they comment about improvements to their joints, energy levels, they feel they can recover quicker after intense workouts.”
Get more and better sleep
“One strategy for reducing inflammation that I feel isn’t talked about enough is ensuring adequate sleep,” Asche says. “By ‘adequate,’ I mean at least 7 to 9 hours per night, and more may be needed depending on the athlete.”
Getting good sleep doesn’t just happen; it requires building habits that foster productive rest. “We focus on limiting caffeine, alcohol, and blue light and devices late in the afternoon and into the evening,” Asche says. “And instead focus on a consistent sleep schedule, ways to reduce stress, and supplementation as needed such as magnesium or magnesium-rich foods.” Among its many functions in the body, magnesium may help control the stress response, relax muscles, and support sleep.
Take rest days from exercise
“If athletes want to have a long, healthy career in sports, they need to respect rest and recovery as much as they respect their workouts and their training,” Gershkovich says. “We spend so much time talking about the perfect amount of sets and reps and the sport’s specific exercises and activities. I think it’s important for us to take that same level of care and specificity for how one rests and recovers and heals their body after as well.”
In fact, rest days are the time the body is actually building muscle. Workouts stress and break down muscle; rest days are when the muscles repair and essentially build back stronger.
If you experience soreness on your rest days, you can employ passive methods for reducing inflammation, such as ice and compression, Gershkovich notes.
Incorporate restorative movement
“Light movement activities can actually be very anti-inflammatory,” Gershkovich says, noting that these activities include swimming, walking, stretching, and light yoga.
But this is not the moment to PR in the pool or sweat through a power yoga class. “It’s important to understand that when we are trying to do this active approach to an anti-inflammatory based program, it’s light movements,” Gershkovich says. “You’re not pushing against speed. You’re just moving in a very calm, fluid manner. Just taking the body through various ranges of motion can help create a natural pump for fluid and for inflammation to move throughout the body.”
Make good mental health a priority
Even if all of your physical habits are dialed in—your diet is on point, you sleep like a champ, you take your rest days—inflammation can creep in if you are dealing with chronic stress, Cole notes. Research suggests that athletes with stronger mental health perform better.
“Our brain is part of our body,” he says. “If someone is in a toxic work environment, or toxic relationship, or they have unhealthy relationships with technology and they’re always on their phone, or they’re looking at screens too much–those are all stressors to the body. That’s going to raise inflammation. Ruminating thoughts that shame, and stress, and trauma, and anxiety, and situational things, external things, can impact inflammation levels just as much as food in many cases.”
Incorporating stress relief techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, and deep breathing can help. For deeper issues such as trauma or acute anxiety, seeking professional help is an option.