Last week’s article on the top 3 myths about post-workout protein and recovery started a lot of discussions between our athletes and their coaches. Those conversations revealed even more myths that people still believe about post-workout recovery. This week let’s look at the age-old idea of elevating your legs after workouts.
Truth or Myth: You need to keep your feet elevated
This used to be post-workout dogma, and even standard practice during downtime at any cycling or running practice or workout session. Goodness knows how many hours I spent lying on my back with my feet up on a wall in pursuit of post-workout recovery.
The concept was that lactic acid would drain from your legs, or that blood polluted with metabolic waste would otherwise pool in your legs, so elevating them facilitated the circulation of that bad stuff out of the legs and allowed fresh, oxygenated, nutrient-rich blood to take its place.
There may be some benefit to lying around with your legs elevated after a hard workout, but it’s not draining lactate or lactic acid from your leg muscles or preventing blood from pooling in your legs. Lactate produced during exercise is circulated throughout the body in your blood and can be used by any muscle – including your heart, for energy.
In other words, the lactate you produced during your workout only accumulated in your legs because your leg muscles were the ones doing the hard work. It was immediately circulated throughout the body, and both during and after exercising it was broken down to usable energy in muscle cells. You don’t need to drain lactate from your leg muscles because it already happened, and because if it’s around your muscles will reintegrate it into normal aerobic metabolism and break it down for energy.
How about facilitating circulation?
Well, as one vascular surgeon pointed out to me a long time ago, when you need to proactively assist the circulation of blood out of your extremities, that’s a medical problem. For a healthy person, your body is more than capable of circulating blood against gravity.
The flow of lymph and extracellular fluid, however, is more responsive to gravity. This is why ultradistance runners, some ultradistance cyclists, and people on long plane flights sometimes develop puffy ankles. It’s not blood that’s pooling, it’s extracellular fluid and maybe lymph.
What Elevating Your Legs Can Do For You
Elevating your legs can help to reduce swelling. Compression garments may be helpful for prevention of such swelling, and pneumatic compression (Like AirRelax boots) may also be helpful for reducing it once it is present. If notable swelling (cankles) isn’t present, elevating your legs won’t hurt but it may not be necessary. If you do elevate your legs, sit up or get up and walk around for a few minutes about every 15 minutes.
Athletes who have been around a while will recognize the old adage: “Why stand when you can sit, why sit when you can lie down?” When it comes to post-workout recovery, getting athletes to simply do less and rest more is a win. Sitting or lying down, whether your feet are elevated or not, still means you’re resting. If you have the opportunity, taking a nap would be even better!