Are you an athlete focused on functional fitness? If so, and you're anything like me, those feelings of being utterly drained after a WOD, collapsing on the floor, and not being able to walk the next morning are all too familiar. We've all been there.
But these feelings of exhaustion and muscle soreness aren’t simply signs of a good workout; they’re your body’s way of telling you that it’s in recovery mode. It’s repairing itself from strenuous activity and the inflammation that’s been caused by heavy squats, high rep pull-ups, or those sprint intervals you just crushed. The immune system and your body’s inflammatory response are vital pieces in your recovery, but if they aren’t kept on a leash, they can wreak havoc and cause severe problems.
So scientifically, what happens to our bodies after a hard workout?
The body’s inflammatory response gets kicked into high gear after a hard workout
For the sake of this article, we’ll consider inflammation to be your body’s natural response to a potentially harmful stimulus. The sore or tight feeling in your muscles, the “fire-breathing” or “WOD cough” we sometimes get, our dripping sweat, and racing heart, they’re all signs and symptoms of increased inflammation during a workout. You are tipping the pendulum far to one side, and your body is trying to swing it back to normal.
Let’s look at one of these examples, say; muscle soreness (read more about that here).
When we do squats or pull-ups, we are repetitively contracting and relaxing our muscles under heavy loads. This can cause muscle fibers to tear and subsequent muscle cells to break apart. When we workout, we damage our muscles. Then, our bodies repair them and grow back even stronger.
Inflammation comes into play during the repair process when the body increases blood flow to the affected area to replenish oxygen, fuel muscles, and clear out waste. During this period of increased inflammation, the immune system scours the area to clean up harmful waste products and cellular debris, then signals for the body to begin the repair process and fix the damage caused.
Typically after strenuous exercise inflammation markers, specifically hsCRP levels go up.1,2 High sensitive C-reactive protein (hsCRP) is a biomarker that assess inflammation levels. hsCRP levels rises when when the body is in a high inflammatory state, such as fighting an infection and can even be a good predictor of cardiovascular disease. Other biomarkers that will often be present are elevated creatine kinase (CK) levels, an increase in white blood cell count (WBC), and an increase in the stress hormone cortisol.
Creatine kinase is an enzyme that is used to provide energy, or ATP, to our muscles and when we break down those muscles during a workout, CK leaks into our bloodstream causing the levels in our blood to rise. A small increase in serum CK levels is okay and will typically subside as our bodies recover, but if those levels are too high and remain high, the level of muscle breakdown in our body is too great and can lead to the dreaded “rhabdo” or rhabdomyolysis.
White blood cell count and inflammation
As mentioned above, your test results might show an increase in your white blood cell (WBC) count after a tough training session or a strenuous workout.
InsideTracker tests measure WBC levels in the complete blood cell count (CBC) panel. Regarding the cells that make up our blood, we have erythrocytes, commonly called red blood cells (RBCs) which are responsible for carrying oxygen all throughout our bodies. Platelets are responsible for clotting and plugging up any leaks from injuries. And lastly, there are leukocytes, or white blood cells, which make up the immune system and defend against all foreign invaders or pathogens.
Though WBCs comprise only a small percentage of the total cells in our blood, they are by far the toughest! They move around our body’s circulatory system, continually scanning the environment for cells or pathogens that don’t belong. When the immune system finds foreign bacteria or a virus, it attacks, signaling other WBC to join the fight against the infection.
Typically WBC levels are elevated when the body is fighting off infections like the flu or a common cold, but we can also see high WBC levels in our blood results after hard physical training. Since hard exercise and strenuous activity in the gym cause muscle cell breakdown with increased inflammation, our immune system is there to clean up the harmful waste and broken up cells left behind and to signal the repair process to begin.
Why are high levels of hsCRP and WBCs a bad thing if inflammation is needed for recovery?
Here's a simplified version of an incredible complex issue. If you remember back to the beginning of the article where we likened our inflammatory response to a pendulum trying to get back to center after being swayed to one side by our training.
Like all good things in life, our bodies love balance and moderation, or scientifically speaking, homeostasis. When we are too cold, our body heats itself back to normal. When we are too hot, we sweat to cool ourselves down.
The immune system works the same way. Too little inflammation or a weak immune response, our bodies become compromised and we get sick. Likewise, too strong of a reaction can cause chronic inflammation and autoimmunity, or our body fighting itself. So, while it is good for inflammation to rise and repair the damage done during intense workouts, we need to allow time for our bodies to heal and recover to keep our inflammation at bay.
To be clear, the intent is not to scare anyone away from working out or training, quite the opposite! Research has shown that routine exercise can strengthen your immune system. When you add exercise to your daily routine, not only are you strengthening your weaknesses in the gym,you’re also working your immune system. Those who participate in regularly scheduled exercise programs have been shown to have stronger immune systems, can recover faster and can respond quicker to infections compared to those who exercise sporadically or lead sedentary lifestyles.
How to help your body respond better to exercise induced inflammation
Now that we have a better understanding of our immune system and our inflammatory response to training, it’s important to understand what we can do to ensure our bodies respond properly and recover optimally.
The first thing to do is to get your blood tested. It will provide an accurate, inside look at how your body is responding to your training and recovery. By analyzing biomarkers such as hsCRP, CK, and WBC, you can see your body’s inflammatory state and how you respond to your training. Training on a schedule with planned recovery days is essential to allowing proper recovery and mitigating inflammation.3,4
Keeping to routine exercise instead of random sessions once or twice a week can improve your body’s ability to recover and has been shown to boost your immune system.
Is it okay to train while you're sick?
While a pretty complicated issue, what we know is that your body uses a lot of energy while fighting off an infection. Therefore, if you train hard while you’re sick, there won’t be enough energy to go around. Most likely your workout will suffer and your body will prolong the time it takes you to both recover from training, and from your cold.
Take it as a sign – when your nose doesn't stop dripping, dial back the workouts and opt for some low intensity, interval work to get your blood flowing a bit, but not enough to put you on your back.
Sleep is often the most overlooked and underestimated recovery tool
Getting 7-8 hours of quality sleep will give your body the rest and recovery time it needs to repair itself.5 Good, quality sleep, will also help lower cortisol levels from high physical and emotional stress and will help keep testosterone levels high.
Avoid high sugar foods and foods with unhealthy fats to support inflammation and immune health
Eat fruits high in antioxidants, carbs with a low glycemic index and high fiber content, and protein with reasonable amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. Supplementation with vitamin C and D have been shown to increase your body’s infection-fighting power as both vitamins are essential for proper function of immune cells, and herbal remedies such as garlic supplements and ginseng have also been found to help decrease inflammation.6,9
By analyzing your biomarkers for inflammation and optimizing your immune system, you can ensure your body is getting the recovery it needs. In turn, you’ll be ready to attack each training session with more energy and focus and be prepared to fight off whatever inflammatory attack may come your way.
Need recovery meal plan inspiration? Get 10 FREE recipes to help resolve excess post-workout inflammation.
Some other blog posts we think you'll love:
 Fedewa, M.V., E.D. Hathaway, and C.L. Ward-Ritacco, Effect of exercise training on C reactive protein: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised and non-randomised controlled trials. Br J Sports Med, 2017. 51(8): p. 670-676.
 Ispirlidis, I., et al., Time-course of changes in inflammatory and performance responses following a soccer game. Clin J Sport Med, 2008. 18(5): p. 423-31.
 Hayney, M.S., et al., Age and psychological influences on immune responses to trivalent inactivated influenza vaccine in the meditation or exercise for preventing acute respiratory infection (MEPARI) trial. Hum Vaccin Immunother, 2014. 10(1): p. 83-91.
 Matthews, C.E., et al., Moderate to vigorous physical activity and risk of upper-respiratory tract infection. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2002. 34(8): p. 1242-8.
 Prather, A.A., et al., Behaviorally Assessed Sleep and Susceptibility to the Common Cold. Sleep, 2015. 38(9): p. 1353-9.
 Charan, J., et al., Vitamin D for prevention of respiratory tract infections: A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Pharmacol Pharmacother, 2012. 3(4): p. 300-3.
 Josling, P., Preventing the common cold with a garlic supplement: a double-blind, placebo-controlled survey. Adv Ther, 2001. 18(4): p. 189-93.
 Martineau, A.R., et al., Vitamin D supplementation to prevent acute respiratory tract infections: systematic review and meta-analysis of individual participant data. Bmj, 2017. 356: p. i6583.
 Seida, J.K., T. Durec, and S. Kuhle, North American (Panax quinquefolius) and Asian Ginseng (Panax ginseng) Preparations for Prevention of the Common Cold in Healthy Adults: A Systematic Review. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med, 2011. 2011: p. 282151.