Unlike your arteries, which convey your blood from your heart to the rest of your body, your veins, which bring the used blood back, need special mechanisms to keep the blood moving. One of these mechanisms is leg movement. Repeatedly contracting your calf muscles, which you do when you walk, pushes the blood through the veins. The veins are equipped with little one-way valves that also help the process by preventing the blood from flowing back.
The Calf as a Second Heart
A video titled “The Physics of Venous Drainage” on the website of the American Venous Forum features Sergio Gianesini, MD, saying, “The calf muscle is considered a peripheral heart that propels the venous blood back to the lungs in order to be detoxified and re-oxygenated.” That’s an elegant explanation of why running and even walking are good for your heart!
While oxygen transport is a principle purpose of your circulatory system, that system has another function as well: carrying away toxins, particularly lactic acid, that are created by almost any sort of physical activity. In another part of the video, Dr. Gianesini confirms this: “blood pooling in the lower limbs leads to an accumulation of lactic acid and other waste products.”
Lactic Acid as the Cost of Exercise
The buildup of lactic acid is what causes the burning sensation in the muscles during and after a workout. It can also cause nausea or weakness. In the worst case, lactic acid buildup can cause lactic acidosis, which goes way beyond sore muscles to difficulty breathing, confusion, even death. But I doubt anybody has ever got lactic acidosis from a workout. When it happens, it’s usually the result of a drug interaction or an underlying condition. Nevertheless, Dr. Gianesini advises you to consult a doctor before working out if you happen to suffer from varicose veins.
The lactic acid in your system will increase your discomfort and reduce your ability to perform. This is the body’s way of making you recover before you work out again. The process of recovery from a workout (which, for the athlete, is also the process of performance improvement) is the process of flushing out the accumulated lactic acid and other toxins. The way you do that is by moving the calf muscles (less vigorously than you moved them during the workout) in order to propel the blood back to the lungs. That’s why you walk to cool down after a foot race or spin easy to recover from a bike race. Keep moving after the workout, and you will recover faster.
No Free Lunch
And if you want to accelerate the recovery process, you can apply compression therapy. At Peak Recovery & Health Center, we offer RecoveryPump pneumatic garments for compression therapy. These are garments that don’t just put pressure on a particular part of your body, but systematically apply pressure and release in patterns designed to enhance blood flow. This peristaltic action has been shown to reduce recovery time and ease the discomfort that accompanies it.
There is, as they say, no such thing as a free lunch. Compression therapy will not improve your performance on its own. What it will do is cut the time you need before you start your next workout. And that is what can improve your performance.
Before you schedule your next intensive workout, plan on blocking out the time you need for recovery afterward. You may want to consider booking a compression therapy session here at Peak during that time. It will get you back on the road (on your bike, in the pool, to the gym) faster.
Photo: Jeanne D’arc Girubuntu at 2015 UCI Road World Championships, Women’s Time Trial, Richmond, VA. Photo by Heaton Johnson is licensed under CC BY 2.0 .