Think that the only way to recover from DOMS is to eat well and rest? Some believe that there may be another easy hack for boosting your recovery and all you have to do is find a patch of earth to do it.
The fitter we are, the better we’re able to perform and the quicker we recover. It’s totally normal to feel achy and tired after a heavy workout but if you’re constantly feeling rundown and lethargic after exercising, some suggest looking at how much time you spend touching the earth.
Yep, you read that right: there are those who believe that the amount of time you spend with your feet on grass, dirt or sand could be crucial to recovering better.
How to recover better: food, sun, grounding
We all know that nutrition plays a big role in how we function, but food only provides some of the chemical energy (ATP – adenosine triphosphate) that our cells need. The rest comes from sunlight.
Every cell in our body produces light, or biophotons. We need light to function – proper, direct sunlight rather than the blue light emitted from our laptops. We already know that getting outside soon after waking up can make us feel more awake and help us to get our circadian rhythms in order. You want to get outside with as much skin exposed as you can, whether that means shorts and a vest in the summer, or bare wrists and face in the winter. That way, you’re able to absorb energy and get a good dose of vitamin D.
But according to one self-care advocate, where you get that sunlight may matter. Grimm’s Apothecary claims that it’s not enough to stand on a busy road with your wrists facing the sun; ideally, you want to place your hands and feet to the ground on grass, sand or mud – as close to the earth as possible.
Sound a bit far-fetched to you? Well, grounding – the act of getting as close to the earth as possible – is something that some scientists and wellness practitioners have been investigating and advocating for some time. It’s claimed that many modern ills are caused in part by our disconnection to the earth, with papers like this 2017 study claiming that increased time spent indoors (Americans spend up to 90% of their time inside) often means increased inactivity – leading to cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and other issues. Being in nature, by comparison, is associated with higher levels of physical activity, better sleep and increased mental wellbeing.
Given what we know about mental health and nature, grounding doesn’t sound like such a bonkers idea – but what possible connection could standing on cold grass in the morning have on our ability to recover from exercise better?
Does being close to the earth help us to recharge and recover?
One 2012 paper, published in the Journal of Environmental Public Health, cites “emerging scientific research (that) supports the concept of the earth’s electrons inducing multiple physiological changes of clinical significance, including reduced pain, better sleep, a shift from sympathetic to parasympathetic tone in the autonomic nervous system (ANS), and a blood-thinning effect”.
Among other issues and conditions, the review looked at the impact of grounding on delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). It concluded that following a pilot study, grounding may actually speed up recovery from DOMS thanks to the anti-inflammatory nature of connecting to the earth. Contact with the ground has been shown to reduce inflammation, both via infrared medical imaging and the measurement of white blood cell counts (which tend to be high when you’re inflamed). All of that has led some researchers to suggest that grounding allows the body to absorb antioxidant electrons from the earth that then neutralize free radicals found at the sites of inflammation.
Her PhD was on DOMS and she tells Stylist that few things touch the sides: “Whether it’s supplements or cold water immersion, there’s very little that actually works. We probably don’t even want to reduce DOMS because delayed onset muscle soreness is an important signal. That inflammation is beneficial because it’s the disruption of the muscle fibres and the inflammatory response that leads to the regeneration.
“So from a physiological point of view, you’re getting the muscles repaired and that’s leading to greater improvements in the future. Athletes want DOMS, they want to stress the muscles and get the adaptations and improvements.”
The only time professionals might want to reduce the DOMS is if they’re competing in, say, the Olympics when they have umpteen matches or events and would want to reduce the inflammatory response to recover. Even then, Dr Chrismas argues, much of the anti-inflammatory effects from getting a massage or cryotherapy would be psychological.
When it comes to all of this grounding research, she advises delving a little deeper into the quality of the studies. “The sample sizes are extremely small and much of it is coming out of the same group. A number of the authors have links with companies in California and Palm Springs, so may be pushing their own business interests.”
She says that a lot of the work on grounding has come from alternative medicine advocates, but Dr Chrismas stresses that the science to back them up is “very wishy-washy”, and can often be discredited and dismissed as pseudo-science by scientists.
So, should we get grounded?
It might be a bit far-fetched to suggest that any post-workout ache could be reduced by standing for 10 minutes on a patch of grass and indeed, as Dr Chrismas points out, we shouldn’t want to reduce those DOMS. But given the very real mental and physical health benefits of being outside in nature, it’s probably not a bad thing to carve out some time every day to stand close to greenery.
At the very least, adding grounding into your morning routine will help you to get your daily dose of vitamin D, help to manage your energy levels and circadian rhythm and potentially improve your mood. And if you don’t have a garden, simply getting to an open green space is going to require you to move, getting those morning steps in. Just don’t expect to feel less achy afterwards.
Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.