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"Feeling the burn" after a workout is really your body recovering from the stress and strain of exercise. It's a process that might get a boost from a new supplement.

If your fitness routines have ever run a bit too long, or you've worked out a little too hard, you know the misery of post-workout pain. Anywhere from several hours to several days later you still might feel the fitness "burn", not to mention fatigue.

Now researchers say they have a clue as to why - and a new natural supplement promises to make a difference.

Indeed, the latest buzz in the fitness universe is "heat shock proteins" (HSP) - a biochemical reaction that some say figures heavily into your body's ability to recover from stress and strain.

Our Body Knows Best

"Our body is our own best defense against illness because it does have the power to cure itself -and there is some evidence to show that heat shock proteins might be one way the body counteracts the structural breakdown of protein," says Robert Gotlin, DO, director of Orthopedics and Sports Rehabilitation at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York.

As he explains, HSP reside in the body at a low but constant level - almost dormant, until something stirs their release. That something, says Gotlin, is stress - particularly a heavy workout.

"As your body endures the stress it sends out biochemical signals that activate the heat stress proteins, which are then mobilized - so blood levels rise," Gotlin tells WebMD. It is that elevation, he says, that some researchers believe might play a role in the fitness recovery process, and in helping to keep muscles strong.

Indeed, in studies on 11 male athletes presented earlier this year at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), researchers from Yokohama City University in Japan revealed that increasing muscle temperature to 40-42 degrees Celsius up to 24 hours before strenuous exercise helps sustain muscle strength, even after that temperature returns to normal. They concluded that the mechanism behind the protective effect of the heat was the subsequent rise in heat shock proteins.

Moreover, in research published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise in 2000, doctors from the University of Tuebingen, in Germany, compared the HSP levels of 12 well-trained athletes before and after a run, to 12 athletes who rested. The result: The athletes had much higher levels of HSP after the race - a finding researchers believe helped them maintain their fitness and strength even after the run was over.

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