It is no secret that post-workout recovery is one of the hottest topics in the fitness world. Whether for a professional athlete or your average gym bro, a demanding training session always leaves everyone looking for the fastest way to restore energy, reduce muscle soreness, and feel better overall in order to get back at it in full swing. There are also plenty of myths—and truths—surrounding the subject. So let’s untangle the thread, spotlight the truths, and dispel some of the myths once and for all.
What ensues is a list of the most prominent recovery techniques out there. By the end of it, you will have a clear understanding of which work, which may possibly work, and which don’t. You will also be able to assess and experiment with the ones that suit your training and lifestyle best.
After an intense workout, your muscles are left fatigued and your energy reserves depleted. Without the appropriate nourishment, they will be unable to recharge, rebuild, and regain their capacity to perform optimally. In this sense, proper nutritional support is one of the cornerstones of your ability to recover. Do not neglect it.Without the appropriate nourishment, your muscles will be unable to recharge, rebuild, and regain their capacity to perform optimally. Click To Tweet
You probably already know that every meal you consume should contain quality protein, carbs, and vegetables/fruits. But if you truly want to maximize your recuperation, here’s some strategies to consider:
- Start your carbohydrate intake as soon as you finish your training. Aim for a meal/snack that contains about 1 gram of carbs per kilogram of bodyweight.
- Keep providing your body with meals or drinks that contain carbs for the next three to four hours, again aiming for 1-1.5 grams per kilogram of bodyweight, per hour. The more draining your session was, the more carbs you should get.
- Then resume your normal eating habits, as per your daily goals and requirements.
Quick Tip: A common favorite post-workout fruit is the banana, which is fine but not the best—the pineapple is. Its glycemic index is 66, meaning that it releases glycogen fast enough to replenish your storage tanks, but not so fast as to cause an insulin spike. It contains only a small percentage of fructose, which is ideal because on one hand the muscles don’t seem to absorb it optimally, and on the other, you actually do need a small amount in order to replenish your liver’s glycogen stores. This, in turn, helps maintain your metabolism in high activity levels.
Pineapples contain bromelain as well, which is not only a great natural anti-inflammatory, but also helps to better absorb the protein you ingest along with the rest of your meal. Last but not least, it contains plenty of vitamin C, which keeps cortisol—the stress hormone—in check, allowing you to recover even faster.
Sleep is definitely the most underrated recovery tool, but in reality it’s the foundation of an athlete’s wellbeing. Sleep deprivation has been shown time and time again to inhibit performance, mood state, metabolism, and immune and cognitive function. People will spend hundreds of dollars on massage guns (more on those later), but rob themselves of a good night’s sleep and, curiously enough, take pride in their ability to function through sleeplessness.Sleep is definitely the most underrated recovery tool, but in reality it’s the foundation of an athlete’s wellbeing. Click To Tweet
And don’t start with the “I don’t have time, I’m too busy” nonsense. We’re all busy and we all get the same 24 hours. Building your life around your health is a matter of priorities, not time. Here’s how to make the most out of your sleep, not only in terms of quantity, but also quality:
- Establish a consistent sleeping pattern. The average sleeping cycle (light sleep—deep sleep—REM) lasts about 2.5 hours, and it’s recommended that you go through three full cycles. So aim for at least 7.5 hours of pure, uninterrupted sleep. Try to fall asleep within 30 minutes of hitting the bed.
- Create a non-stimulating, pre-bed ritual. Try to limit electronic device usage up to 30 minutes before bed. If you must use one, enable nighttime mode, which restricts the excitatory blue light emitted from the screen. Yeah, sure, once in a while we all like to watch a movie; if possible, choose fiction. It requires less brain engagement and it’s perfect for zoning out.
- Limit caffeine after noon. Caffeine can be very beneficial overall, but its half‑life (the time it takes to discard half of the quantity consumed) is around five to six hours. So cut off your intake in the afternoon. That way most of it will have been filtered out of your system at bed time.
- Avoid afternoon/power naps. Although it can give you a good temporary boost if you really need one, nothing can substitute a good, continuous night’s sleep. Try to save all of it for when it matters.
- Keep your bedroom quiet, dark, and cool. According to doctors, the most comfortable sleep occurs in pitch black, when the temperature is maintained around 65 °F/ 18 °C. This may slightly vary from person to person, but it’s a great starting point.
There are conflicting opinions regarding massage therapy and whether or not it actually helps sore muscles heal faster.
So, is it beneficial?
Yes and no. Here’s why.
Modern research provides inadequate evidence supporting the use of massage for muscular rehabilitation. It does, however, support it for positive psychological effects, so in a sense it is advantageous for systemic recovery. In other words, even though there’s no proven physiological mechanism behind it, it helps you put performance anxiety to the side and feel a sense of calm, which is still a measurable, favorable outcome.Modern research provides inadequate evidence supporting the use of massage for muscular rehabilitation. It does, however, support it for positive psychological effects, so in a sense it is advantageous for systemic recovery. Click To Tweet
The problem arises when it is sold by professionals as a miracle cure that fixes everything. It does not. Nevertheless, most elite athletes use it as a means to feel rejuvenated, and so should you if it temporarily numbs your aches and enhances your mood.
For the reasons described above, in my opinion massage guns are greatly overrated and overpriced. If you really like using one, then go ahead—but try not to invest a lot of money on it. Remember, you’re buying a tool that just helps you unwind. It is not required, and it does not speed up muscle restoration by any stretch of the imagination.
Hydrotherapy is yet another controversial issue. Many people do not believe in it while others swear by it. When it comes to water immersion, you’ve got three choices: cold water, hot water, or contrast therapy.
Cold Water Immersion (CWI)
Ice baths involve full-body immersion in water temperatures ranging between 40 °F / 5 °C and 68 °F / 20 °C, continuously or intermittently, for about 15 to 20 minutes. They have been shown to have both pros and cons. The theory behind them is that they constrict blood vessels and flush waste products like lactic acid. They are also believed to reduce swelling and tissue breakdown and offer temporary pain relief.
According to recent research, however, they hinder muscle growth, which is detrimental to bodybuilders and athletes looking to increase their size and strength. Moreover, some studies showcase that fewer white blood cells gather in the affected areas, which translates to a significant delay in healing. What this means for you is that you could probably use CWI to take the pain away and create a temporary perception of faster healing during a competition, but not on an everyday basis where you’re prioritizing muscle mass and/or strength gains.Ice baths hinder muscle growth, which is detrimental to bodybuilders and athletes looking to increase their size and strength. Click To Tweet
Hot Water Immersion (HWI)
HWI is usually done in one constant immersion for a maximum of 20 minutes with the water temperature above 96 °F / 36 °C. But this is by no means a strict, established protocol since minimal research has been conducted on the use of HWI. It is thought to improve circulation, thus enabling the blood to transfer vital nutrients to the cells, therefore quickening the recovery process. As with all concepts based on a hypothesis, take it with a grain of salt. If it makes you feel better, do it.
What’s important is that even if it does not help much with recovery, it does not seem to hinder it either. Take care not to use this method when soft tissue injuries are present because the increased blood flow can aggravate swelling and inflammation. It is also not recommended for when you’re still in a hyperthermic post-exercise state, since you are in danger of prolonging high body temperatures and thermoregulatory stress.
Contrast Water Therapy (CWT)
Some scientific reviews and meta-analyses suggest that CWT can be beneficial when compared to passive recovery. Alternating between high and low temperatures causes vasodilation and vasoconstriction, which supposedly gets rid of the lactic acid and drives nutrients into the muscle. As stated before, though, submerging yourself in cold water may reduce the body’s ability to grow muscle tissue.Some scientific reviews and meta-analyses suggest that contrast water therapy can be beneficial when compared to passive recovery. Click To Tweet
So, if you have to perform CWT during a muscle-building phase, you would do best to leave it for the day after a hard training session. This way you give your body enough time to fight the inflammation and reconstruct on its own, reaping the benefits of the consequential adaptations.
My protocol of choice is cold water immersion (about 45 °F / 7 °C) for one minute, immediately followed by hot water immersion (equal to or above 96 °F / 36 °C) for two to three minutes. Continue at this pace for a maximum of 20 minutes, up to twice per week.
5. Active Recovery
Quite frankly, in my experience this is one of the best ways to recover as fast as possible. Plus, it’s scientifically proven. More and more studies suggest that participating in light physical activity facilitates the removal of metabolic waste and rushes nourishing factors into the aching muscles by improving circulation.
So instead of waiting it out, find something you enjoy and get moving. Go for a lazy stroll in the park, ride your bicycle, play a sport, take a swim, or get in a yoga session. Keep the intensity low (less than 70% of your maximum effort) and just get in motion. Your body will thank you sooner than later.
This refers to the usage of compression garments that apply pressure to your body while you’re wearing them. They are thought to aid with soreness/DOMS, boost athletic performance when worn during training, and improve the perception of comfort. Research has provided contradictory results. In some cases, there has been no evidence of faster recuperation, whereas in others a small acceleration of the process has been reported.
At this point, I feel that this method comes down to personal preference. The best way to find out if it works for you is to experiment with it. Quality compression clothing should feel like a second skin, making you forget that you’re wearing it. Try it on post-workout and on the following day, and see if it makes you feel better.
7. Self-Myofascial Release & Foam Rolling
Self-myofascial release (SMR)—not to be confused with massage therapy—uses tools like foam rollers and lacrosse balls to apply constant pressure on the fascia in order to loosen it. Fascia is the connective tissue surrounding your muscles. When it gets stiff, which habitually happens after a tough workout, your mobility decreases. So it makes sense to treat it.
SMR has analgesic properties, and in some cases has also been observed to decrease soreness by supposedly actively pumping out lymphatic pooling. What’s more, when SMR is used after the training session, it does not appear to have any negative repercussions on performance. A couple of studies are showing a negligible increase, too. I’d suggest trying it out after your workout if you have the time. At the very least, it could simply make you feel better, which is still a win in my books.
8. Static Stretching
Let’s put this long-lasting myth to the grave once and for all. Static stretching will not speed up healing, nor will it help with soreness, and this statement is backed by all the latest research. On the other hand, data neither supports nor contradicts its post-workout utilization, in the sense that it does not seem to have any negative effects on performance.
So, even though it is a questionable rehabilitation method, if it is a cool-down ritual you enjoy, have at it. Just make sure to manage your expectations recovery-wise.Static stretching will not speed up healing, nor will it help with soreness, and this statement is backed by all the latest research. Click To Tweet
Recovery is of paramount importance as far as performance is concerned. The younger you are, the more you can get away without it. But the more experienced and/or older you get, the more you need to focus on it. It is at this time that your body processes and adapts to the stimulus that was forced upon it.
Change your mindset. Instead of looking at your day off as unproductive time, realize that it’s actually the most beneficial part of your efforts. This is when growth happens. If you are a natural lifter, you have to remember: work hard, rest even harder. Embrace your recovery, tend to it, and watch your gains skyrocket.
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