Working out regularly and intensively is the key to a chiseled body and peak physical fitness. However, if you want to get into the best possible shape and avoid injuries, allowing your muscles some time to recover is essential. With the right approaches, you may be able to speed up muscle recovery after a workout and improve your overall fitness in no time.
4 Steps for Post-Workout Muscle Recovery
In this article, we discuss five tips to speed up and enhance the effects of your post-workout recovery. Whether you work out by yourself at home or at a gym – with or without a personal trainer – it is important to give yourself a few minutes afterward to recover. Your muscles need the time to rest and to adjust after intense training.
1. Drink Lots of Fluids and Hydrate
Any fitness enthusiast knows the importance of proper hydration prior, during, and following an intensive dose of physical activity. It is confirmed by science as well.
It is important to drink plenty of fluids during all those crucial times if you want to avoid getting dehydrated which is associated with muscle fatigue, reduced performance, and other complications. Proper hydration also reduces the risk of heat illness when exercising in warm weather.
Unfortunately, many gym-goers focus on drinking water before their routine and forget to do it afterward as well. Others have a bad habit of only drinking water when they feel thirsty, which is not recommended.
If you are a fan of sports drinks enhanced with electrolytes or any other kind of post-exercise recovery drinks, popping open a Gatorade may help you as well. Of note, a recent systematic review and meta-analysis found that chocolate milk (which contains protein, carbohydrates, fats, water, and electrolytes) may be a good post-workout recovery drink.
Nevertheless, keep that in mind that at the end of the day, there’s nothing more beneficial than plain H2O.
2. Get a Good Night’s Sleep
It’s no secret that getting plenty of rest is the key to both mental and physical health. But did you know that the lack of it can greatly hinder the course of your muscular recovery? And, it can reduce your overall athletic performance.
A 2018 systematic review of published studies suggest that sleep interventions, such as sleep extension, can play an important role in some aspects of athletes’ performance and recovery.
Therefore, getting seven to eight hours of shut-eye per night may be important when you want to avoid any training-related complications.
If your schedule allows for it, try to sneak in a few afternoon snoozes during the week as well. Waiting two hours after a workout and then taking a quick 20-minute power nap restores the muscles, but it also won’t inhibit your nocturnal slumber.
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3. Focus on Your Protein Intake
Protein is the number one muscle repairing nutrient that you should be sure to incorporate in your diet. Instead of adding supplements to your smoothies, focus on getting your daily intake of protein from whole foods such as eggs, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, and lean cuts of meat. These versatile ingredients make great snacks or full meals that will help with your recovery.
It is also important to consume a snack that is rich in protein before bed so that your muscles repair over time. The essential amino acids that are metabolized from this macronutrient not only bulk up your brawn but also diminish the sensation of soreness you would otherwise get the next day.
By the way, don’t forget about your pre- and post-workout protein intake either.
4. Plan Your Rest Days Accordingly
When it comes to rest days, the general rule is to maintain a healthy gap of 48 hours between workouts if you are a fan of more physically demanding routines. Of course, this is not a universal rule. Rather it is a guideline that you can abide by or tailor to suit your personal needs and preferences.
Never forget about stretching, especially during recovery days. In time, this habit will help with your muscle recovery and won’t be a burden any longer.
Depending on your age and skill level, you might require less time to rest or more. If you find yourself taking longer pauses, try to squeeze in a couple of active recovery days each week.
These consist of light exercises, such as yoga or tai chi so that you don’t lose track of your fitness goals. It will also help you relax and recharge your batteries at the same time.
However, if you feel an injury coming on, it is best to listen to your body and take some days off.
Cold baths: helpful or harmful?
Until recently, some trainers and other fitness experts recommended cold water immersion (CWI) to help recover from a workout. It was believed that it could help reduce muscle fatigue and soreness in the short-run. And, indeed, some early studies cited as suggesting a benefit include these:
- Burke et al (2000) found that cold water immersion augmented strength gains after 5 days of training.
- Ilhsan et al (2015) found that there were increased markers of mitochondrial biogenesis in muscle. This suggesting that perhaps there could be an increased capacity for energy production. [Note: our better understanding of the mTOR pathways today actually suggests this put cells into a anti-growth mode instead.]
*However, a 2015 paper, titled “Post-exercise cold water immersion attenuates acute anabolic signaling and long-term adaptations in muscle to strength training” was published in the Journal of Physiology tells a different story. It described two separate studies done by the research team:
Study 1was a randomized controlled trial of 24 physically active young men who volunteered to participate in a 12-week lower body strength training program. Half of the men performed cold water immersion within 10 minutes of the training session. The other half participated in active recovery (10 minutes on a stationary cycle at low intensity). The study found that both groups increased muscle mass accretion (measured by muscle biopsy) and strength but it was significantly greater in the active recovery compared with the CWI group.
Study 2 was a randomized, cross-over study of 10 physically active young men who performed two bouts of single-leg strength exercise on separate days followed by either CWI or active recovery. Examination of muscle biopsies revealed that CWI “delayed and/or suppressed the activity of satellite cells and kinases in the mTOR pathway. mTOR is a key intracellular regulatory protein. The effect lasted for up to 2 days after strength exercise.
The authors concluded:
“The use of cold water immersion as a regular post-recovery strategy should be reconsidered.”
The Bottom Line When It Comes to Muscle Recovery
To naturally enhance your muscles’ recovery period do the following:
- Stay well hydrated by drinking water frequently not just when you feel thirsty
- Get a good night’s sleep and toss in some power naps after your workout
- Mind what you eat and be sure to include plenty of protein
- Be sure to include rest days tailored according to your personal needs and preferences
- Stretch frequently, particularly on rest days. Also, consider adding in a light exercise like yoga or tai chi on those days as well
With the right approach, you will reach your fitness goals sooner than expected.
This story was first published on Aug 5, 2018. It has been medically reviewed and updated for republication on July 11, 2020.
*This is a key correction to the prior version of this story when it was republished on July 11, 2020. Article updated and republished Aug. 6, 2020.