8 Ways to Speed Up Workout Recovery

When you're serious about your training and your fitness goals, you're no stranger to tough workouts. You know that you have to put in the hard work to get the results you want. 

But whether you’re training for a specific event or are a fitness enthusiast who loves a challenge, it's important to know that time spent resting and recovering is just as important as the time you spend pushing yourself physically. Intense exercise puts strain and stress on the body, and even though we know exercise is "good" stress that has numerous health and fitness benefits, your body still reacts to it like almost any stressor. It's easy to overdo it if you aren't keeping your recovery in balance with your workloads. After all, it is during recovery—not the workout itself—that your body repairs and gets stronger from the stress you placed upon it.

Recovery, however, isn’t as simple as putting your feet up on the couch and relaxing on the weekend.  There are many things you can do, both immediately following a training session and in the days thereafter, to help speed up the recovery process—so you get even better results from your hard work. Here are some key areas to focus on if you want to make the most of your rest days.

Staying properly hydrated helps with faster recovery, since losing as little as 2% of one's body weight through sweat can have a negative effect on exercise performance.  Dehydration causes a decrease in blood volume and an increase in the rate of blood glycogen use, both of which lead to fatigue more quickly.  These effects are not only significant during the workout, but also affect recovery in the days after an intense exercise session. 

You lose a lot of water when you sweat, and it can be a substantial amount depending on environmental conditions, clothing choices and individual differences (some people naturally sweat more than others).  There are a number of ways to check your hydration status.  One is to weigh yourself just before and right after exercise.  Any weight you lose during your workout is likely fluid loss, so drinking enough ounces to replenish what you've lost will help you stay hydrated. Another way to monitor your hydration status is by checking the color of your urine.  It should look like a lemon was squeezed in it (or lighter).  The darker it is, the more dehydrated you are. 

Here are the American Council on Exercise’s hydration guidelines for before, during and after workouts:
  • Drink 17-20 ounces of fluid two to three hours before the start of exercise.
  • Drink 8 ounces of fluid 20 to 30 minutes prior to exercise or during your warm-up.
  • Drink 7-10 ounces of fluid every 10 to 20 minutes during exercise.
  • Drink an additional 8 ounces of fluid within 30 minutes after exercising.
  • Drink 16-24 ounces of fluid for every pound of body weight lost after exercise.
Again, these are general guidelines.  Some people might find drinking so much makes them feel sick during or after the workout, while others need to drink more.  Using the techniques above combined with these recommendations will help determine the right fluid intake for your individual needs. 

Fuel for a Faster Recovery
The most important window for replenishing glycogen is the four to five hours immediately after a vigorous exercise session. During this time, the enzymes responsible for this process are more active and effective.  Sports nutritionists recommend that active people eat about 250-300 calories (with a 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein) within 90 minutes after working out. This breaks down to about 50-60 grams of carbs and 12-15 grams of protein.  For examples of some healthy post-workout foods, check out What to Eat After You Work Out.

Research has shown that specific foods might help minimize muscle damage, reduce inflammation and help the body recover more quickly after exercise. Here are a few to consider:
  • According to a study published in the journal Nutrients, cyclists who drank tart cherry juice concentrate before a three-day simulated race experienced less inflammation and oxidative stress compared to those who drank another beverage.
  • Ingesting blueberries before a workout might aid in muscle recovery after exercise, according to a recent study.  Blueberries appear to exhibit both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.   
  • The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research published a study in which consumption of pomegranate juice improved isometric strength recovery after an eccentric strength workout. Find pomegranate recipes here.
  • Low-fat chocolate milk consists of a 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio, and provides fluids and sodium to aid in post-workout recovery.  Consuming chocolate milk immediately after a workout, and again at two hours post-exercise, appears to be optimal for exercise recovery and may inhibit muscle damage. 
Go to Sleep
Besides scheduling regular rest days from exercise, sleep also plays a crucial role in your body's ability to bounce back from the stress of working out and getting stronger. The exact amount of sleep needed for optimal workout recovery will vary for every exerciser depending on age, lifestyle, and workout intensity.  General health recommendations say healthy adults need 7-9 hours per night, but athletes can need even more.  An extra hour of sleep, as well as an afternoon nap can make a big difference when it comes to how you feel and how you perform.  Adequate sleep can improve speed, accuracy and reaction time in athletes, too.  When you sleep too little, levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) can rise—and that slows down healing, increases injury risk and reduces your body's level of growth hormone, which is needed for repair.

Keep Moving (within Moderation) 
Although it’s tempting to veg out after a hard workout, research has found that participating in active recovery—engaging in easy, low-intensity activity—the day or two after a workout helps reduce blood lactate levels and muscle soreness more quickly than being sedentary. Moving your body boosts circulation, which increases blood and nutrient flow to muscles that were damaged during high-intensity workouts. 

Sometimes you might be exhausted from the previous day’s workout, and in those cases, it’s OK to listen to your body and truly rest.  But on those days when your energy level is good, some light movement can benefit the body and help keep you in a regular routine.  If you end up turning your planned walk into a run because you feel like you need to push yourself, that can do more harm than good over time.  It’s better to alternate lower and higher intensity workout days so that your body gets the time that it needs to recover.

Practice Periodization
Even the world’s top athletes don’t go all-out in their workouts 365 days a year.  Referred to as periodization, they regularly change up their workouts and workout schedules, often allowing for longer stretches of down time at least once or twice a year.  Short-term periodization involves alternating easy and difficult workouts each week to challenge your body while still giving it time to rest.  Long-term involves preparing for a specific event over weeks or months, then scheduling a break (usually at least a week or sometimes longer) before a new training cycle begins.  This break doesn’t mean completely refraining from exercise, but the workouts during this rest period are lower intensity and put much less stress on the body.  This helps improve performance in the long run and decreases the risk of overuse injuries. 

Consider Cold Therapy
Many athletes use ice packs and, increasingly, ice baths after a strenuous workout to promote recovery and reduce muscle soreness.  The theory is that applying cold constricts blood vessels, reduces metabolic activity and reduces inflammation.  When the re-warming process begins after the cold therapy session, blood vessels dilate which improves circulation and speeds up the healing process.  The most common recommendation is a 5-10 minute immersion in temperatures ranging from 47-56 degrees Fahrenheit.      

Although many fitness enthusiasts swear by this method of recovery, research results are mixed.  For example, a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that ice-water immersion offered no real benefit and may actually have increased muscle soreness after a heavy weight-training session.  Some experts feel that decreasing inflammation using such extreme temperatures interferes with the body’s natural healing process.  While most agree that this isn’t a technique you’d want to use after every strenuous workout, it could be something to try after a particularly hard session to see how your body responds.

*A few words of caution regarding ice bathsTo avoid cold-induced muscle damage, do not stay in longer than about 10 minutes.  Ice baths that are too cold can cause fainting, so check the temperature from time to time.  Those with certain medical conditions should not use ice baths, so check with your doctor first if you’re not sure. 

Roll Out
Foam rolling has been shown to increase blood flow, reduce muscle tightness, increase range of motion and alleviate trigger points (knots in the muscles that keep them from performing at peak levels).  Self-myofascial release (done with a foam roller) gives the ability to put pressure in precise locations to break up knots and release muscle tension.  A recent study published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that foam rolling decreased muscle soreness and increased range of motion after an intense weight training session. 

For more information, check out Coach Nicole’s foam roller videos and demos.  

Massage Your Muscles
According to experts, a good pre- or post-workout massage does more than enhance well-being. Research shows it can also increase endurance, reduce perceived exertion, increase perceived recovery and improve athletic performance.  While massage might help with DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), it does not remove the waste byproducts of exercise (such as lactic acid).  Therefore it won’t necessarily help with faster physical recovery, but can provide psychological benefit after strenuous exercise, which can be just as useful for exercisers.   

While many of these recovery methods are worth trying, keep in mind that every individual responds differently.  What works for one person might not work for another.  That’s why it’s important to experiment until you find the best recovery strategy based on your body, how it makes you feel and how it affects your performance. 

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McLeay, Y., Barnes, M.J., Mundel, T., Hurst, S.M., Hurst, R.D., Stannard, S.R. "Effect of New Zealand blueberry consumption on recovery from eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage," Journal of International Social Sports Nutrition.

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Trombold, J.R., Reinfeld, A.S., Casler, J.R., Coyle, E.F. "The effect of pomegranate juice supplementation on strength and soreness after eccentric exercise," Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.