Author: Raj Chander • Fact checked by: Tara D. Thies • May 6, 2021
Much of the popular health and fitness content online is focused on exercise techniques, workout schedules, and nutrition. While it's important to workout consistently for your overall health and wellness, exercise recovery is just as important. In fact, it's during the muscle recovery period that your body actually makes the muscle growth gains you earn from a tough workout. Through increased blood flow, the body adds new muscle tissue to repair the minor muscle damage caused by strength training or endurance exercise.
But this process doesn't take place until well after your training session. That's why your post-workout recovery process is so critical: Using the right techniques and giving yourself enough recovery time will help achieve your goals, whether your main purpose for working out is to add muscle or improve speed and performance. In this way, your rest days matter just as much as your training sessions when it comes to reaching your fitness goals.
Below, we'll get into some of the most important muscle recovery tactics that will help you ensure that your time out of the gym is just as valuable as the time you spend exercising.
Here are five proven ways to speed up muscle recovery:
Lots of people talk about their lifting splits or the best time of the day to train, but you won't hear as many fitness enthusiasts discussing how many days off they take. However, as mentioned above, rest days are almost as important as working days. The specific cadence of your rest days will vary depending on your age, experience in the gym, and daily schedule. The American Council on Exercise suggests taking at least one complete day off from intense physical activity every seven to ten days. Keep in mind that a rest day doesn't mean you have to avoid all physical activity. You can schedule some light cardio or bodyweight training on days that you don't perform a full workout. This is known as active recovery and can actually enhance your gains because it increases blood flow, which helps repair muscle tissue damagedamaged during a workout. The choice is ultimately yours when it comes to rest day frequency, but one or two days off each week will help your body take the downtime it needs for optimal muscle recovery.
It may seem simple, but one of the easiest ways to ensure adequate recovery is getting a good night's sleep. Sleep is an important period of time when your body repairs itself, contributing to those muscle gains you've worked for in the gym. Professional athletes like LeBron James and Roger Federer sleep as much as 12 hours per day, often with frequent naps. Most adults should get at least seven hours of sleep per night according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). If you're working out hard or participating in a sport or competition multiple times per week, you may need more. Start by aiming for seven hours of sleep per night and adjust as needed based on how you feel. Not only should you be sleeping for muscle recovery, it can help in other areas as well: studies associate poor sleep with weight gain and difficulty concentrating.
Consuming enough fluids is vital for everyone, no matter how often you exercise. But for those who hit the gym for tough workouts frequently, hydration is extra important because physical activity removes fluid from the body. As we've mentioned, you should be aiming to consume around 100 fluid ounces each day depending on where you live and your activity level. Research also suggests that dehydration can exacerbate the catabolic effects of exercise, a state in which your body will break down muscle tissue. It can also be a good idea to mix in some sports drinks with electrolytes and carbohydrates or protein powder shakes into your hydration routine, especially during competitions when you need to replenish the body quickly.
All three of the major macronutrients – fats, proteins and carbs – are important for improving your overall health and well-being. But protein specifically has been shown to increase muscle repair and synthesis activity in the body, particularly when added to a carbohydrate mix. There are plenty of great sources for protein, from protein powder shakes to lean meats to chocolate milk. You should program your consumption based on the specific kinds of proteins that you enjoy eating. Although everyone's daily protein intake target will be a bit different, people who are looking to add muscle mass should try to consume between 1.6 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. On days that you perform intense exercise, you may want to be on the higher side of that range.
To help you stay consistent with your protein intake, try to add it into your regular schedule – for example, plan to always have a protein shake after a workout or a few times per week in the morning before starting work. Creatine can be another good option for improving athletic performance and muscle recovery. You'll also want to ensure you consume enough branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), the building blocks of protein. Tart cherry juice is a great choice because it has all the important amino acids needed, especially leucine.
If you've ever been to the gym after a long break or exercised a body part that you usually don't focus on, you probably know the feeling of delayed onset muscle soreness, also known as DOMS. It's a feeling of tender, sore muscles that usually doesn't kick in until one, sometimes two days after an intense workout – hence the "delayed onset" part of the name! The exact biological conditions that cause DOMS still aren't well-understood, but it's believed that it has to do with small tears that develop in muscle tissue fascia after intense exercise. The body's response to these tears can cause mild muscle pain, soreness and stiffness.
One of the best ways to relieve some of the symptoms of DOMS is to use a foam roller. By using the foam roller, you are essentially giving yourself a massage to increase blood flow to the muscles and relieve soreness through a process known as myofascial release. Foam rolling is particularly useful on the lower body, but the same idea can be used anywhere with a smaller roller or even a tennis or lacrosse ball. Compression garments worn periodically on the relevant muscle groups can also be useful for achieving the same type of effect over time. Also popular on the market today are a number of different "massage gun" devices, which are handheld electric massage tools that you can use to give your muscles some relief when they are sore the next day after a hard workout. For especially bad cases of DOMS, you can use mild anti-inflammatory drugs like NSAIDs – non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicine such as aspirin or ibuprofen.
Everyone loves the feeling of getting their body moving, increasing their heart rate, and pushing through a difficult workout. However, the next day or few days can be pretty difficult, depending on the workout. Your post-exercise recovery process can be just as important when it comes to helping you make gains and minimize muscle recovery time. By using the tips presented here, you can minimize soreness and make the most out of your downtime so that you can get back to achieving the kind of fitness goals you desire.
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