An article by SWEAT on post-exercise care.
If you’ve been training hard, you may have experienced delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) — that crippling muscle ache in the days after a tough workout. While a fitness hangover can cramp your style, you don’t have to suffer if you’ve pushed yourself during your workouts.
Use these tips to improve the speed and quality of your muscle recovery so that you can keep working towards your health and fitness goals!
How to speed up muscle recovery
The Sweat trainers often receive questions from the Community about muscle soreness following a workout. Here are some proven tips to help you get back to training sooner:
Drinking water is essential for post-workout recovery, including muscle repair — but it’s not the only way you should rehydrate, according to the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Loughborough University in the UK. In a 2004 study on rehydration and recovery after exercise, they found “…rehydration will only be achieved if a volume of fluid in excess of the sweat loss is ingested together with sufficient electrolytes.”
Electrolytes include minerals like magnesium, potassium, calcium and sodium, and are found in most foods. These minerals are important for your nervous system, and they also get used up during muscle contraction.
You can get enough electrolytes for muscle recovery by implementing healthy eating habits and including plenty of fruits and vegetables.
Having a glass of milk, coconut water or a fruit smoothie after your workout can help replace electrolytes in your blood and aid recovery. If you have a very low-sodium diet, you could also add salt to lemon water in the morning.
Grab a post-workout snack
After a workout, having a snack that contains both carbohydrates and protein can help improve muscle recovery time by providing the nutrients your muscle tissue needs to begin repairing.
According to Sports Dietitians Australia (SDA), “…the urgency for carbohydrate and protein after exercise depends on how long you have until your next exercise session… [but] the body is most effective at replacing carbohydrates and promoting muscle repair and growth in the first ~60-90min after exercise.”
The options for quick, healthy snacks are endless — you can prepare a coffee smoothie ahead of time, or having some fruit with yoghurt can help to replenish your energy stores after a morning workout.
If you follow a plant-based diet, eating almonds, tofu, chickpeas and other high-protein foods can give your muscles the nutrients they need to repair.
A high-protein snack in the evening can aid muscle repair overnight.
Use a workout supplement
Some trainers and athletes use branch-chain amino acids (BCAAs). A 2010 study in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism showed that women who take BCAAs before a workout may have less post-workout soreness and shorter muscle recovery time.
For those who already follow a healthy diet, using supplements may not have a noticeable impact. This is because BCAAs are found in whole foods like eggs, tuna, yoghurt and milk — so what you eat before your workout can have an impact on your muscle recovery too!
Warm up before resistance training
According to Mayo Clinic in the USA, taking the time to complete an effective warm-up may “…help to reduce muscle soreness and lessen your risk of injury.” A proper warm-up is especially important before aerobic exercise and slow eccentric movements like deadlifts, pull-ups or single-arm rows where the muscle lengthens and contracts simultaneously.
You should include dynamic stretching before your workout to activate the muscles you are about to use — these exercises will gently lengthen and activate the muscles, helping to prevent overstretching, strain or injury during your workout.
Make time to cool down
Alongside a warm-up, Mayo Clinic recommends “…cooling down after your workout [to] allow for gradual recovery of preexercisse heart rate and blood pressure”. Taking 5-10 minutes to jog slowly or walk on the treadmill can help your body to cool down, especially if you’ve just completed a tough workout or a HIIT session.
Once your heart rate has slowed, static stretching — where you hold a stretch position — can help to improve your range of motion. Doing a short stretching session before bed may also help you to sleep better.
Foam roll and stretch
A 2019 Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Foam Rolling on Performance and Recovery and published in Frontiers of Physiology found that foam rolling before a workout can help to increase performance. You should also use dynamic stretches as part of your warm-up to prepare the muscles you are going to use in your workout.
For example, doing stretches and activations for your glutes before and after a leg workout can help to improve flexibility and maximise your training.
Taking the time on rest days to stretch tight hips can help reduce any discomfort, improve flexibility and support muscle recovery.
Elevate your legs
It’s typical to spend most of your time with your legs down, whether it’s sitting, standing, walking or running.
According to the University of Michigan Health in the USA, “when you elevate your legs, ideally at or above heart level, it helps keep the blood from pooling in your lower legs and improves blood flow to the rest of your body,” reducing swelling in the muscles. These calming yoga poses may also help to improve circulation.
Take a cool bath
When you work out you may cause microdamage to your muscles, which can result in swelling, inflammation and soreness. This process is normal, as the muscles are adapting to the workload and becoming stronger.
If you are still sore one or two days after your workout, taking a cool bath can help reduce inflammation and support muscle recovery.
Some athletes also believe that cryotherapy — a treatment that involves exposing the body to cold or near-freezing temperatures — may help to soothe muscle soreness. In a 2017 review of literature investigating the effect of whole-body cryotherapy (WBC) on recovery after exercise, researchers in Sydney, Australia found that “WBC may improve recovery from muscle damage, with multiple exposures more consistently exhibiting improvements in recovery from pain, loss of muscle function, and markers of inflammation and damage.”
Before trying any new treatment for muscle pain, for soreness that lasts more than five days, or if you have a very high level of pain, you should always seek advice from a health professional.
Don’t skip rest days
There are times when you just need to rest. Getting an early night and a good sleep can help to speed up the muscle repair process and leave you feeling refreshed the next day.
With any demanding physical activity, the American Council on Exercise (ACE) recommends “making sure to schedule at least one day of complete rest… every seven to 10 days” to allow your body to recover and adapt to the work done on the previous training days.
Light movement on your rest days can help to keep the blood circulating throughout your body, bringing nutrients to repair the muscles and assisting with the removal of metabolic waste products. A 2018 review of literature published in Frontiers in Physiology found that active recovery done within the first few days of a tough workout reduced the effects of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
You might take the stairs rather than the elevator or make time for 10 minutes of walking during the day.
Wear compression tights
A 2016 review of literature on whether compression garments are effective for the recovery of exercise-induced muscle damage that was published in a journal on Physiology & Behaviour found that wearing compression garments may aid in the recovery of exercise-induced muscle damage.
Compression clothing may also help to reduce your perception of muscle soreness and reduce the inflammation and swelling that cause soreness.
The tightness of the fabric can help to promote blood flow through the deeper blood vessels rather than those on the surface, which may aid with clearing waste and providing nutrients to the muscle fibres.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that your emotional and mental wellbeing can affect your muscle recovery.
When you are under stress, the body is focused on the stress response and doesn’t have the capacity to prioritise muscle recovery.
A 2014 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research looked at whether chronic mental stress moderates recovery of muscular function and somatic sensations: perceived energy, fatigue, and soreness after a bout of strenuous resistance exercise, over a four-day period. The results showed that “higher levels of stress resulted in lower recovery curves and, conversely, lower levels of stress were associated with superior levels of recovery.”.
Stress can also affect your sleep, eating patterns and general wellbeing. All of these things can impact your immune response, which is essential for muscle recovery.
You can take time to reduce stress in your life by using techniques like mindfulness and meditation.
Follow the principle of progressive overload
Your training program shouldn’t leave you feeling sore for days on end after each workout. Ideally, any resistance training program will gradually increase the intensity of each workout, within your limits.
By applying the principle of progressive overload, you will continually challenge your body without pushing it beyond its current threshold.
To ensure you continue to progress and improve, the Better Health Channel in Victoria, Australia advises “regular adjustments to the training variables, such as frequency, duration, exercises for each muscle group, number of exercises for each muscle group, sets and repetitions,” as well as ensuring you rest the muscle groups you train for at least 48 hours before training the same area again.
Listen to your body
Sometimes after a workout, one side of your body might feel tighter than the other. These imbalances can occur as a result of your lifestyle and habits. For example, if you are right or left-handed, one side will usually be stronger than the other. The weaker side may get tighter when you work out.
Take a moment after your workout to breathe and focus on how your body feels — then you can tailor your cool down to what your body needs that day. You might spend a little extra time stretching one area that’s tight and pay some attention to how it feels during your next workout.
Listening to your body also means knowing when to rest or back off from your workouts. Based on their findings, Sports Performance Bulletin says “…while technology to monitor performance and fatigue can be very useful, you shouldn’t neglect the basics of self-monitoring — not just how fatigued you feel, but also your enthusiasm for training.”
You should monitor for symptoms of overtraining if you are feeling extremely sore after a workout, have poor sleep, fatigue and a lowered immune system.