We all know the feeling about 1 day after a solid workout session, where the muscle aches and stiffness starts to kick in, and you find yourself waddling around like a penguin after leg day, or need a helping hand to rip off your sports bra after training upper body. The struggle is all too real.
Even if you’re not overly sore as such (which by the way, is not a great indicator of the quality of your workout anyway), it’s not uncommon to feel a bit rundown between sessions if you’re not dedicating enough time to recovery.
Renowned Exercise Physiologist and Sports Scientist Tony Boutagy shares his top tips to help you speed up the muscle recovery process and sooth the soreness.
What does insufficient recovery look like?
Tony points out that the main signs of insufficient recovery include, ongoing soreness, fatigue, irritability and agitation, having problems sleeping, compromised performance, and a resulting lack of motivation to continue with your fitness plan.
If you're familiar with these symptoms, it's important to take a step back and give your body time to repair and recover so you can bounce back feeling stronger.
By taking the time to understand the most effective recovery strategies for your body and implementing them into your routine, you can train much harder, more effectively, and most importantly – with a higher degree of consistency.
How to recover wisely
Numerous methods have been used for decades in hopes to accelerate recovery between workouts and reduce the discomfort of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Before jumping right into these strategies, it’s very important to remember that not all of these are created equal. Some methods, while helping alleviate soreness and other negative symptoms, can unfortunately also undermine the adaptation to exercise when performed too close to your workout.
This is because exercise essentially induces a number of stressors, damage, and inflammatory responses in the muscle. Research shows that all these stressors play a very important role in the reaction of muscle tissue and the remodeling process that occurs in the critical hours after the session is finished.
Because of that, although this may seem counter-intuitive, we don’t actually want to overuse recovery methods that blunt this essential stress-response – as this is detrimental for exercise adaptation, meaning you get less out of your session.
So broadly, recovery methods can be broken down into 2 categories: those you can implement right after the session, and those that are best left for at least a few hours after.
After your session
Here are a few recovery methods that you can apply immediately after exercise, without worrying about interfering with exercise adaptation:
Keep your body moving. Active recovery means performing low-intensity exercise following a strenuous workout. It sounds fancy, but is basically all about moving your body as opposed to doing your best impression of a couch potato after a challenging session. Some examples of active recovery include walking, gentle yoga, or leisurely swimming.
Getting a massage can really boost your recovery. In a recent analysis of 1700 studies, massage was deemed the most effective strategy compared to stretching, self-myofascial release, compression garments, and many other techniques (although all demonstrated good results).
Stretching is a great way to enhance recovery and improve your flexibility. You can find a Library of stretching routines in the MWU App and add them to your Workout Planner. Head to the Live Workouts to find more guided stretch sessions by Coach Morgan and pilates trainer Alexis.
Foam rolling is another beneficial recovery technique that can help to reduce DOMS and stimulate blood flow to the muscles you just trained. Foam rolling will help alleviate tightness, tension and reduce inflammation of muscle tissues, as well as help to increase your range of motion. Research some foam rolling routines rather than going through random motions, as this can sometimes be harmful.
- And last but not least, your post-workout nutrition can also play an important role in recovery. Research shows that rehydration, protein, and carbohydrates together all improve both recovery and adaptation to exercise.
Post workout hydration & nutrition
Guidelines for post workout hydration recommend replacing 150% of the water weight lost during your training session in the hours after training. So, if you see people at the gym weighing themselves before and after a session, that's most likely to estimate how much fluid they’ve lost to replenish it accordingly. Unless you perform very intense workouts and/or train outdoors in hot weather, this level of precision may not be required, but definitely always remember to drink plenty of fluids after exercising.
With regards to macronutrient intake, recent research shows that unless you’re a professional athlete or perform multiple training sessions each day, the most important factor is hitting your overall daily nutrition targets.
If you’re someone who prefers to follow nutrient timing, you can definitely try consuming more protein and carbs around your workout and see if it makes a difference. For protein, well-accepted recommendations suggest having around 0.4g of protein per kg of body mass after exercise and a similar amount several hours later.
Research also suggests that the addition of having carbohydrates with the protein may provide additional benefits to just eating protein alone. Consuming around 1.2 g total carbohydrates per kg of body weight soon after training is a good place to start, although you can have a bit more or less, depending on your overall targets.
Remember though that these are just guidelines, and individualised approach may vary. So long as you’re consuming plenty of carbs and protein around your sessions and hitting your daily requirements, you’re on the right track.
Another nutrition strategy to improve recovery is ensuring you’re consuming enough magnesium in your diet. Most studies show that your recovery and performance is most benefitted when 300-600g of elemental magnesium is consumed per day.
However, applying magnesium externally with creams, sprays, or baths doesn’t appear to be as beneficial, and evidence around these methods is incredibly mixed.
Ultimately your best bet is consuming enough magnesium from whole foods - some great sources include almonds, spinach, cashews, avocado and oats. If your dietary intake is not sufficient, your doctor may recommend taking an oral supplementation of magnesium tablets too.
In the following hours after training
Here’s a few recovery strategies that you may want to leave for the hours following your workout (6+ hours):
- Wearing compression garments
- Cold water immersion, such as ice baths or plunge pools
- Heat exposure, such as a heat/infrared sauna or hot tub
- Contrast hot/cold therapy
Many of these methods are aimed more at very advanced trainers, so don't feel like you must follow them to achieve the best recovery results. Experiment with a few methods and find what feels best for you and your lifestyle.
A few words on sleep
Having a good sleep routine is such a simple yet under-appreciated aspect of recovery. Sports and exercise sleep experts advocate for 8-9 hours of sleep each night.
If your lifestyle permits, adding a short nap in the day can provide additional benefits for recovery but understandably it's not feasible for everyone.
When your sleep time is compromised, this can really undermine your fitness performance and overall progress, as well as negatively affect your mental health and stress levels.
So don't be discouraged if you're experiencing muscle soreness after some tough training. Implement some of these strategies to aid your recovery and allow your body the time it needs before getting back into your routine.
With consistency, your body will start to adapt to the exercise you're doing and you'll begin to feel more refreshed after each workout.
As always, pay attention to your body and choose the movement and recovery strategies that suit you.