Are you dealing with muscle soreness after a tough workout? Learn these simple strategies for a faster recovery.
Whether you’re a regular gym goer or a weekend warrior, a big workout can result in several days of muscle pain. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) results from thousands of microscopic tears in your muscle fibers, and this damage needs treatment and time to heal.1
Learning simple methods for accelerating your recovery can relieve some of this muscle soreness, stiffness, and fatigue. In turn, proper recovery can help avoid feelings of demotivation which might harm your fitness program. So, try some of these remarkably simple ways to both prepare your body for a workout, and to heal your tired muscles afterward. Learn how to recover faster after a workout below.
Simple Strategies For Recovering Faster After A Workout: Hydration And Rest
Efficient workout recovery depends on several simple methods which work hand-in-hand. The foundation of recovery is laid down before your workout even starts: being hydrated and well rested means that your body becomes less depleted during exercise, and this necessitates a smaller recovery effort.
Proper hydration means more than downing an expensive electrolyte drink after your workout. It starts by showing up hydrated and continuing to hydrate during and after your workout. In hot conditions, you may not be able to replenish fluids quickly enough to meet your body’s needs. In this case, it is especially important to hydrate beforehand so that you don’t lose too much water.2
By the time you get sweaty and thirsty (in a long workout), it may be too late for your body to absorb enough liquids to replace those lost. If you know it’s going to be a long workout, be sure to start drinking early, before you feel thirsty, so your body can replenish what you’re sweating out. Muscle recovery takes some time, so continue to hydrate after exercise. Also remember that:
- Drinking alcohol will further dehydrate your system.
- You can only absorb so much water at a time, so drinking a gallon of water at the end of a workout won’t be as effective as drinking small amounts throughout your workout.
- Water absorption is at its most efficient when the water is cool (between 40℉ and 60℉).3
- Scientists recommend 16 cups (128 oz / 3.8 liters) of water per day for a man, and 11 (88 oz / 2.6 liters) for a woman.4 Additional exercise-related hydration will increase these amounts. Ask your doctor about your unique water requirements.
Additionally, try to get a good night’s sleep before a big workout. As well as speeding your muscle recovery, rest helps you stay alert, which makes you less likely to injure yourself during training.5 Sleep also helps guard against fatigue during longer workouts.6
Warm-up And Cool Down: Focus On The Same Muscle Groups
Set aside five minutes at the beginning of your workout to warm up, and another five at the end to cool down.
Warm-ups are essential for getting your blood moving and helping your muscles to literally warm up so that you are operating at peak performance. A good warm-up activity uses the same muscle groups that will be the focus of your workout.7 One easy warm-up option is to do your workout exercise at a slower pace and lower intensity. So, if you’re going running, warm up by walking and then slowly jogging. For strength training, try a mix of moderate squats, lunges, and push ups, so that all your main muscle groups are targeted.8
After you’ve warmed up, stretch out the muscle tissue that you will use in your workout.9
Cooling down is as important as warming up. It prevents your heart rate and blood pressure from dropping too rapidly, which could cause light-headedness.10 Approach your cool-down by taking your workout down a notch during the last five minutes. If you’re running, transition through jogging to walking. If you’re lifting, switch to lighter weights for your final reps. At the end of your cool down, stretch out the muscles you were focusing on. This will help your body adjust from its high performance state to a more sedentary state, and reduce the likelihood of DOMS.
Accelerating The Recovery Process: Nutrition, Recovery Drinks, Heat, And Cold
Eating the right foods is another important part of muscle recovery, and that means a balance of carbohydrates and proteins. Carbs replenish your body’s energy stores and proteins help muscle growth. Three parts carbs to one part protein is a good ratio, and it’s best to consume them together, as this encourages insulin secretion which in turn aids the recovery of glycogen, your body’s energy store.11 Some good post-workout carbs include:
- Pasta, rice, and potatoes
- Dark, leafy vegetables
The building of new proteins (known as protein synthesis) helps to build muscle and continues for as long as 48 hours after a workout. However, the best time to eat protein is the ‘window’ which begins when you complete your final exercise, and extends for about two hours.12 Here are some of the best post-workout proteins:13
- Salmon (22g protein per 3oz/75g fillet; wild-caught has slightly more than farmed)
- Chicken (54g protein per 6oz/150g breast)
- Eggs (6.3g protein each)
- Greek yogurt (5.7-8.5g protein per 100g, depending on the type)
Alongside carbs and proteins, drinking the right liquids can help you to feel better faster.14 One surprising choice is chocolate milk, which replenishes carbohydrates and electrolytes. A serving of tart (unsweetened) cherry juice is full of antioxidants which can help reduce inflammation.15 Coconut water is another delicious, healthy recovery drink.16
Cold and heat are also great ways to help sore and stiff muscles recover. After your workout, apply cold packs to swollen muscles, as this constricts blood flow and reduces inflammation. If you’re feeling stiff the next day, hot pads might help to loosen things up.17,18
Active Rest: Recovery Day Workouts
After an intense workout, you might want to lie on the couch for a couple of days, but your body will reward a more active approach. A lower-intensity workout on a recovery day will give your muscles a chance to repair themselves while still encouraging blood flow and circulation and eliminating lactic acid buildup.19,20 Remember that while these workouts are lower-intensity, you should still warm up and cool down.
If you’re feeling reluctant, try to make your recovery days gentle and fun. Try stretching exercises, household chores, or fun time with friends. Some good options include:
- Yoga: Add mindfulness and stretching to your exercise. Poses can be easy or challenging to suit your mood and how your body feels.21
- Walking or cycling: Whether running errands or enjoying nature, these are low-stress ways to get in some gentle exercises.
- Go to the pool with friends: Swimming takes pressure off your joints, and hanging out with friends makes exercise fun.22
Make The Foam Roller Your Friend For An Active Recovery
Part of the standard physical therapy arsenal, foam rollers can be used effectively and safely at home, too.23 You don’t need anything fancy to achieve some self-myofascial release; a foam roller, massage stick, lacrosse ball, or similar object will work just fine.24 Remember that pain doesn’t always mean gain, so when in doubt, roll gently.
The benefits of a foam rolling massage can include:
- Supporting tissue recovery
- Aiding and relaxing sore muscles
- Supporting improved range of motion25,26
When you’re properly prepared for your workout, muscle damage and pain need not be the inevitable results of intensive exercise. By staying hydrated and rested, warming up and cooling down, and by ensuring a protein-rich meal after your workouts, you can relieve some of the stress on your muscles, leaving them toned, not tired.
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