When most of us think of how to get more results from our workouts, we think of pushing harder, lifting heavier, going further. And there is a time and place for all that, if you’re looking to increase performance. But the “less sexy,” just as important component of training, which can get completely overlooked by many, is muscle recovery. Today, we’re talking about what muscle recovery is, why it is important, and how to speed up muscle recovery to get the biggest benefits from your workouts.
What is Muscle Recovery?
Put simply, strenuous exercise taxes our body. This sounds bad, but it’s actually a good thing: there’s something called a hermetic effect, which means that something that stresses our system at a low level can actually help it grow stronger and develop capacity to withstand greater stress. It’s that old “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” adage, and as long as you’re not taking it to extremes, and you are allowing adequate recovery, some physical strain on your body is a good thing!
Strength building, in particular, is taxing to your muscle fibers. Lifting heavy weights or doing intense bodyweight strength exercise causes mini tears in your muscle fibers, which is part of why you feel sore. As you allow for muscle recovery, though, those mini tears heal, and the muscle fibers grow back stronger. Yay! In fact, your muscles are so busy repairing themselves after a workout that research shows muscle protein synthesis goes up by 50% during the four hours after intense resistance training. The recovery period is critical to make sure we are not overly fatigued or sore, and are able to build up muscle rather than just break it down.
Why is Muscle Recovery Important?
If you want to grow stronger, you need to allow muscle fibers to rebuild as discussed above. But even if pure strength isn’t a goal, muscle recovery is important for overall health! Having constantly fatigued muscles can contribute to inflammation, which can cause that “puffy” and sore feeling throughout your body, increase stress, decrease mood, and contribute to chronic conditions down the road.
Not allowing for adequate recovery also leaves muscles prone to injury. When the mini tears are not allowed to properly heal, they can turn into larger tears, which can lead to pulled or torn muscles. They can even lose strength and lead to more complications like an altered gait or pressure on your skeletal system. We want those muscles to recover!
How to Speed Up Muscle Recovery
When it comes to how to speed up muscle recovery, there are 3 heavy hitters, and then several bonus tips. If you’re just starting out, a supplement or a tool won’t do the trick – you must start with the 3 heavy hitters. Once you have those nailed, feel free to add on more!
3 Heavy Hitters for Speeding Up Muscle Recovery
- Prioritize nutrient-dense foods ALL the time. Ultraprocessed foods inhibit recovery because they take a lot of work for the body’s detoxification systems to process, leaving less energy to reduce inflammation and build muscle fibers. They also tend to spike blood sugar more than whole foods, and this can lead to improper insulin levels that can inhibit muscle recovery. Vegetables and fruits, on the other hand, are loaded with antioxidants, which can help reduce free radicals generated by exercise and reduce inflammation throughout the body.
- Get good quality sleep. Sleep deprivation (either quality or quantity) can impair your body’s ability to clear inflammation and inhibit muscle recovery. Prioritizing time in bed is important, and improving the quality of those hours is even more important. Here are my tips on improving sleep quality naturally.
- Ensure adequate hydration. I’m always all about adequate hydration, but when we’re talking about muscle recovery, it becomes all the more important. Without adequate hydration, muscle protein synthesis is delayed, and circulation (which helps remove inflammation and toxic byproducts of exercising) can be reduced. To calculate the number of ounces of water you should drink daily, I recommend taking half your body weight in pounds, and adding 16 ounces for every hour of exercise you do daily.
Bonus Tips for Speeding Up Muscle Recovery
- Focus on protein immediately post workout. For the average exerciser, slamming a protein shake the moment you step out of the gym is not necessary, but if you’re looking for muscle growth specifically, adequate protein intake within 30-60 minutes can be helpful. I recommend 20-35g of protein (about the amount found in a chicken breast or average scoop of protein powder) immediately post workout if you won’t be having a meal for 2 hours or more. If you will be eating a regular meal soon after, and overall health and tone is your goal, then just being sure to include protein in your meal is adequate.
- Refuel with carbohydrates post workout. We tend to be most insulin sensitive (a good thing, meaning our bodies respond to the insulin secreted and are able to shuttle sugar in the blood into our cells for use to fuel our activities) post-workout, so if you’re going to enjoy a high carb meal anytime, post-workout is a good time to do so. If you’re prioritizing performance (like training for a marathon or Crossfit competition) or you’re doing another workout within 8 hours of finishing your current workout, a load of carbohydrates post-workout is also beneficial. Combining your post-workout protein with some carbohydrates also maximizes the benefit of the insulin response from your workout, and helps shuttle amino acids into muscles to speed up muscle recovery. To top off your glycogen stores and be sure you’re ready for that next session, go for about 30-50g carbohydrates (about the amount in 0.5-1 cup of cooked rice or 1-1.5 large bananas) within an hour of finishing the workout.
- Consider amino acid My favorite supplement for muscle recovery is Kion essential amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, which is required to rebuild muscles, and Kion’s blend of essential amino acids contains all of the amino acids that your body can’t make on its own. Taking these amino acids gives me more energy before a workout, helps me not catabolize (break down) muscle during the workout, and helps me recover more quickly. I pop 2-3 capsules (or ½-1 scoop of powder) right before my workout.
- Consider drinking tart cherry juice. Tart cherry juice has been shown to reduce inflammation, muscle damage, and muscle soreness when taken post-workout.
- Wear compression socks. Research is mixed on whether or not compression gear improves athletic performance, but it is conclusive that compression socks can improve circulation and enhance recovery. This 2013 blog post talks more about the benefits. I currently wear compression sleeves (just over the calves, not the knees or feet) every single night to help my body recover.
- Don’t train the same muscle group every day. Most strength programs have 1-3 days per week hitting any given muscle group, and this is for a reason. Our muscles need rest between heavy lifting to be sure they can repair, before tearing again. Of course, low strain activities like brisk walks can be done every day (as long as you’re feeling up for it, physically). But if you’re lifting heavy, don’t have leg day every day! Give those muscles a chance to repair between sessions.
- Treat yourself to massages. Not only does massage feel great, but it can prevent delayed onset muscle soreness, work out any kinks or knots in your muscles, enhance range of motion, and improve circulation so you feel ready to get back to your workouts the next day! At home, I use the foam roller (I have this one) daily, as well as a Rapid Release tool that I was incredibly lucky to be gifted by my parents during my extreme plantar fasciitis.
- Brave the cold. Cold exposure, particularly cryotherapy, has been shown to reduce inflammation, pain, and muscle fatigue after strenuous exercise. Back in my triathlon days (I finished a half ironman in 2019), and completed 47 half marathons and 5 marathons prior to that!), I would go to cryotherapy after intense workouts, and I really do think it helped my recovery. These days, with less endurance activity in my routine, I still take cold showers 2-3 times per week to speed muscle recovery. Ice baths also work if you’re brave!
- Incorporate active recovery. Believe it or not, the day after a tough workout, it’s actually not ideal to park it on the couch all day. A bit of active recovery, in the form of a brisk walk, some gentle stretching or yoga, a swim, a dance party, or anything else that gets the blood flowing, will increase circulation and allow your body to better recover. So, don’t lift heavy on the same body part two days in a row, but be sure you get moving every day!
- Consider a natural anti-inflammatory aid. One of the most potent anti-inflammatories in the world is turmeric, which is the basis for the yellow coloring of many curry dishes. You can load up on lots of turmeric in your food (you rarely taste it in smoothies), or supplement with turmeric daily, as I do. I take this one.
Now it’s your turn … What do you do to prioritize muscle recovery? Which of these tips do you think would help you most?