Muscle Recovery: 14 Proven Ways To Bounce Back
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 muscle aches are sometimes just part of challenging your body and getting stronger, there are things you can do to help. Use these tips to speed up your muscle recovery so 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 how to relieve sore muscles after a workout. Here are some proven tips to ease those aches and help you get back to your training sooner:
Drinking water is essential for your overall health and post-workout recovery, including muscle repair. It’s good to aim for about two litres of water a day, or more if you’re active, sweat a lot or live in a warm climate.
If you’re regularly working up a sweat, is water enough? According to a 2004 study on rehydration and recovery after exercise , you need to consume a volume of fluid greater than your sweat loss, together with consuming sufficient replacement 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 following healthy eating habits with 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.
Grab a post-workout snack
After a workout, having a snack that contains both carbohydrates and protein can help improve your muscle recovery time by providing the nutrients your muscle tissue needs to begin repairing.
According to Sports Dietitians Australia, the body is most effective at replacing carbohydrates and promoting muscle repair and growth in the first 60-90 minutes after you exercise. Although this continues for another 12-24 hours, maximising your recovery in that first 90-minute window is a great idea.
The options for quick, healthy snacks to replenish your energy stores are endless — you could whip up a smoothie ahead of time, have some fruit with yoghurt, enjoy peanut butter or eggs on toast, or opt for a protein powder shake if you’re in a rush and won’t have the chance to eat for a while.
Still hungry after dinner? A high-protein snack in the evening can fill the gap and aid muscle repair overnight.
Take a workout supplement
While we will always encourage you to get your nutrition from whole foods, some trainers and athletes supplement with 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 with sufficient protein, using supplements may not have a noticeable impact, as BCAAs are found in whole foods like eggs, animal protein, tofu, beans and dairy products.
Warm up before resistance training
Make sure your warm-up includes dynamic stretching to activate the muscles you are about to use, 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 your heart rate and blood pressure to gradually recover.
Taking 5-10 minutes to walk on the treadmill can help your body cool down, especially if you’ve just completed a tough workout or a HIIT session that really got your heart rate up!
Once your heart rate has slowed, static stretching — where you hold a stretch position — can help to improve your range of motion and prevent you from feeling so tight the following day. Have trouble sleeping? 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 found that foam rolling before and after a workout can also help improve performance.
Alongside dynamic stretching in your warm-up, foam rolling and stretching can improve flexibility and help you get the most out of your training.
Tight hips are a common issue, so taking the time to stretch and foam roll can help reduce any discomfort, improve flexibility and support your muscle recovery.
Elevate your legs
It’s typical to spend most of your time with your legs down, whether it’s sitting, standing, lying down, walking or running.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, elevating your legs or practising the legs-up-the-wall yoga pose can help with blood flow, swelling and the circulation of bodily fluids. Trying some calming yoga poses may also help to improve circulation.
Take a cool bath
Tough workouts can cause micro-tears in 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 or shower can help reduce inflammation and support 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 literature review investigating the effect of whole-body cryotherapy (WBC) on recovery after exercise, researchers found WBC may improve recovery from muscle damage, with improvements in muscle pain and recovery tending to come more consistently from multiple exposures.
If you have a very high level of pain, soreness that lasts more than five days, or want to try a new treatment, you should always seek advice from a healthcare professional.
Don’t skip rest days
Alongside getting good sleep, prioritising your rest days can also help to speed up the muscle repair process and leave you feeling refreshed and ready to take on your next workout.
With any demanding physical activity, the American Council on Exercise (ACE) recommends scheduling at LEAST one day of complete rest (as opposed to an active recovery day) every 7-10 days to allow your body to recover and adapt. If you feel like you need more rest - take it. Your body knows best!
Light movement in between your workouts can help to keep the blood circulating throughout your body, bringing nutrients to repair the muscles and assisting with the removal of metabolic waste.
A 2018 literature review 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, do some stretching, or try to hit your daily step count.
Wear compression tights
Research from 2019 on the effects of compression garments on recovery observed significant positive effects on performance, with researchers recommending athletes wear compression tights immediately after intense exercise based on these results.
Compression clothing may also help to reduce your perception of muscle soreness and reduce inflammation and swelling.
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.
Did you know that your emotional and mental wellbeing can affect your muscle recovery?
When you’re under stress, your body is focused on its stress response and has less capacity to prioritise muscle recovery.
A 2014 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research looked at whether chronic mental stress affects muscle recovery, perceived energy, fatigue, and soreness after strenuous resistance exercise, over a four-day period.
The results showed that higher levels of stress resulted in lower recovery and, conversely, lower levels of stress were associated with superior recovery.
Stress can also impact everything from your sleep to eating patterns, hormones and general wellbeing. All of these things can impact your immune response, which is essential for muscle recovery.
If you’re under a lot of stress, try using techniques like mindfulness and meditation, yoga, or make the time for hobbies you enjoy. Your stress levels can be impacted by a number of internal and external factors, and if it’s having a consistently negative impact on your daily life, reach out to a healthcare professional.
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. This involves regular adjustments to your workout volume, intensity, density and frequency.
Remember, just because your muscles don’t hurt doesn’t mean you didn’t work hard or aren’t making progress!
Listen to your body
Sometimes during or after a workout, certain areas of your body might feel tighter. These imbalances can occur as a result of factors such as your lifestyle, habits, anatomy and previous injuries.
For example, if you’re right or left-handed, one side will usually be stronger than the other and the weaker side may feel tighter. You might have tight shoulders from working at a computer all day, or a weak knee from an old running injury!
Take a moment after your workout to breathe and focus on how your body feels — then you can tailor your cool down based on what your body needs. 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 reduce the intensity of your workouts, even if your training program or fitness watch says to keep going!
Based on their findings, Sports Performance Bulletin says that while technology can be a useful way to monitor performance and fatigue, you should never neglect the power of self-monitoring. Only YOU know how you truly feel - both in relation to fatigue, soreness and enthusiasm for your training. To avoid burnout or overtraining, be aware of telltale signs like poor sleep, fatigue, lowered immunity or constant achy muscles.
Use these muscle recovery ideas to bounce back after your next workout
Being sore isn’t necessarily a sign of a good workout, however, when you first start a new workout program (or even a new exercise or training style!), muscle soreness is very common.
If you make some of these changes to your routine and still find you’re sore after every workout or the pain lasts for extended periods of time, consider speaking with a healthcare professional.
Feeling rested, recovered and ready to get back into it? Check out our trainers' top workout tips.
* Disclaimer: This blog post is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. The above information should not be used to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet, sleep methods, daily activity, or fitness routine. Sweat assumes no responsibility for any personal injury or damage sustained by any recommendations, opinions, or advice given in this article.