What you do after your workouts matters just as much (if not more) than what you do during them. If you work out hard day after day, but don't spend any time helping your muscles and joints recover, you won't see the fitness gains you're after. Instead, you might find yourself achy, injured or plateauing.
Luckily, recovery techniques abound — stretching, cryotherapy, bubble baths — so there's always something you can do to ease sore muscles. To help you dig into your options, we talked to fitness trainers about their favorite ways to recover from tough workouts.
1. Take Real Rest Days
To get better at working out, stop working out. No, you shouldn't abandon exercise, but you should absolutely take rest days in between tough workouts to facilitate muscle recovery. Finley Funsten, personal trainer and general manager of MADabolic in Charlotte, NC, take two "full-blown rest days" to maintain her strength training routine.
By full-blown, Funsten really does mean doing nothing — or at least nothing that will inhibit her next workout. If you must do some sort of activity on your rest days, try taking a walk or stretching for 30 minutes.
2. Do Dynamic Stretches
You can never go wrong by taking it back to the basics. Mariah Heller, a personal trainer, CrossFit level 1 coach and creator of Pain-Free Fitness attributes quick muscle recovery to stretching.
"I can't live without a good dynamic stretch after every workout," she says. "Moving the joints through their full ranges of motion, addressing any built-up stiffness, and getting some oxygen back into my muscles makes my recovery 10 times easier."
Tracy Gariepy, personal trainer and running coach, agrees, adding that stretching helps maintain healthy circulation, preventing any fluid pooling, swelling or water retention. And to ward off second-day soreness, she goes for a long, brisk walk.
Read more: 7 Dynamic Stretches to Improve Hip Mobility
3. Relax in a Sauna
Kaley Hatfield, certified personal trainer and professional dancer, says she loves incorporating the sauna into her normal recovery regimen two to three times a week. "The heat keeps my muscles lean and flexible and helps flush out lactic acid in my body."
4. Try Massage or Other Bodywork
Foam rolling — clinically referred to as "self-myofascial release" — is a fantastic way to break up tight muscle knots when you're in a pinch for time or money. But Sarah Holmer, a LiveKick.com personal trainer, says nothing beats a licensed professional.
"They will be able to use different tools and get deeper into the soft tissue to maximize improved range of motion," says Holmer. "Not to mention, breaking up soft tissue is quite uncomfortable, meaning that it's much easier to have someone else do it for you."
5. Ice Your Joints
Thanu Jey, CSCS, a chiropractor and clinical director at Yorkville Sports Medicine Clinic, recommends a tried-and-true recovery technique you probably have in your freezer: Ice. Cold therapy reduces inflammation and fluid accumulation, both of which contribute to soreness after exercise.
To be safe and avoid localized frostbite, you shouldn't apply ice directly to your skin. Rather, wrap an ice pack in a thin towel and ice areas for just 10 minutes at a time.
Or amp it up a notch with whole-body cryotherapy, an advanced form of cold therapy that involves submerging your entire body (sans head and neck) in subzero temperatures created by liquid nitrogen.
6. Soak in a Bubble Bath
That's right, a bubble bath. Now you have one more reason (as if you needed any) to end your day with some me-time, submerged in a perfectly warm, bubbly tub. Better yet, add epsom salt, like Alexandra Weissner, certified running coach and co-founder of bRUNch Running, recommends.
Like cold therapy, heat therapy has also been used for years to facilitate muscle recovery. It does so in a different way (promotes blood flow versus restricts blood flow), but the end result is the same: speedier muscle healing and reduced pain. Epsom salt provides the added bonus of potentially reducing joint aches and pains.
7. Refuel ASAP
Without adequate nutrients (namely protein and carbohydrates), your muscles won't repair themselves and you'll experience prolonged soreness. Tom Holland, kinesiologist, professional triathlete and author of The 12-Week Triathlete, focuses on refueling within 30 minutes after tough workouts.
For Holland, a recovery meal consists of a ratio of about 4:1 to 6:1 carbohydrate to protein, to both replenish fuel stores (carbohydrates) as well as repair muscle tissue (protein). Kyra Williams, personal trainer, CrossFit level 1 coach and USA Weightlifting and USA Powerlifting coach, recommends consuming foods that are high on the glycemic index right after exercise, including rice cakes, rice, sweet potato, corn flakes, puffed rice or rice milk.
Refueling also includes hydration, and all of these fitness pros know it: Every single trainer on this list mentioned hydration when discussing recovery. If the pros say it's crucial (and so do federal health agencies), it's crucial.
8. Plan Your Workouts Strategically
Even if you utilize all of the post-workout recovery techniques in the world, you can still overtrain certain muscle groups and inhibit your progress if you aren't strategic. Olo Onuma, a personal trainer in Raleigh, NC, suggests planning out the number, duration and substance of each workout session before the week starts.
For Onuma, this might look like training upper body on Monday and training legs on Tuesday. For someone who enjoys full-body workouts, a training split could include a heavy, low-rep workout on Monday, followed by a light, high-rep workout on Tuesday.
9. Never, Ever, Ever Skip Your Cooldown
All too often, fitness pros see exercisers flee the gym seconds after completing their last set. Nick Karwoski, Hydrow athlete and nationally-ranked triathlete, says one of the most important elements of recovery is allowing your body to slow down naturally and allowing your heart rate return to resting as comfortably as possible.
"A realistic approach for the active and busy person is a 'good morning' stretch, which involves reaching up as high as you can and then reaching down to touch your toes, taking a step or two in between," Karwoski says. "I do this 10 times through. This whole-body stretch requires no equipment and is great after a full-body exercise like rowing."
10. Don't Underestimate the Power of Your Breath
Despite being the most basic and innate mechanism for survival, people tend to be out of touch with their breathing. And it's especially important after workouts. "When we train hard, our body experiences a fight-or-flight response," says Tyler Curtis, head trainer at G Strength in Philadelphia, PA.
"This is a good thing and should happen periodically in a difficult training session, but in order for our bodies to recover we have to get out of this state quickly so our body can adapt to the stress being placed on it." He uses a technique called box breathing to facilitate post-workout recovery.
And Marcus Filly, former CrossFit Games athlete, owner of Revival Strength and founder of Functional Bodybuilding, recommends "a position called 'static back' and nasal breath for five minutes, taking full inhales into my belly using my diaphragm."
11. Sleep, Sleep and More Sleep
A good night's sleep can make you feel as if you can take on the world — it's a shame most of us don't get enough. iFit personal trainer Bryn Knowles says that while she incorporates other techniques, such as stretching and active recovery, sleep is the number one ingredient for long-term recovery.
"When I'm not getting adequate rest, it shows at the gym," says Knowles. "I feel like I'm not able to run as hard, lift as heavy, and downright feel sluggish. I've been working on following a more consistent bedtime routine and have noticed a big impact."
12. Try Soft Tissue Mobilization
Devine says he never skips stretching before and after working out. He also loves using a Theragun and/or foam roller pre- and post-workout. Theraguns and other massage guns utilize percussive therapy, a thumping or hammering motion that breaks up tight muscle tissue and helps relieves pain.
13. Take a Mental Full-Body Scan
Today's go-go-go culture has led to serious overtraining among athletes and recreational exercisers alike. Kira Stokes, creator of the Stoked Method, says body awareness is the key to knowing when you can push a workout, and when you should take it down a notch.
"Whether it's directly after a workout or upon waking up the day after, it's incredibly important to take the time to do what I call a 'self-awareness scan' of your body," says Stokes. "I assess my energy level, as well as areas where I feel tight, weak, strong, etc."
She then applies that information to her workout program and adjusts accordingly. "Your body will tell you what it needs and when it needs it," Stokes says. "You just have to be willing to listen."
How to Design Your Perfect Recovery Regimen
You'll notice that all of these fitness pros offer up different workout recovery techniques. As the saying goes, what works for one doesn't always work for another. All of their recovery recommendations are beneficial and grounded in science, but the key to sticking with your workouts is designing a recovery regimen that works for you.
For example, Jamie King, ultra-runner, yoga instructor and owner of Flex & Flow Yoga in Portland, OR, says, "Recovery is a blend of yoga, fueling right and sleep." Yoga helps her feel strong and mobile, while a recovery smoothie provides her body with the necessary protein and carbs needed for muscle repair. And, of course, quality sleep facilitates physical and mental replenishment.
These three pillars ensure King hits her ever-increasing mileage goal each week — and ideally, your recovery trio (or whatever form your plan takes) would ensure you meet your fitness goals, too.
Is This an Emergency?
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- Cold‐water immersion (cryotherapy) for preventing and treating muscle soreness after exercise
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- Get the Facts: Drinking Water and Intake
- Whole-Body Cryotherapy in Athletes: From Therapy to Stimulation. An Updated Review of the Literature