When you wake up sore and achy after a workout, your natural reaction might be to skip the gym and opt for a bubble bath or massage. While there's nothing wrong with taking a rest day, you have to figure out where to draw the line. There's a sweet spot between recovering too long and not recovering long enough.
Usually, it takes a day or two for your muscles to recover from a workout, but it can take up to five days for soreness to go away.
Give Yourself a Break
Workouts take their toll on your body. Whether you're feeling an injury creep up or falling asleep during the day at work, your body will tell you when it's time to recover. If you're motivated to hit the gym and you're chasing a goal, it can seem like a waste of time to take rest days. On the other hand, you might lack motivation and take too many rest days.
Recovery is a complex topic — but it's important if you're hitting the gym. You can't always be 100 percent ready to work out, but you can avoid burning out. Your muscles are particularly vulnerable to tiring or wearing down.
Different workouts require different recovery times. Generally, weightlifting workouts are more taxing on your muscles than endurance or body-weight workouts. Endurance workouts use muscles, but they also rely heavily on the cardiovascular system, which is composed of your heart and lungs.
You might think a long endurance event like running a marathon is incredibly taxing on the muscles, but that's not necessarily true. A small study with 34 participants, published in November 2016 in Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism, found that it's actually not very damaging to the muscles.
These were experienced runners, mind you, but it doesn't change the fact that they were only sore for a day or two after their marathon, which is an incredible 26.2 miles of running. A weightlifting workout lasting only an hour can make you sore for that amount of time or more.
Why Muscles Need Recovery
You may have heard that muscle damage is what leads to growth, which is partially true, but too much muscle damage can be harmful. There are a few ways that muscles are affected by exercise.
The most obvious way is muscle damage. Your muscles are made of multiple bundles of fiber wrapped together like ropes. Some of the fibers might break when you're straining, like the edges of a rope fraying.
It's not as painful as it sounds, but exercise takes a toll on your muscle fibers, according to an August 2018 study published in the European Journal of Sports Science.
Your muscles use energy to contract. Every time you take a step, your leg muscles are using some combination of glucose, fat and oxygen to power the muscle. Like anything else in your body, that power supply isn't unlimited. Exercise drains your muscles of energy sources like glucose and fat.
Signs You Need to Rest
There are two relatively easy ways to keep track of your muscles and how they're recovering from workouts. The first is soreness. Delayed-onset muscle soreness is a mild inflammation in the muscles that makes them slightly tender and painful. You'll typically feel symptoms within a day or two of your workout. The symptoms can last anywhere from three to five days.
If your muscles are sore, that doesn't necessarily mean you need to take a day away from the gym — but it might be better to work a different body part. While you're doing that, you can let the sore muscles recover for your next workout.
The other way to tell if your muscles are recovered is performance. Pick a simple test for yourself — something that's not too strenuous — and use it to determine if you've recovered from your last workout.
An October 2016 study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science had soccer players run sprints to damage their muscles and then followed their recovery. The scientists monitored their muscle strength and balance for one, two and three days after the workout.
It took on average three days to fully recover to maximum strength. The researchers also found that balancing was a good way to determine if the players had recovered or not.
You can try balancing on one leg and measuring the amount of time you can hold it to monitor recovery. But make sure you do a baseline test when you're fully recovered to figure out how long you can hold your balance.
How Many Workouts Per Week?
Figuring out how many days per week to work out is important when you're trying to map out your training plan. Recovery days are essential, depending on what you do during your workouts.
A May 2018 research review published in Sports Medicine looked at 22 different studies on workout frequency. The researchers found that it didn't really matter how many days per week the subjects lifted weights. In the end, the only thing that mattered was volume. In other words, you can do three sets of 10 reps for squats on Monday or one set of 10 reps on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Both plans will give you similar results because each is a total of 30 reps over the course of the week.
Recovery With Different Exercises
Different exercises require different recovery times. A September 2015 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that single-joint exercises took longer to recover from than compound exercises.
An example of a single-joint exercise would be a bicep curl, in which the only joint that moves is the elbow. In this curl, only your biceps are working and only your elbow moves. In a compound exercise, like the chin-up, the biceps are working but other muscles are contributing as well.
If you do single-joint training, make sure you have at least one day to rest between muscle groups. That means you shouldn't do single-joint exercises for the same muscles on back-to-back days to allow time for recovery.
Improving Muscle Recovery Time
Resting is the best way to recover, but proper nutrition is also key. Your muscles need resources to help them recover from a tough workout.
Fueling your body after a workout is crucial for recovery. Your muscles need protein to build back up along with carbohydrates for energy. The protein requirements for athletes are 1.3 to 1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day, according to an article from the Gatorade Sports Science Institute.
This might seem high compared to what you're used to, but your muscles will require more protein than normal if you're working out. For carbohydrates, you need between 5 and 7 grams per kilogram of body weight per day.
Fluids are also important because your muscles contain water. You can weigh yourself before and after a workout to see how much water you've lost. If you lose more than 2 percent of your body weight in water, you're officially dehydrated, according to the article from the Gatorade Sports Science Institute. So if you lose more than 2 percent of your body weight during a workout, start drinking water afterward to boost your recovery.
- Gatorade Sports Science Institute: "Recovery Nutrition for Football Players"
- The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: "Dissociated Time Course of Muscle Damage Recovery Between Single- and Multi-Joint Exercises in Highly Resistance-Trained Men"
- Sports Medicine: "Effect of Resistance Training Frequency on Gains in Muscular Strength: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis"
- Journal of Physical Therapy Science: "Physical and Balance Performance Following Exercise Induced Muscle Damage in Male Soccer Players"
- NHS: "Why Do I Feel Pain After Exercise?"
- European Journal of Sports Science: "Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage: What Is It, What Causes It and What Are the Nutritional Solutions?"
- Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism: "Minimal Muscle Damage After a Marathon and No Influence of Beetroot Juice on Inflammation and Recovery"