How to Recover From Muscle Fatigue After Exercise

theme sport and rehabilitation sports medicine. Beautiful strong slender Caucasian woman athlete uses foam roller green field street workout to workout to remove pain, stretch and massage muscles
Natural remedies can let you quickly heal from muscle exhaustion after a hard workout. (Image: Yelizaveta Tomashevska/iStock/GettyImages)

It's theoretically possible to exercise — at a low level — indefinitely. In practice, though, your muscles fatigue rather quickly. Several mechanisms work in unison to cause muscle exhaustion. Understanding and employing these processes will help you prevent fatigue and recover quickly.

Understand Muscle Fatigue

Using your muscles gradually causes your strength to decline. Scientists call this reversible process muscle fatigue. It can happen rather quickly — an immediate effect. Most Americans don't exercise regularly, according to a 2016 report in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. So many may rapidly experience muscle exhaustion just by walking up a flight of stairs.

Fatigue can also accumulate — a delayed effect. Many athletes break down their bodies day after day. Players generally need four days to fully recover from a football game, but few have that luxury. Over time, this accumulated fatigue puts them at risk for injury and illness.

Measure Muscle Fatigue

Researchers measure muscle fatigue in many ways. The subject can tell you about her muscle fatigue, and a trainer can see clients' muscle exhaustion. A chemist can analyze blood for markers of fatigue. Finally, a doctor can order a biopsy and study a patient's isolated muscle tissue.

Know the Markers of Muscle Fatigue

A 2016 report in BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders provides a nice review of the many markers used to assess exercise-induced muscle exhaustion. Researchers usefully classified these measurements as dry, wet and volatile biomarkers.

Dry biomarkers include the power measures of running and jumping. Athletic trainers also measure your body's electrical activity and give you questionnaires.

Wet biomarkers include analyzing your body's metabolic changes after exercising. For example, exercise physiologists often measure circulating levels of ammonia and lactate.

Volatile biomarkers focus on how your body uses oxygen while you exercise. Respiratory therapists measure maximal oxygen uptake and ventilatory threshold during stress tests.

It's best to use several of these measures. Modern technology also allows access to real-time data. That is, researchers can now watch exercise damage muscle tissue as it happens.

Know the Triggers of Muscle Fatigue

Your muscles will fatigue more easily as you age. Lack of sleep, food and water also increase fatigue. Illness and disease make you more vulnerable as well.

Some exercises cause more muscle exhaustion than others. For example, the negative work that lengthens muscles does more damage than the positive work that shortens muscles. Many exercises involve both movements, so you should expect most workouts to cause some muscle fatigue.

Sedentary people experience more muscle fatigue than athletes. However, even triathletes suffer muscle fatigue. That's because they constantly push their limits and try new things.

Know the Signs of Muscle Fatigue

Your body starts changing when you experience muscle fatigue, according to a 2015 paper in Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews. The chemicals released start a cascade of events that lead to changes in your behavior. During this sequence, toxic chemicals and free radicals penetrate your organ systems. They elevate your body temperature, and you become uncoordinated.

Know the Effects of Muscle Fatigue

There's a strong relationship between muscular force and muscle exhaustion. The greater force you exert, the faster you fatigue. With increasing fatigue, you become less efficient at your chosen task. This inefficiency creates exercise intolerance, and you can't complete the task. Exercise intolerance decreases athletic performance and increases obesity risk. It also puts you at risk for disease, illness and injury.

Learn the Treatments of Muscle Fatigue

There are many medical treatments and home remedies for muscle fatigue. Pharmaceutical preparations have potent effects, but natural remedies like massage can help as well.

You could also take a proactive approach and try to prevent muscle fatigue and thereby hasten your workout recovery. However, you should always consult a healthcare professional.

Any remedy can cause untoward effects, and some allergic reactions may prove fatal. Muscle fatigue can also result from an undiagnosed medical condition like diabetes. So speak with a doctor before self-diagnosing or supplementing, because such choices can bring up many issues.

Use Braces to Prevent Fatigue

Many athletes tape their joints to prevent injury. Such bracing may also prevent fatigue. A study in the Journal of Hand Therapy evaluated this hypothesis in healthy adults, using self-reported fatigue as a measure of muscle endurance.

The researchers tested the subjects' typing ability under several conditions, including one where they wore wrist supports. Compared to their baseline, subjects experienced less muscle fatigue in their biceps brachii muscles when they used the braces.

Use Supplements to Prevent Fatigue

Supplement companies often make health claims about their products' alleged affects on your health. Many manufacturers, for example, state that their products can help you recover from exercise fatigue. Yet they rarely give you the documentation for such a strong claim. A 2018 report in Frontiers in Physiology tested essential amino acids, EAA, as a prophylactic agent using maximal voluntary contractions, MVC, to measure muscle fatigue.

Subjects completed the MVC protocol on two occasions separated by a week. During testing, they received either 10 to 20 grams of EAA or a placebo. They did a series of biceps curls while in the laboratory. The results showed that MVC decreased when the subjects were given a placebo. In contrast, it remained unchanged when they were given EAA. Thus, taking amino acids may help you prevent fatigue.

Use Lasers to Prevent Fatigue

Laser radiation has shown great promise as a performance-enhancing tool. For example, it can increase muscle mass and decrease muscle damage. These findings suggest that lasers may help you prevent muscle fatigue. A 2018 article in Lasers in Medical Science evaluated this idea in healthy women using several measures of muscle performance.

These researchers exposed participants to either 904-nanometer light or a sham treatment right before a series of leg-extension exercises. Compared to the sham, the super-pulsed laser decreased self-reported fatigue and increased muscular power. The authors believe the laser increased the oxygen available to the subjects' muscles, as blood lactate didn't change.

Use Heat to Prevent Fatigue

Applying heat to your muscles increases the local skin temperature and blood flow. These changes should improve muscle performance and fight fatigue. A 2016 thesis from Cardiff Metropolitan University explored this possibility in healthy college students.

This study used a one-repetition maximum for biceps curls to measure muscle performance. Such a protocol reliably induces muscle fatigue — even in trained athletes. Participants wore heated arm sleeves immediately before doing their one-repetition maximum. They wore the sleeves for about 10 minutes. That duration caused an 8-degree increase in arm temperature.

The subjects visited the laboratory on multiple occasions. Sometimes they received the heat sleeves, other times they didn't get a treatment. Correlational analyses showed a strong relationship between treatment and performance. Greater heat meant better performance. The author believed that a heat-related increase in muscle ammonia content caused a decrease in muscle fatigue.

Use Foam Rolling to Rapidly Recover

Athletes have increasingly turned to foam rolling to hasten workout recovery. This self-massage technique has a well-deserved reputation as a treatment for post-exercise soreness. A study in the Journal of Athletic Training examined whether foam rolling could decrease the muscle fatigue commonly associated with this soreness.

The researchers intentionally caused soreness in healthy college students by having them do an intense series of leg squats. This protocol triggered delayed-onset muscle soreness, DOMS, for the next 72 hours. The participants did either foam rolling or nothing after the squats.

Compared to no treatment, foam rolling had a dramatic effect on post-exercise performance. It allowed the subjects to run faster and jump farther. Most important, it made them stronger in the squat exercise. These findings suggest that foam rolling helped the participants overcome muscle fatigue.

Use Massage Therapy to Rapidly Recover

Massage therapy provides you with another way of managing DOMS. For example, getting 20 minutes of Swedish massage decreases DOMS the day after heavy exercise. Similar massage techniques may help you overcome exercise fatigue. A 2016 report in the Journal of Physiotherapy explored this possibility in triathletes complaining of thigh pain.

Participants received either a seven-minute massage or no treatment immediately after completing a 140-mile race. Results indicated that a thigh massage improved both pain and fatigue. Compared to no treatment, the brief massage also decreased muscle tenderness.

Use Compression Garments to Rapidly Recover

Sales of compression clothing have steadily increased over the years. Manufacturers market these garments as therapeutic tools. Very few studies support such a claim, but scientists have gradually started documenting the positive effects of compression garments. For example, a 2017 report in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed the positive impact of wearing a whole-body compressive suit on exercise performance the next day.

The subjects did 10 x 10 protocols during the daytime using the leg-extension machine. This standard procedure, also known as German Volume Training, reliably causes muscle mass and DOMS. During the nighttime, they slept in either a compression suit or their normal attire. Compared to controls, participants wearing the compression garment showed a 10 percent increase in muscle strength. The researchers, however, found no physical changes in subjects' muscles.

Use Vibration to Rapidly Recover

Whole-body vibration, WBV, has increased in popularity over the past few years. Healthcare providers typically recommend combining vibration therapy with traditional treatments. However, such a combination isn't always possible. The authors of a 2016 paper in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research used a simple protocol to measure the isolated effect of vibration therapy.

Participants did an exhaustive series of calf raises. They then received either six 1-minute sets of WBV or no treatment on their calves. A cycling test to assess the potential benefits of treatment happened immediately after treatment. Results indicated that, compared to no treatment, vibration therapy increased muscle endurance and performance. It also increased blood flow.

Use Ice to Slowly Recover

Inflammation often accompanies muscle fatigue. Common-sense advice suggests that icing your muscles should hasten workout recovery by decreasing this swelling. Yet, few studies support this idea. In fact, icing your muscles usually decreases post-exercise performance. A study in the Journal of Sport Rehabilitation took a long-term approach to resolve this dilemma.

These researchers iced the entire bodies of professional basketball players after every practice and game during the season. Compared to controls, this strategy decreased the players perceived exertion and increased their muscle strength as the season progressed. The treatment also had a positive impact on their muscle physiology, and it decreased their swelling by season's end.

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