Having a day where no matter which way you move, you hurt? Whether you're an occasional runner or gym fanatic, you should consider recovery an essential part of your healthy lifestyle. But instead of just dealing with the fatigue and soreness, try one of these science-backed tips to help your body feel better, faster.
Speed Up Your Recovery
1. Get more sleep.
While the exact relationship between sleep and exercise is still unclear, multiple studies suggest sleep deprivation can have a significant negative effects on performance and recovery. Sleep, recovery, and performance: the new frontier in high-performance athletics. Samuels C. Neurologic clinics, 2008, Apr.;26(1):0733-8619. Exercise capacity in patients with obstructive sleep apnea syndrome. Przybyłowski T, Bielicki P, Kumor M. Journal of physiology and pharmacology : an official journal of the Polish Physiological Society, 2008, Apr.;58 Suppl 5(Pt 2):0867-5910. Sleep is also prime time for the body to undergo protein synthesis, so getting extra zzzs after a tough workout might make for stronger muscles and better endurance. Deprivation and Recovery of Sleep in Succession Enhances Reflexive Motor Behavior. Sprenger A, Weber FD, Machner B. Cerebral cortex (New York, N.Y. : 1991), 2015, Jun.;():1460-2199.
2. Listen to music.
Music can be great for helping us power through a tough workout (or at least distracting us from that “My legs are on fire!” feeling), but listening to relaxing tunes can also aid in exercise recovery. Effect of different musical tempo on post-exercise recovery in young adults. Savitha D, Mallikarjuna RN, Rao C. Indian journal of physiology and pharmacology, 2010, Nov.;54(1):0019-5499. Slow-tempo songs can help reduce blood pressure and pulse rate more quickly after exercise.
3. Consume protein before bed.
Barring a serious case of sleepwalking, we’re not usually giving our body nutrients while we sleep. Consuming a light, protein-rich snack before bed allows our bodies to keep repairing muscles overnight. Protein ingestion before sleep improves postexercise overnight recovery. Res PT, Groen B, Pennings B. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 2013, May.;44(8):1530-0315.
4. Eat protein in the morning.
After a good night's rest, the body could use some nutrients to recharge. Breakfasts high in protein can give our muscles the necessary ingredients to start rebuilding and may reduce food cravings later in the day. Neural responses to visual food stimuli after a normal vs. higher protein breakfast in breakfast-skipping teens: a pilot fMRI study. Leidy HJ, Lepping RJ, Savage CR. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), 2011, May.;19(10):1930-739X.
5. Drink chocolate milk.
Looking for a convenient post-workout snack on the go? Chug some chocolate milk. The protein it contains will kickstart muscle recovery, and those chocolaty carbs have been shown to decrease the amount of time it takes for the body to get ready for its next challenge. Chocolate milk as a post-exercise recovery aid. Karp JR, Johnston JD, Tecklenburg S. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism, 2006, Jun.;16(1):1526-484X.
6. Try tart cherry juice.
Stiff as a board from yesterday’s spin class or lifting session? Tart cherry juice and supplements might help reduce the swelling that occurs when muscles are damaged, allowing our bodies to recover faster and—thank goodness—with less pain. Efficacy of tart cherry juice in reducing muscle pain during running: a randomized controlled trial. Kuehl KS, Perrier ET, Elliot DL. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2010, May.;7():1550-2783. Antioxidant and antiinflammatory activities of anthocyanins and their aglycon, cyanidin, from tart cherries. Wang H, Nair MG, Strasburg GM. Journal of natural products, 1999, Apr.;62(2):0163-3864.
7. Drink lots of water.
8. Cut back on the booze.
Those of us who enjoy a few post-workout happy hours might want to be careful of too much of a good thing. Research suggests more than one or two drinks after working out could reduce the body’s ability to recover. A low dose of alcohol does not impact skeletal muscle performance after exercise-induced muscle damage. Barnes MJ, Mündel T, Stannard SR. European journal of applied physiology, 2010, Sep.;111(4):1439-6327. Post-exercise alcohol ingestion exacerbates eccentric-exercise induced losses in performance. Barnes MJ, Mündel T, Stannard SR. European journal of applied physiology, 2009, Dec.;108(5):1439-6327.
9. Make foam rolling your friend.
Much of the soreness that goes along with exercise occurs when our muscles and fascia—connective tissue running throughout the body—become knotted. Rolling out muscles with foam or semi-rigid rollers—two forms of self-myofascial release—can help remove those knots and prevent muscle imbalances from forming. While not exactly noted for its comfort, the benefits are worth it. 6-day intensive treatment protocol for refractory chronic prostatitis/chronic pelvic pain syndrome using myofascial release and paradoxical relaxation training. Anderson RU, Wise D, Sawyer T. The Journal of urology, 2011, Feb.;185(4):1527-3792.
10. Get a massage.
Recovery backrubs, anyone? Like foam rolling, massage helps break up scar tissue and reduce stiffness associated with muscle repair. Scented candles and relaxing tunes optional.
11. Eat a little protein before your workout.
Amino acids are the building blocks of tissue, and we consume protein to give our bodies enough to rebuild and maintain muscles damaged during workouts. Timing of amino acid-carbohydrate ingestion alters anabolic response of muscle to resistance exercise. Tipton KD, Rasmussen BB, Miller SL. American journal of physiology. Endocrinology and metabolism, 2001, Aug.;281(2):0193-1849. Having a little protein before working out can trigger our bodies to start muscle synthesis (repairing and building more muscle) throughout and even after hitting the weights. Exercise, protein metabolism, and muscle growth. Tipton KD, Wolfe RR. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism, 2001, May.;11(1):1526-484X.
12. Eat something with protein post-workout, too.
13. Take a daytime nap.
Research suggests taking a nap around two hours after a workout helps the body enter deep, restorative states of sleep. The effect of prior endurance training on nap sleep patterns. Davies DJ, Graham KS, Chow CM. International journal of sports physiology and performance, 2010, May.;5(1):1555-0265. And trust us, a quick power nap of about 20 minutes won’t ruin an upcoming night’s rest.
14. Rest your muscles.
While many advocate two days between workouts involving the same muscle group, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for recovery time. Factors like age and fitness level are important in determining how much rest we really need. If performance is decreasing from workout to workout, it might be time to schedule in a few extra rest days. The effects of exercise-induced muscle damage on cycling time-trial performance. Burt DG, Twist C. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association, 2011, Dec.;25(8):1533-4287.
15. Try compression garments.
For many athletes, it’s important to quickly regain the energy (and willpower) to run, jump, or throw once again. Recent research suggests wearing compression garments can help decrease the time it takes for muscles to recover between intense bouts of exercise. Do compression garments enhance the active recovery process after high-intensity running? Lovell DI, Mason DG, Delphinus EM. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association, 2012, Apr.;25(12):1533-4287.
16. Take a cold bath.
While it might be a scary prospect, research suggests taking a cold, full-body plunge after working out can significantly reduce soreness and inflammation for up to 24 hours after exercise. Effect of water immersion methods on post-exercise recovery from simulated team sport exercise. Ingram J, Dawson B, Goodman C. Journal of science and medicine in sport / Sports Medicine Australia, 2008, Jun.;12(3):1440-2440.
17. Try anti-inflammatories.
Consult a doctor first, but according to some studies, anti-inflammatory medications and spices (like turmeric and ginger) can speed muscle recovery. Curcumin effects on inflammation and performance recovery following eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage. Davis JM, Murphy EA, Carmichael MD. American journal of physiology. Regulatory, integrative and comparative physiology, 2007, Mar.;292(6):0363-6119. Anti-inflammatory therapy in sports injury. The role of nonsteroidal drugs and corticosteroid injection. Leadbetter WB. Clinics in sports medicine, 1995, Aug.;14(2):0278-5919. However, if you're trying to build muscle, NSAIDs (drugs like ibuprofen and aspirin), may hinder hypertrophy (muscle growth). The use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for exercise-induced muscle damage: implications for skeletal muscle development. Schoenfeld BJ. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 2013, Apr.;42(12):1179-2035. Translation: If your goal is bigger biceps, a little soreness maybe be part of the process.
When it comes to a healthy lifestyle, your recovery days and easy workout days are just as important as the days you crush it. Take the time you need to rest, and reap the benefits later.
Originally published March 2012. Updated August 2015.