How Can You Improve Post Workout Recovery?
Exercise recovery starts with restorative sleep and a well-balanced diet. But it doesn’t end there. Some recovery tools optimize muscle recovery while others help you build resilience in your every day life. Here’s everything you need to know about recovery and exactly how you can integrate recovery tools into your routine.
- Muscle recovery is enhanced by growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor-1, released while you sleep.
- People who sleep less than 8 hours are at a 1.7 times greater risk of sport-related injury
- Carbohydrate intake and timing play an essential role in muscle and performance recovery.
- Protein intake is essential for muscle protein synthesis, aim to take in 1.2 to 1.6 g/kg/day of high-quality protein.
- Creatine monohydrate improves strength recovery by 21% and reduces muscle damage markers by 84%.
- Cold therapy can reduce muscle protein synthesis by 11% but regular exposure can increase HRV by up to 34%.
- 84% of sauna users report better sleep for 1-2 days following heat exposure.
- Compression modalities reduce soreness by increasing bloodflow to the muscle by more than 200%.
AIM7 optimizes recovery using your wearable data.
Nutrition for Post Workout Recovery
Manipulating nutrition around your exercise ensures you have the right fuel when you need it. While most exercise sessions use a variety of fuel sources, high-intensity workouts will rely mainly on carbohydrates and deplete your glycogen stores faster (stored carbohydrate). Timing is key–when you take in carbohydrate determines how much you have available during your workouts to resist fatigue, and how quickly you can recover.
If you’re looking to maximize muscle protein synthesis following a tough workout, getting enough protein in your diet is key. Muscle contractions during exercise cause microtears in the muscle fibers, sparking a cascade of reactions to repair and rebuild. This anabolic, or muscle building, process is directly linked to performance outcomes and the protein in your diet can make or break your training efforts.
The recommended daily allowance for protein is 0.8g/kg/day. However, current evidence indicates that at least 1.2 to 1.6 g/kg/day of high-quality protein is ideal for achieving optimal health outcomes in adults, and even higher for individuals in a calorie deficit or for older adults. Total protein intake throughout the day is more important than the timing of your protein, but there’s no harm in post-workout protein intake for muscle recovery, particularly if you are well-trained or in a caloric deficit.
Hydration can directly influence your muscle recovery from a workout. When you are optimally hydrated, you experience less muscle damage from a workout and enhanced muscle protein synthesis following a workout. You’ll not only be able to workout longer without fatigue, but you’ll be speeding up muscle cell repair.
Optimal hydration before, during, and after a workout can help to restore your heart rate variability—a measure of your autonomic nervous system or rest and digest system—to baseline following a workout. Hydration appears to sensitize your body to the stress of exercise during a workout and promote faster recovery of the central nervous system afterward.
How To Time Your Carbohydrate, Protein and Hydration Intake:
Supplements for Post Workout Recovery
The benefits of creatine monohydrate supplementation on athletic performance and muscular strength are well-known, but this supplement is also a major player in recovery. Creatine supplementation increased knee extension strength by up to 21% following an intense exercise session and reduced plasma creatine kinase levels (a marker for muscle damage) by 84% in the following days.
While your body naturally produces small amounts of creatine and a normal diet pattern would most likely result in 1-2g/day of creatine from animal products, this would only saturate between 60 to 80% of your creatine stores. Dietary supplementation of creatine monohydrate increases muscle creatine and phosphocreatine by 20 to 40%—making it readily available to use for recovery following a workout. Consuming your creatine with carbohydrates and protein can also enhance glycogen and creatine storage.
The biologically active compounds in tart cherries have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects that may enhance muscle recovery. Some research indicates that tart cherry juice, ingested after your workout, may reduce the markers of catabolism (muscle breakdown) and soreness while improving performance 24 to 48 hours after an exercise session. The findings, however, are mixed: the muscles targeted in the workout, training status, individual characteristics, and exercise protocol may all impact how effective tart cherry juice is in improving recovery.
Given tart cherries’ melatonin levels, some evidence points to improved sleep quality by supplementing before bed. Any intervention that enhances sleep can aid in muscle recovery, and with minimal risk in consuming tart cherry juice, there is no harm in trying it.
Your workouts may warrant specific macronutrients and supplement needs, but following a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, complex carbohydrates, lean protein sources, and healthy fats is essential for overall health and wellness.
How Supplements Can Help with Your Post Workout Recovery
Sleep for Post Workout Recovery
Sleep is one of the most undervalued yet potent recovery tools for your physical and mental health, helping your body repair and restore cells across almost systems. Muscle cells in particular benefit from growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor-1 released while you sleep—both of which promote muscle protein synthesis.
When you are sleep deprived, muscle damage may take longer to repair, impacting performance in your following workouts and injury risk in recreational or competitive sports. Adolescent athletes who sleep less than 8 hours have 1.7 times greater risk of injury than those who sleep 8 hours or more.
Chronic sleep debt compromises your resilience and readiness to deal with daily stressors. Impaired sleep can also drive circulating cortisol and interleukin-6 (IL-6) levels up resulting in a chronic stress response that increases cardiometabolic risk, muscle atrophy, and chances of illness. Your autonomic nervous system is imbalanced, negatively affecting your resting HR, HRV, and blood pressure. Between the breakdown of muscle, increased risk of cardiometabolic diseases, and compromised central nervous system, it’s no surprise that sleep deprivation impacts longevity. Individuals who sleep 5 hours or less have a 15% increased all-cause mortality risk over a 6- to 14-year period.
Napping can help to offset the negative effects of sleep deprivation on recovery. Midday naps not only improve cognitive function, relieve stress, and reduce feelings of fatigue, but they also enhance exercise recovery, allowing you to go harder in your next session or bounce back faster after high-intensity work.
How Sleep is Critical to Maximizing Your Post Workout Recovery
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Cold Exposure for Recovery
Popular methods of cold therapy include water-based (cold plunges/ ice bathes/ cold water immersion) or whole-body cryotherapy using very low temperature air chambers. In athletic populations, cold water immersion is effective in reducing muscle soreness and expediting recovery of muscular power and flexibility if you have limited time for traditional recovery methods like sleep.
However, if your goal is to build muscle, cold exposure may blunt muscle protein synthesis when performed immediately after strenuous exercise on a regular basis. Cold water immersion after a resistance training workout has been shown to reduce muscle protein synthesis rates by 11% over a two-week period. The differences in muscle protein synthesis seem to affect type II (fast-twitch) muscle fibers and impact muscle hypertrophy capacity more than actual maximal strength and performance.
Cold therapy also helps to relieve pain and inflammation for individuals with chronic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis. While this application may not directly impact tissue healing, when people feel less pain, they are more likely to engage in physical activity and sleep soundly which directly promotes recovery.
The real value of cold therapy is in its effect on the central nervous system. The initial shock of cold stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, putting your body into fight or flight. Once your body adapts to the cold and the stress response diminishes, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in to reduce heart rate and blood pressure while releasing chemicals in your brain that positively impact feelings of well-being. With repeated exposure, research indicates your HRV can increase up to 34% (based on RMSSD)—indicating enhanced recovery and relaxation.
Cold exposure does come with some risk such as cold shock, hypothermia, and physical incapacitation. Start with very short bouts of cold exposure, perhaps with others present, before progressing to longer solo sessions. Individuals with known cardiovascular or pulmonary diseases or type II diabetes should consult their healthcare provider before participating in cold therapy.
How Cold Exposure Helps to Optimize Your Post Workout Recovery
Heat Exposure for Recovery
A dry heat sauna promotes relaxation through heat stress. Similar to cold exposure, intense, short-term heat exposure activates your sympathetic nervous system resulting in increased heart rate, skin blood flow, cardiac output, and sweating. Considered an “eustress”, or a positive stress to the body, it helps bring the autonomic nervous system back to equilibrium as you cool off after the session. The heat also draws your attention away from aches and pains. Individuals with low back pain reported a 40% reduction in pain perception and 33% improvement in quality of life following twice daily 15-minute sauna sessions in only one week.
The deep relaxation and recovery benefits from sauna is long-lasting: one study cited 84% of participants reported better sleep for one to two days following the heat exposure and regular sauna use is linked to reduced cardiovascular disease risk and mortality.
While an excellent recovery tool, dry sauna comes with some risks. Dehydration is common with extended time in a sauna. To avoid serious health complications, be sure to take in plenty of fluids before and after your session. Some small studies suggest reversible sperm reduction with regular sauna use. Individuals with high and low blood pressure, heart disease, asthma, epilepsy, women who are pregnant, and those on mind-altering drugs should see their healthcare provider before using a sauna.
If you prefer a warm bath to the sauna, you can expect similar pain reduction, sleep, and health benefits. The buoyancy, hydrostatic pressure, and temperature of the water improves blood flow and may even increases tissue oxygenation and insulin sensitivity. These changes would enhance muscle recovery as your cells become more efficient at producing and recycling energy.
How Heat Exposure Optimizes Your Nervous System Recovery
Compression, Massage, and Foam Rolling for Recovery
Athletes have worn compression garments during exercise and competition for decades. The mechanical pressure can increase blood flow to the area by more than 200%, delivering more oxygen and nutrients. While there is no harm in using compression gear, research is mixed on the effects on performance during a session or in your ability to bounce back to the same strength in your next workout.
Recovery boots uses pulsing compression, called intermittent pneumatic compression, designed to enhance recovery. Compression boots help to relieve the pain and discomfort of delayed-onset muscle soreness. Massage guns use percussive therapy to aid in muscle recovery and reduce musculoskeletal pain. Foam rolling, or myofascial release, is also effective in reducing muscle pain perception, particularly after a workout. Research indicates overall mixed results in how well these tools help in performance recovery however when you don’t feel as sore, you can get back to your movement routine faster. You can get the same benefits from active recovery like walking and light cardio in most cases so the use of these recovery tools may simply come down to personal preference.
Traditional massage modalities are also almost synonymous with recovery. Some studies show a reduction in muscle damage markers and pain/soreness following a massage while others show no effect on recovery and performance measures. Psychologically however, traditional massage invokes a total body relaxation response, which can shift your body into parasympathetic rest and digest mode. The more primed you are for rest, the better your central nervous system recovery.
How Compression, Massage and Foam Rolling Contribute to Post Workout Recovery
The information presented in this blog is sourced from the references cited. Each person’s post workout recovery will look different based on exercise volume and intensity, fitness level, personal preferences and needs. The first step: establish consistent sleep and nutrition routines, then optimize your muscle recovery and overall well-being with nutritional supplements, cold and heat therapy, and recovery tools.
Post Workout Recovery References
- International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise
- A systematic review of dietary protein during caloric restriction in resistance trained lean athletes: a case for higher intakes
- Food-First Approach to Enhance the Regulation of Post-exercise Skeletal Muscle Protein Synthesis and Remodeling
- Protein "requirements" beyond the RDA: implications for optimizing health
- Effects of Protein Supplementation on Performance and Recovery in Resistance and Endurance Training
- A systematic review, meta-analysis and metaregression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults
- Broad Spectrum Polyphenol Supplementation from Tart Cherry Extract on Markers of Recovery from Intense Resistance Exercise
- Effects of a Tart Cherry Supplement on Recovery from Exhaustive Exercise
- Pilot Study of the Tart Cherry Juice for the Treatment of Insomnia and Investigation of Mechanisms
- International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: safety and efficacy of creatine supplementation in exercise, sport, and medicine
- Creatine supplementation enhances muscle force recovery after eccentrically-induced muscle damage in healthy individuals
- American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Exercise and fluid replacement
- Comparison of the effects of hydration with water or isotonic solution on the recovery of cardiac autonomic modulation
- Effects of an isotonic beverage on autonomic regulation during and after exercise
- Control of cell volume in skeletal muscle
- Muscle damage, fluid ingestion, and energy supplementation during recreational alpine skiing
- Effects of Hydration State and Resistance Exercise on Markers of Muscle Damage
- Chronic Lack of Sleep is Associated With Increased Sports Injuries in Adolescent Athletes
- Sleep and muscle recovery: Endocrinological and molecular basis for a new and promising hypothesis
- Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Acute Skeletal Muscle Recovery after Exercise
- Sleep and Athletic Performance: Impacts on Physical Performance, Mental Performance, Injury Risk and Recovery, and Mental Health
- One night of partial sleep deprivation impairs recovery from a single exercise training session
- Physiology of growth hormone secretion during sleep
- Extent and Health Consequences of Chronic Sleep Loss and Sleep Disorders
- Sleep, sleep deprivation, autonomic nervous system and cardiovascular diseases
- Effect of different nap opportunity durations on short-term maximal performance, attention, feelings, muscle soreness, fatigue, stress and sleep
- To Nap or Not to Nap? A Systematic Review Evaluating Napping Behavior in Athletes and the Impact on Various Measures of Athletic Performance
- Effect of Mindfulness Training on Fatigue and Recovery in Elite Volleyball Athletes: A Randomized Controlled Follow-Up Study
- The impact of daytime napping on athletic performance – A narrative review
- Dry sauna therapy is beneficial for patients with low back pain
- Clinical Effects of Regular Dry Sauna Bathing: A Systematic Review
- Sauna bathing is associated with reduced cardiovascular mortality and improves risk prediction in men and women: a prospective cohort study
- A hot topic for health: Results of the Global Sauna Survey
- Seminal and molecular evidence that sauna exposure affects human spermatogenesis
- The Thermal Effects of Water Immersion on Health Outcomes: An Integrative Review
- Effects of long‐term whole‐body cold exposures on plasma concentrations of ACTH, beta‐endorphin, cortisol, catecholamines and cytokines in healthy females
- Chronic inflammation in the etiology of disease across the life span
- Cold water immersion attenuates anabolic signaling and skeletal muscle fiber hypertrophy, but not strength gain, following whole-body resistance training
- Autonomic Nervous Function During Whole-Body Cold Exposure Before and After Cold Acclimation
- Effects of Cold-Water Immersion Compared with Other Recovery Modalities on Athletic Performance Following Acute Strenuous Exercise in Physically Active Participants: A Systematic Review, Meta-Analysis, and Meta-Regression
- Postexercise cooling impairs muscle protein synthesis rates in recreational athletes
- Compression garments and exercise: garment considerations, physiology and performance
- Can Compression Garments Reduce the Deleterious Effects of Physical Exercise on Muscle Strength? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analyses
- Dynamic Compression Enhances Pressure-to-Pain Threshold in Elite Athlete Recovery: Exploratory Study
- A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Foam Rolling on Performance and Recovery
- Comparison of Interventional Strategies to Improve Recovery after Eccentric Exercise-Induced Muscle Fatigue
- The Effect Of Percussive Therapy On Musculoskeletal Performance And Experiences Of Pain: A Systematic Literature Review
- Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
- The Mechanisms of Massage and Effects on Performance, Muscle Recovery and Injury Prevention
- Effects of Compression Tights on Recovery Parameters after Exercise Induced Muscle Damage: A Randomized Controlled Crossover Study
Reiner, S., Korem, E. “How to Maximize Your Post Workout Recovery” AIM7.com, October 31, 2023, www.aim7.com/blog/ how-to-maximize-your-post-workout-recovery