So, get this: those 50 squat jumps will not make you stronger.
It’s the day after that will.
Unless you properly recover after your workout, your body cannot complete the full protein turnover, reducing the effectiveness of your effort, and putting you at a much higher risk of injury.
Letting your body repair will ensure you get the full benefit of every insufferable burpee.
But, ugh. “Recovery day” is just another way of saying “boring day.”
When you’re motivated and want to make progress quickly, being patient is hard. So in order to spend less time twiddling your thumbs, we’ve compiled the ultimate hacks for faster recovery.
You’ll learn everything from the most time-honored techniques to the newest extreme technologies to get you back in the saddle faster.
We all know stretching after a workout is imperative. But not if your muscles have knots.
“If you stretch after a workout, it will only make knots in your muscles tighter, in the same way that if you tie a knot in a rubber band and pull both ends of the rubber band, the knot will only get tighter.”
Knots are made of painful bundles of muscle fibers that have basically gotten “stuck” together from repetitive stress and contraction. They can be unbound through pressure and massage. Enter the foam roller.
Yes, it looks more like a pool noodle than a deep tissue masseuse. But by rolling out tight muscles and eliminating knots you will flush out metabolic waste, break down muscle adhesions, increase blood flow, and reduce scar tissue.
Here are some guidelines from CrossFit and running coach Jeff Kuhland.
Apply moderate pressure to a specific muscle or muscle group using the roller and your bodyweight. You should roll slowly, no more than one inch per second. When you find areas that are tight or painful, pause for several seconds and relax as much as possible. You should slowly start to feel the muscle releasing, and after 5-30 seconds the discomfort or pain should lessen. If an area is too painful to apply direct pressure, shift the roller and apply pressure on the surrounding area and gradually work to loosen the entire area. The goal is to restore healthy muscles – it is not a pain tolerance test.
New to foam rolling? Check out this 8-part instructional video from Runner’s World:
Wait, aren’t those just ugly legwarmers?
Nope, those are compression socks. Sexy, right?
Made of fabric to constrict the muscle fibers and increase blood flow, they help restore glycogen levels and clear metabolic waste. Originally used in hospitals for post-op patients to improve circulation and reduce risk of blood clots, compression gear is now widely available from the fitness industry.
So while compression gear won’t make you run faster or jump higher, it will help you recover faster. Multiple studies have found compression gear increases tissue oxygen saturation (which eases soreness), and reduces creatine kinase levels (a measure of muscle trauma).
Slip on compression tights or sleeves after an intense workout to ease soreness and quicken recovery.
Those funky stripes on Serena’s shoulders aren’t body paint. They’re kinesiotape.
Unlike traditional athletic tape, kinesiotape brands like Rocktape and Spidertape have special elasticity that only stretches in one direction. This acts to lift the skin away from the muscle, thereby increasing blood flow and lymph drainage to protect against injury and speed recovery.
You’ll need to apply the tape in strategic patterns over joints, which can be tricky. Or find a kinesiotape-trained doctor to apply it for you.
Deloading is a calculated downshift of your workout routine. It’s not an “off week,” it’s an “easy week.” This avoids the soreness that comes from taking an entire week off, but still allows muscles to rest.
Ways to Deload:
When deloading your volume, your goal is to maintain all of the weightsyou lift on every exercise but reduce the total number of sets (and/or reps).
Example: If a workout normally has 20 sets total, maybe you do 10-12 sets total. If you normally do 4 sets of an exercise, maybe you do just 2. If you normally do 3 sets of 8 reps, maybe do 2 sets of 5 reps.
When deloading your intensity, maintain the total amount of sets and/or reps but reduce the amount of weight you lift on every exercise to about 80-85% of your usual.
Example: If you normally bench press 200 lbs for 3×6-8, you’d now bench press 160-170 lbs for 3×6-8.
You can lift less weight for less reps (or even do nothing) and come back stronger than before and stronger than you’d have been had you never taken the week off.
Proper Post-Workout Nutrition
Put those fancy athletic tapes and tights aside. This is the number one recovery essential: post-workout fuel.
Give your thirsty muscles the raw materials they need to repair. Choose a high-protein, nutrient-rich meal after you exercise to reduce inflammation and speed muscle protein synthesis.
We list our favorite post-workout meals here: The Best Pre- and Post-Workout Foods. Dig in
II. Alternative Techniques
By pricking strategic pressure points and muscle fibers, acupuncture essentially tells your immune system, “Hey! Pay attention here!”
These virtually painless needle pricks stimulate an immune response shown to promote blood flow, release natural painkillers like endorphins, norepinephrine and enkephalin, and lower inflammation.
Acupuncture creates “micro traumas” that stimulate the body’s ability to spontaneously heal injuries to the tissue through nervous, immune and endocrine system activation. As the body heals the micro traumas induced by acupuncture, it also heals any surrounding tissue damage left over from old injuries.
You, with the ice pack, get on my level. Cold thermogenesis (CT) takes the cold compress to new heights.
The idea is to stimulate higher metabolic activity by lowering the body’s internal temperature. Not only does the cold result in an anti-inflammatory response, it releases adinopectin, a hormone that breaks down fat and shuttles glycogen stores back into depleted muscles.
Cold exposure therapy has also been found to reduce uric acid levels (which causes joint pain and could lead to arthritis) and enhance recovery time.
Ben Greenfield, a CT proponent, suggests, “a cool fat burner vest, wearing stretchy pants that combine pressure and ice, or keeping quick wraps in the freezer.” Mark Sisson advocates for a less extreme approach, taking short cold plunges instead.
[Wait, thermo-what-sis? Check out this post: What is Cold Thermogenesis?]
Cold plunges enhanced recovery from particularly vigorous training, and reduced delayed onset muscle soreness, even after a heavy day. I felt less arthritic pain in my lower body joints. I’m ready to go the next day, rather than feeling beat-up and worn down.
Whole Body Vibration
Whole body vibration (WBV) has been shown to increase bone mass and is most often seen in the treatment of osteotherapy. Vibration platforms have gained popularity in the fitness world as a way to increase strength, power, and speed.
Greenfield reports these vibrations can “also result in a hormonal, immune system and anti-inflammatory response that can speed recovery.”
Research continues to explore the most appropriate frequencies, durations, and amplitudes of vibration for healing. But as Dave Asprey of the Bulletproof Executive reports, vibration platforms can speed recovery through lowering immune-suppressing cortisol.
Notably, a famous study done in 1995 by Frank Perna and Sharon McDowell states that cortisol levels spike 20 hours after conventional training. This stress can negatively affects the body’s recovery process. On the other hand, WBV Training decreases cortisol levels in the body during and after training.
(Check out a video on Bulletproof’s Vibe platform here.
Pulsating electromagnetic field (PEMF) therapy involves magnetic pulses that stimulate cellular repair. The low-end electromagnetic pulses stimulate the “heat shock protein” – a special protein chain that helps the immune system recognize damaged cells.
A number of studies have found PEMF to be effective in healing soft-tissue wounds, lowering inflammation, decreasing pain, and increasing range-of-motion and speeding bone healing.
While the active mechanism of magnetic field therapy is still debated, Greenfield writes magnets purportedly heal through “changes in the migration of calcium ions, alteration of pH balance, changes in hormone production, and an alteration of enzyme activity.”
Check out this paper for a full review of the current research.
If a magnetic field is strong enough to attract or repel ions such as sodium and chloride in the blood, these ions may eventually encounter the walls of the blood vessels, move more rapidly, and cause anincrease in tissue temperature or an increase in blood flow.
Mark Sisson urges you not to dismiss this ideas as “wacky, woo-woo, crazy.”
He delves into an interesting discussion of the power of magnets and the influence of negative ions in this article.
High-intensity workouts can often screw up alignment in the back, hips, and neck. (I’m lookin’ at you, clean-and-jerk).
Instead of visiting the chiropractor every week, try inversion. It’s a fancy way of saying “hang upsidedown.” Use an inversion table, try any number of yoga inversion poses, or visit your neighborhood monkey bars.
Allowing gravity to pull down on the vertebra decompresses the spine, assists in lymph fluid circulation, and stimulates blood flow.
This study found that one minute of inversion significantly lengthened the spine and reduced electromyographic activity (an indication of healthy muscle tissue).
Unlike the cardiovascular system, the lymphatic system has no pump. Only the alternate contraction and relaxation of muscles move lymphatic fluid “uphill” through capillaries and one-way valves to the upper chest for cleansing. Inverting the body so that gravity works with, not against, these one-way valves helps to push the lactic fluid up to the chest. The faster the lymphatic system is cleared, the faster the ache and pain of stiff muscles disappears.
III. The Big Guns
Stem Cell Therapy
Get this: we can now gather stem cells from sources other than human embryos.
The Institute of Regenerative Medicine and Orthopedics, among others, have successfully harvested stem cells from body fat and bone marrow. Then injected locally into joints experiencing chronic pain or injury, the stem cells promote regeneration.
Fascinating stuff. (But definitely not DIY.)
Platelet-rich Plasma Injections
This process involves taking a blood sample from your own body, then spinning it in a centrifuge to separate the red and white blood cells from the platelets.
That platelet-rich blood is then reinjected into the site of the injury. Youch. Research is still being compiled on the effectiveness of this so don’t get crazy with syringe just yet.
This is the process of injecting a mild-irritant solution, such as a glucose water, to create a localized, controlled inflammatory response.
This initiates the body’s own repair mechanisms to heal damaged tissue.
A word of caution from Tim Ferriss: “I’ve tried it all, but I don’t think it makes much sense to jump right into the big guns if you haven’t tried the basic movement first, postural hip corrections for example. If you just inject something, if you don’t fix those movement issues, alignment issues, then you’re just going to experience the problem again a few months later.”
An electrode patch is placed on the skin and runs an electric current through muscle fibers to create an involuntary contraction. You may have experienced this kind of therapy in a physical or sports therapy office.
Now, you can do it at home!
The contraction increases warmth and blood flow to the area to speed recovery.
Ben Greenfield writes, “You just place the electrodes around the muscle area for which you want to control pain or speed healing, wrap an ice pack like FrozenPeaz around those electrodes, then flip the electrostimulation on for 20-30 minutes. Accuracy of electrode placement is crucial, so make sure you know your anatomy. Most EMS devices come with some kind of placement instructions.”
Low-level laser therapy (LLLT), or “cold laser therapy,” uses light-emitting diodes to reduce pain and inflammation.
By chasing out free radicals, LLLT has been shown to increase antioxidant and heat shock protein content in muscles, leading to faster muscle healing and less oxidative stress (which results in soreness). The idea of at-home lasers kinda makes us nervous. But there are plenty of devices available.
Just don’t shine it in your eyes, okay?
In summary, there is no one best way to recover from a workout. There are a multitude of ways to care for sore muscles, whether you choose to hang upside down or hook yourself to an electric current.
New technologies to increase cell turnover, promote protein synthesis, and reduce inflammation are exciting, but one rule is paramount: listen to your body.
What it needs most is rest and care. Be sure you’re sensitive to aches and pains, and you carefully observe improvements to understand what methods work best for you.