Muscle Recovery Techniques for Athletes

person using foam roller on back


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If you've ever been sore after a tough workout, odds are you sought out ways to speed up the recovery process in order to alleviate your soreness. In order to understand how you can do that, you first have to understand what recovery is. Once we get that out of the way, we can cover a handful of scientifically validated muscle recovery techniques. Let's get started.

What is Recovery?

In a scientific sense, muscle recovery is simply "returning what was lost due to exercise." However, simply returning to baseline fitness levels isn't exactly the goal of most athletes. Indeed, anyone with a competitive spirit would likely prefer that their recovery efforts lead to adaptation, hence the even more scientific term, "recovery-adaptation." With this model, not only are we returning what was lost due to exercise, but we're also implementing nutrition, supplement, and actionable strategies to promote enhanced recovery, thus supporting adaptation.

So, what's the big deal about adaptation? Adaptation is the whole point of a training program! Whenever you improve your mile time, increase your bench press one-rep max, or even lose weight, you've adapted to your training program. Constantly chasing novel adaptations is how we progress in exercise performance. Therefore, improving our recovery techniques should enhance overall recovery which (hopefully) will lead to better adaptations!

In research, we usually define recovery objectively by a muscle's rate of returning to its baseline isometric force production. Envision a biceps curl, if you will. Let's say you can produce 50kg of force with your elbows flexed at 90 degrees, but after you undergo a tough biceps workout, you can only produce about 40kg of force. Within 24 hours, that number will probably drop to 35 kilograms and you'll have noticeable soreness. A similar story will likely be seen around hour 48, but by hour 72, your force generation should start trending upward and soreness will probably be heading back to baseline. This is the recovery process at work!

But, as you can see, the above example requires at least 72 hours for recovery to start happening. For novel or intense exercise, the recovery window can even be much longer—seven days or more! The problem is, to optimally adapt to your training, you need to be pretty close to fully recovered before training in the same manner again. Why? Well, if your muscles are still damaged and sore following a previous workout, you'll likely have lasting central nervous system fatigue that reduces your ability to contract and use your muscles. What this means, then, is that any workout performed in a non-recovered state will be suboptimal for further adaptations and may also increase injury risk.

Therefore, recovery is a pretty big deal. Let's discuss some muscle recovery techniques to help you enhance your adaptation window.

Nutrition and Recovery

When it comes to recovery, nutrition is the best way to focus on "returning what was lost." If we think about this statement from a nutrition perspective, what do we lose during exercise? The three main things are:

  1. Water, through sweat
  2. Sodium (and other electrolytes), through sweat
  3. Muscle glycogen, through the metabolic cost of exercise

Therefore, your nutrition strategies during the post-workout recovery period should largely focus on those three factors. I'd recommend drinking at least 16 fluid ounces (~500mL) of water within 30 minutes of your workout, as well as some carbohydrate sources. The type of carbohydrate doesn't matter too much unless you're training again in less than 24 hours. Research shows that different types of carbohydrates can replenish muscle glycogen to similar levels beyond 24 hours. However, if you train twice within a 24-hour period, you might be better off with more simple carbs following your workouts. A great target to aim for is 0.5 grams per kilogram of body weight following a workout. If you train multiple times a day or exercise for more than an hour at a time, you might want to aim for closer to 2 grams per kilogram of body weight. I'd also highly recommend a quality protein source following your workout, as most types of exercise will cause some sort of disruption to muscle architecture (i.e., muscle damage and muscle breakdown). Dietary protein provides the supplies to repair and rebuild your muscles.

The "fastest," easiest to digest, and most convenient sources are usually whey protein drinks. However, you can also have a full meal after your workout as that will help you get some salt and electrolyte intake, as well. When it comes to post-workout protein intake, I'd aim for 20-40 grams of a high-quality protein. Whey, egg, and most animal sources are great options for high-quality protein. If you're vegan or vegetarian, try to mix multiple plant sources to ensure you're getting the full spectrum of amino acids.

Supplements and Recovery

Since many of us are trying to squeeze workouts into our busy lives, supplements can come quite in handy. Essentially, the role of supplements in recovery is to perform the same function as nutrition, just in a more convenient form. Therefore, seek out supplements that emphasize hydration and/or carbohydrate drinks. Additionally, protein shakes are also a great method of conveniently imbibing quality protein.

It's important to keep in mind that the vast majority of supplements will have very minor effects on recovery or performance. When it comes to recovery, additional supplements that may help include:

Creatine

Supplemental creatine is usually in the form of creatine monohydrate; this is the most widely used form of creatine and also has tons of research evidence to support its use. Occasionally, you'll see alternative forms of creatine marketed as being more effective than monohydrates. That's hogwash. Ignore those claims. Some supplement companies are attempting to solve a problem that doesn't exist; there are no issues with creatine digestion, absorption, or storage with creatine monohydrate.

With that rant out of the way, we have evidence that creatine can support recovery after hard exercise. This is likely because creatine can both enhance protein synthesis (creation of new muscle proteins) and may also limit post-exercise intracellular calcium concentrations. By limiting excess calcium, fewer enzymes are released to break down muscle following exercise.

In turn, you'll have less soreness! To enhance recovery, I'd suggest adding 2-5 grams of creatine monohydrate to some sort of drink following exercise. To stay frugal, I'd recommend an unflavored creatine powder which should mix well with something like orange juice or even a protein shake.

Beetroot (or others)

Beetroot is a popular supplement for enhancing blood flow via the production of nitric oxide. Beetroot falls into a category of supplements known as vasodilators or nitric oxide "boosters." Usually, bodybuilders use these supplements religiously in order to support their muscle pumps during strength training. However, beetroot and other nitric oxide boosters can also enhance recovery.

If you think about it, this effect is quite intuitive. If our vascular system is dilated and able to deliver more nutrient-rich blood to exhausted and/or damaged muscles, they should recover more quickly. Indeed, previous research has shown that beetroot supplementation can accelerate recovery when compared to a placebo.

Amino Acids

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. One potential benefit to consuming amino acids is that they should be digested and absorbed more quickly than whole proteins. However, the astute reader will quickly note that additional amino acid intake is likely futile if you're consuming enough protein. Frankly, I'd agree with that statement.

Before looking to amino acids for supplementation, I'd recommend ensuring you're consuming close to 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight every day. For a 170-pound person, this would be a protein intake around 125 grams per day. If your dietary protein is lacking, amino acid supplementation may help, but its overall effects are likely no more effective than simply consuming a protein shake.

Other Recovery Techniques

While nutrition and supplement strategies can improve recovery, there are a handful of other techniques that might also be beneficial.

Cryotherapy

Cryotherapy refers to any type of strategy where you're cooling the target tissue. The most common methods include ice baths, cryo chambers, or even icing specific sites. Ice baths have actually been shown to enhance recovery between endurance bouts and reduce soreness following tough training, however, this effect might not be much more pronounced than general active recovery.

On the other hand, cryo chambers (whole body and partial) have a little more consistent literature to support their use for recovery. Cryo Chambers can reduce soreness via diminishing post-exercise inflammation and they appear to be more effective at this action than other forms of cryotherapy. The downside is that cryo chambers aren't quite as easy to set up as a simple ice bath. You'll likely need to find a facility with a chamber and it will definitely cost you.

Foam Rolling

Foam rollers are a common staple in just about every gym these days. These tools can be great for relieving some soreness and stiffness acutely, however, they probably don't do a whole lot in the long run. Studies show that foam rolling isn't quite as effective at hastening recovery or reducing soreness as an ice bath. I think foam rolling can be an easy and quick technique to help you warm up for a training session, however, its use in accelerating recovery is dubious at best.

Sleep

Optimizing your sleep is a fantastic method for ensuring you're promoting recovery. Remember, we recover outside the gym, and the best window for recovery is while you're sleeping. Proper sleep induces a metabolic and hormonal environment in the body that's primed for repairing muscles and preparing your body for the next bout of exercise. I suggest aiming for 7-8 hours of sleep every night; anything less might impair that metabolic and hormonal environment, and anything more is likely unnecessary and may even leave you groggier throughout the day.

Not sure how to improve your sleep? Here are a few quick tips:

  1. Try to establish a sleep routine where you go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
  2. Make sure your room is cool, dark, and quiet. Try to limit distractions like cell phones, TVs, or even pets if they get too rambunctious.
  3. Dial down your electronics usage in the final few hours before bed. You'll have an easier time falling asleep if you haven't been staring at a bright screen. Try reading a book, writing in a journal, or doing other calming activities as you wind down.

FAQs About Muscle Recovery for Athletes


How long does it take for a muscle strain to recover?

This entirely depends on the severity of the muscle strain, its location, and how you strained the muscle. Generally, we divide muscle strains into three levels of injury:

Grade 1

A grade 1 muscle strain is a pretty minor injury and will probably bog you down for a few days. Some have previously suggested that the muscle damage from an intense resistance training workout could be considered a grade 1 strain. While that contention is more so for orthopedic physicians to debate, a grade 1 injury shouldn't keep you out for more than a week.

Grade 2

A grade 2 muscle strain generally involves a more serious injury and probably includes some legitimate tearing of muscle fibers. You might hear or feel a popping sensation when the injury occurs, and you'll be able to exactly pinpoint when the injury happened and what you were doing when it happened. You'll be in a good deal of pain for a few days, as well. Depending on the severity of this injury, a grade 2 muscle strain could take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to recover. This will also largely depend on the recovery route you take, and I highly suggest working with a qualified professional to ensure you're progressing the correct way. A physical therapist who's used to working with athletes is a great start.

Grade 3

A grade 3 muscle strain usually involves a complete tear of a muscle. When a grade 3 strain happens, it's pretty obvious. You'll have quite a bit of pain as well as a visible deformity at the injury site. Google these injuries at your own risk. Depending on the location and mechanism of the injury, a grade 3 strain may require surgery to heal. Either way, you'll probably require at least a few months before you're close to 100 percent again. For severe injuries or surgically repaired tears, the injury site may never feel 100 percent again, unfortunately.

What is a good post-workout meal?

A good post-workout meal contains everything we discussed above: at least 500mL (16.9 fl oz) of liquid, around 0.5-1.0g/kg of carbohydrate, and 20-40 grams of high-quality protein.

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