Recovering from a tough workout is a science – there are so many different factors both before and after your workout that help determine how much benefit your muscles will get out of it, and in contrast, how sore you’re going to be the next day. Proper recovery techniques are also necessary to avoid both short- and long-term injury.
Here are my six essentials for recovery. I still have a ton of work to do on all this, but I’ve generally been a lot less sore since I started taking better care of myself in simple ways.
- Ensure your protein levels and hydration are on point every day. You need tons of water and electrolytes to replace what you lose in sweat, and though I’m pretty sure that line is straight out of a Gatorade commercial, sugary drinks simply aren’t going to cut it if you haven’t already been drinking real water throughout the day. Likewise, a hard workout sesh without enough protein in the tank is going to negatively impact muscle synthesis, as the body needs fresh proteins to build on new tissue. You want to eat more protein afterward, of course, but by then some of the damage could already have been done. You may think you’re cheating out of some extra pounds by not eating during the day, but when your body runs out of fuel, you actually start to retain fat cells, as your body thinks you are starving for real. The more you know.
- Warm up and warm down before and after your workout. This is the part that everyone hates, but is so important. When I swam competitively as a teen, I would spend 10% of the meet actually racing, and 50% of the meet just warming up and down between races. The coaches would follow us around and make sure we did at least a solid 15 minutes before and after, even if your event only took 30 seconds. That’s because lactic acid and other acidic byproducts build up in the muscles during intense activity, and if left alone, can delay muscle recovery. You want your muscles to be warm and ready to work anaerobically prior to expending energy, and conversely, you want to return your blood and oxygen flow back to normal levels post-workout. Active stretching is a must; running in place, doing squats and lunges, or riding a stationary bike are also good warm up/warm down ideas.
- Schedule lighter exercise days into your routine, as well as rest days. Everyone loves a good rest day, and they’re important, but the on-again, off-again cycle isn’t great for your muscle memory. Instead of flat-out resting some days, do a slow one-mile walk or jog, or swim a few laps to keep your muscles limber and engaged. This also goes for tapering before a race or other big physical event! Schedule at least two “down” weeks before your event to do light workouts so you’ll feel fresh on the big day, not sore.
- Get enough sleep. For people who love staying busy and active, sleep is the cousin of death. But it’s imperative for a fit and healthy lifestyle. While you’re sleeping, your body is rebuilding – brain cells, bones, muscles – it would be a damn shame to interfere with that natural process. And yet, that’s exactly what you’re doing by staying up late watching Netflix instead of getting rest after a big workout. Your muscles can rebuild while you’re awake too, but not as quickly. You charge your phone while you’re asleep; do the same for your body.
- Schedule a sports massage. I made it a few hundred miles before I started feeling some of the excruciating pain that runners are always talking about. My calf muscles, running along the insides of my shin bone, began to tighten up from the constant impact of running on cement, and they hurt 24/7. Even the brush of just one finger on my leg would send me screaming with pain! My half marathon was coming up and I couldn’t get the pain to go away with stretching, so I found a popular sports masseuse in town and told him about my issues. I ended up getting the most painful leg massage of my life, but felt great afterward, and haven’t experienced that tightness since. Sports medicine specialists aren’t like normal massage therapists – they apply extreme direct pressure to loosen various muscle systems, and they’ll warn you: it’s gonna hurt. Whatever your issue, always ask to have your psoas muscles worked on as well. This not-so-secret method will open up your posture and greatly relieve stress; you may even feel a bit moody afterward as biochemicals are released from this incredibly powerful muscle system.
- Try a supplement. I never really got the hang of how a good recovery was supposed to feel, until I started taking beta alanine, a somewhat common ingredient in pre-workout supplements (I use Super Set by BodyFuel). Without the jittery effects of caffeine, beta alanine increases the levels of carnosine in your muscles. You get a “tingle” and more endurance, and with daily dosage your muscle cells can form a protective layer against damage. A supplement like glutamine, for example, works differently by helping with protein metabolism to make sure your fuel is getting absorbed properly for making new muscle fibers. Supplements definitely aren’t necessary and they’re not for everyone, but if you do your research and try a couple out, you may find something that makes you feel great and you can’t live without it. Listen to your body.
Which area of recovery would you like to learn more about? I plan on sharing more specifics later on the types of stretching and warmups I do (especially benefiting people with injuries), my various experiences with pre-workouts and other supplements, and of course proper running form which by itself can prevent a lot of unnecessary soreness and injury.
Thanks so much for reading guys, really love getting feedback and connecting with others in the sport of life.