Muscle recovery is important after any workout

How to Recover Your Muscles Like an Athlete

If you're always giving your workouts 100%, you might actually be short-changing your overall fitness. Taking time for post workout recovery is an essential but overlooked part of any activity regimen. Whether it's taking a day off from the gym or dialing down the intensity, incorporating recovery time in between workouts may very well be one of the most important facets of maintaining your hard-earned progress.

Not only that, but along with eating a balanced diet, getting restful sleep, and of course, regular workouts, recovery is one of the most important aspects of an effective wellness routine.

So why exactly is it so important and what can you do to maximize it? Put up your feet for a moment (you've earned it!) and let's explore.

Why is muscle recovery important?

In this day and age, most of us are focused on getting the most out of our workouts—whether that means going for one more rep or maximizing calorie burn. But whether you're a prolific gym-goer or prefer to do your strength training or workout routine from the comfort of home, it's important to not forget about what happens post-workout. No matter your fitness level, the muscle recovery process after exercise is just as essential to continuing to make gains, both in the gym and for overall wellness. It helps you maintain performance, replenish energy, support your fitness or weight loss goals and even helps you avoid physical and mental stress, as well as overtraining. You don't want to wake up one morning to find that you weren't giving your muscles the well-deserved rest days they needed!

To be clear, when we're talking about muscle recovery, we're mostly talking about skeletal muscle, which comprises approximately 40% of total body weight in humans. Attached by tendons (bands of connective tissue) to the bones, skeletal muscles are the reason why we can perform so many functions and movements in our everyday life—from picking up a pencil to doing a thruster with a dumbbell! Skeletal muscles also help maintain body posture (key to proper exercise form). Since you control when and how the skeletal muscles work, it is important to know how to let them rest between workouts so they can continue to perform these vital functions.

8 ways to recover your muscles after a workout

There's a myriad of ways to maximize your muscle recovery after a workout, and most of them are as simple as incorporating lifestyle changes and making smart choices following a workout, no matter if it's a strenuous one or a lightweight one. So which methods are the most effective? Follow these eight muscle recovery tips to get back in action in no time.

  • Put your masseuse on speed dial

    . Treat yourself to a post-workout massage. A meta-analysis showed that 20-30 minutes of massage immediately and within two hours of a workout helped promote greater exercise recovery by helping facilitate blood flow to the hardest working muscle groups. Don't have the time (or the funds) to get a massage right after a workout? Considering investing in a massage gun. A massage gun is an effective option for at-home self-massage of the muscle groups, especially after a hard workout.
  • Compression

    . Turns out there's a science behind why your activewear outfits tend to be so tight and form-fitting! Wearing compression garments is similar to massage when it comes to their benefits, as they help maintain healthy blood flow to your muscles, especially those impacted by exercise. Though compression isn't nearly as effective as a massage, compressive activewear can still positively impact recovery.
  • Ice, ice, baby!

    Cold water immersion (sometimes called an ice bath) involves a tub where the person participating will submerge their body in cold water from the neck down. Evidence suggests that this method is slightly better than passive recovery, with a temperature of 11-15 degrees Celsius for 11-15 minutes yielding the best results. While you can target specific areas, neck down submersion is the most common, and an effective way to help with post-exercise recovery as well as strength and endurance, particularly following a tough workout. 
  • Take it down a notch

    . When the going gets rough, the tough keep working out. Active recovery involves engaging in exercises that are shorter and less intense, or utilizing less affected muscles for one or two days after more intense workouts. Your active recovery workout is what you make of it, and can include anything from cardio based workouts to get your heart rate going, to low-intensity stretching with resistance bands.
  • Say "namaste" to muscle recovery

    . Restorative yoga is also a great option for lower-intensity muscle activation. There's no one best way to incorporate active recovery into your workouts. While some might implement active recovery between exercise sets or days, others may choose to do it during their cooldown. Choosing what works best for you is the best way to ensure you're getting the most out of your recovery days or rest periods.
  • Try a foam roller

    . It might feel a bit uncomfortable on those days when your muscles are really sore, but these soft, puffy "torture devices" are actually your ticket to feeling better faster. Plus, foam rolling can help activate your underactive muscle groups while stretching the overactive muscle groups.
  • Prioritize other aspects of your health

    . Remember, putting your health first is not just about exercise. Making sure all components of both your mental and physical health are in harmony not only contributes to overall wellness, but will help facilitate optimal exercise recovery. This includes stretching both before and after a workout, getting restful sleep, managing stress, and incorporating certain foods and supplements into your routine.
  • Feed those muscles

    . Making sure you are following a diet that aligns with the healthy exercise choices you are making is a no brainer, and in order to properly facilitate post exercise muscle recovery, we need to fuel our bodies with proper energy and nutrients. This means a healthy balance and consumption of high protein and carbs, along with adequate amounts of both fluids and electrolytes.

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Which muscles recover the fastest?

This is a bit of a trick question, so the short answer is "it depends." The longer answer is, there are two types of skeletal muscle fibers, fast-twitch and slow-twitch, and depending on how much of each type you have, it will influence the time it takes for high-intensity exercise recovery.

  • Slow-twitch muscle fibers

    (type I fibers) fatigue more slowly, and these muscles focus on smaller, more sustained movement. They contain a higher blood supply and are aerobic in nature.
  • Fast-twitch muscle fibers

    (type II fibers) provide more powerful movement but fatigue quicker than their slow-twitch counterparts. And unlike their counterparts, fast-twitch fibers are anaerobic in nature and have a smaller blood supply.

All your skeletal muscles are comprised of both types of fibers, but these ratios vary due to several factors—including age, muscle function and even training. But, depending on the type of exercise you engage in and the duration of the exercises, the breakdown and muscle tension of these fibers will vary, with the rate of recovery also depending on these factors.

While an average nonathletic person may have a 50/50 balance of fiber types, they can be developed through different types of training, including both endurance training (type I) and strength training (type II). So, a marathon runner may have more slow-twitch muscles, while a sprinter or power lifter is more likely to have developed more fast-twitch muscles.

What should you eat for muscle recovery after a workout?

Optimal exercise performance relies on well-balanced nutrition, and food that helps provide the body with the fuel it needs to power through an exercise routine. And, how you nourish your body post-workout is just as important as what you do pre-workout. 

Nutrition for fitness recovery is built on the foundation of energy balance. Which just really means supporting your muscle cells post-exercise by focusing on caloric intake as energy. Try to match calories to your training goals, plan your meals around training sessions, and perhaps most importantly, include the macronutrients your body needs for adequate post-workout muscle recovery. These include carbs for replenishing energy and glycogen, protein for muscle protein synthesis, and healthy fats for promoting a healthy inflammatory response.

  • Carbohydrates

    —The primary energy source for those engaging in moderate to intense activity, though it is important to match your carbohydrate needs with the type of activity you're engaging in. The less intense the activity, the fewer carbs you will need to replenish and the more intense the activity, the more carbs will be needed. This is especially important for replenishing glycogen stores in the body post-workout.
  • Protein

    —A must for promoting muscle protein synthesis in the body, you should aim for 1.6-2.0 grams of protein per kilograms of bodyweight to properly facilitate exercise recovery. Combining with carbs is also a good idea to inhibit muscle breakdown. In fact, 1-2 smaller protein-rich meals in the first 3 hours post exercise has been found to positively impact protein synthesis, and studies have shown that intake of complete protein (about 20-30 grams) plus consumption of carbs can facilitate exercise recovery quicker than consuming protein or carbs alone. Some good sources of protein include lean meat like fish and chicken, or if you're on a plant-based diet, grains like quinoa are protein-rich options.
  • Fats

    —Healthy fats play a role in both hormone production and as an energy source. Focus on getting fats from flaxseeds, walnuts, cold water fish, with a focus on getting more heart-healthy omega-3s and limiting omega-6 intake. Olive oil and avocado oil are also good cooking oil choices.

Micronutrients and phytonutrients also play a role in proper nutrition post workout. These vitamins and minerals are usually found in a healthy diet that includes the macros previously mentioned. Phytonutrients are produced by plants and found in color fruits and vegetables, tea, whole grains, and spices.

Last, but certainly not least, hydration is essential to healthy living. Water is life, maintaining our body temperature, supporting our joints, transporting nutrients to where they need to go in our bodies, and even flushing out toxins. Hydration is especially important for athletes; replenishing the water lost from sweating is crucial.

What supplements are best for muscle recovery?

Beyond food, supplements also can play a beneficial part in post-exercise muscle recovery. These nutrients not only can help optimize your workout, but are especially supportive of post-exercise muscle recovery.

  • Whey protein

    —Why whey? Not only is it a great source of BCAAs, but this type of protein also promotes lean muscle-building, may help fight age-related muscle decline, and even supports protein synthesis and healthy immune cells! Talk about a jack of all trades!
  • HMB

    —Otherwise known as calcium ß-hydroxy-ß-methylbutyrate monohydrate, this naturally occurring compound is produced in your body when the amino acid leucine is broken down. It helps promote lean muscle growth and is considered a great option to support muscle recovery—especially when combined with vitamin D, this is a powerful option for supporting exercise strength and longevity.
  • Creatine

    Creatine, a compound found in skeletal muscle, helps replenish muscle cells' energy and turn that energy into muscular strength. Beyond the bench, this small but mighty nutrient supports cognition and helps maximize results in the gym for those who are already prioritizing rest and proper muscle recovery.
  • Arginine

    —Another amino acid, arginine is known for its ability to produce nitric oxide, supporting healthy blood flow and allowing nutrients and oxygen to be delivered to your body more efficiently, which is great for replenishing post-workout energy. Arginine is also innovative for its ability to support aerobic and anaerobic capacity, two essential components of a good strength session and maintaining healthy respiratory function after.

If you're not sure what you need, this fitness quiz will have you well on your way to being a recovery pro by your next workout!

About the Author: Holly Denton got her degree in English Literature from Florida State University and previously worked in English education abroad with the Peace Corps and other development organizations before joining Life Extension, where she is currently a Copywriter.