Exercise stretches your muscles and puts a demand on them that is more than they are accustomed to. This is how muscles get bigger and stronger, but the stress can cause muscle fiber tearing and swelling, which can cause muscle soreness and stiffness. Learning how to speed up the muscle recovery process can help you stick with your exercise programs and continue to make strides toward better health.
Why it’s important to give yourself time to recover?
Since exercise is a stress on your body, though a good one, you need to let your body rest and recover. This can be hard to do when you’re trying to enhance your physical fitness or manage your weight. But it will pay off in the long term. Rest allows your muscles to repair themselves, process wastes and reduce inflammation. Rest does not mean sitting still all day. It just means not stressing your muscles further. Schedule an active recovery day instead.1 Go for a walk to increase blood flow to your muscles and remove lactic acid without putting too much stress on them.
What helps muscles recover faster?
Your goal to speed muscle recovery is to increase blood flow, decrease muscle swelling and inflammation, rebuild torn muscle fibers, and remove metabolic wastes.
Sleep: Rest, and most importantly, sleep, is a great way to help your muscles recover quickly. Sleep is an active process. Hormones are secreted, and tissue wastes are processed. Try to get at least 7 to 9 hours of restful sleep to give your muscles time to recover.
Massages: Massages feel good, and they can help muscles recover as well. Whether you see a professional for massage therapy or use a foam roller for a self-massage, gentle massaging can increase blood flow and remove lactic acid from muscles.2
Hydration: Drink plenty of water after exercise and on your active recovery days. All chemical reactions in your body require water. You can increase the efficiency of these reactions by ensuring that you stay well-hydrated.
Cold Immersion: Many people use cold immersion or ice baths to help their muscles recover. An ice bath causes blood vessels to constrict and decrease blood flow. As muscles rewarm, blood flow increases, delivering nutrients and oxygen to muscle tissues. There is not a lot of research on cold immersion, so only do them if you believe they help you recover.3
What foods help muscle recovery?
The foods you choose to eat before, during, and after exercise can also impact how quickly they heal.
Protein: Choose healthy protein sources, such as lean meats or protein shakes, to ensure your muscles have the amino acids they need to rebuild muscle tissue.4 Example: meats, eggs, and dairy
Complex carbohydrates: Unprocessed, complex carbohydrates supply a ready energy source to recover muscle tissue. Examples: beans, protein powder, Greek yogurt, whole-wheat pasta
Anti-inflammatories and antioxidants: Choose foods and supplements that help your body neutralize toxins and free radicals. Examples: pineapples, berries, omega-3 fatty acids, and tart cherry juice
Potassium: Choose foods high in potassium, a mineral that is essential for effective muscle contraction. Examples: bananas, oranges, cantaloupe, spinach, broccoli, potatoes
An endurance athlete would increase their carbohydrate percentage, and a strength athlete may increase their percentage of proteins.
To get stronger and increase muscle mass, you need to gradually increase the intensity of your workout by continually asking a bit more from your muscles, a concept called progressive overload. However, you do not want to push so hard that your muscles have difficulty recovering, or frustration causes you to lose motivation to exercise. Using the right strategies, you can prevent and relieve sore muscles.
Most importantly, listen to your body. Take a moment after exercise to focus on each part of your body, looking for indications of muscle imbalance, weakness, or tightness that may be putting an excessive strain on other muscles. Use your active recovery day to do gentle stretches and resistance exercises to improve flexibility and balance muscle strength.
While we strive to always provide accurate, current, and safe advice in all of our articles and guides, it’s important to stress that they are no substitute for medical advice from a doctor or healthcare provider. You should always consult a practicing professional who can diagnose your specific case. The content we’ve included in this guide is merely meant to be informational and does not constitute medical advice.
Dupuy O, Douzi W, Theurot D, Bosquet L, Dugué B. An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. Front Physiol. 2018 Apr 26;9:403. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2018.00403. PMID: 29755363; PMCID: PMC5932411.
Wiewelhove T, Döweling A, Schneider C, Hottenrott L, Meyer T, Kellmann M, Pfeiffer M, Ferrauti A. A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Foam Rolling on Performance and Recovery. Front Physiol. 2019 Apr 9;10:376. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2019.00376. PMID: 31024339; PMCID: PMC6465761.
Rose C, Edwards KM, Siegler J, Graham K, Caillaud C. Whole-body Cryotherapy as a Recovery Technique after Exercise: A Review of the Literature. Int J Sports Med. 2017 Dec;38(14):1049-1060. doi: 10.1055/s-0043-114861. Epub 2017 Nov 21. PMID: 29161748.
Snijders T, Trommelen J, Kouw IWK, Holwerda AM, Verdijk LB, van Loon LJC. The Impact of Pre-sleep Protein Ingestion on the Skeletal Muscle Adaptive Response to Exercise in Humans: An Update. Front Nutr. 2019 Mar 6;6:17. doi: 10.3389/fnut.2019.00017. PMID: 30895177; PMCID: PMC6415027.