7 Doctor-Approved Tips for Maximizing Muscle Recovery
- Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is responsible for that achy, painful feeling in your muscles a day or two after your workout.
- Sleep and adequate nutrition are two of the best muscle recovery methods.
- Self-massage, cold exposure, compression, active recovery, and stretching may also help speed up the recovery process.
Tough workouts often go hand-in-hand with soreness—not so much during the workout, but after.
The term for this phenomenon is delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), and it’s characterized by an achy, painful feeling in your muscles a day or two after your workout. Not only is DOMS unpleasant, but it can hold up your workout routine if intense enough. More delays equal fewer opportunities for you to work toward your fitness goals.
To see steady progress in the gym, it’s essential to maximize your muscle recovery.
Why Muscles Get Sore After Exercise
Muscle soreness is a byproduct of the recovery process. New or intense activities like lifting weights, sprinting, and downhill running create tiny tears in your muscles. Once you’re done with your gym session, your body gets to work repairing those tears. To do this, it calls on the immune system to send out chemical messengers to initiate the repair process (1). This process involves inflammation and fluid buildup, which creates DOMS.
How to Maximize Muscle Recovery After Exercise
Here are several doctor-approved methods to speed up muscle recovery after exercise, from most effective to least.
There’s never a good time to skimp on sleep, and the post-workout recovery window is no exception.
It may sound overly simplistic, but sleep truly heals. “Sleep is when much of the protein synthesis and muscle repair occurs,” says Dr. Matthew Cowling, DO, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist in Madison, Wisconsin. And according to a research review published in 2014 in Sports Medicine, the dreamless non-REM sleep phase is when your body excels at rebuilding damaged muscles (2).
For optimal muscle repair, the National Sleep Foundation recommends seven to nine hours of sleep per night.
Sleep shares the top spot with proper nutrition in this list of the most effective recovery strategies. And protein is the chief nutrient to consider. It’s made up of amino acids, which can act as building blocks for muscle and other tissues.
Conventional wisdom says you need to get protein right after your workout to see the most recovery benefits. While the research is mixed, there’s enough support to go for it. “I say, get protein within 30 minutes of finishing your workout, because, why not?” Dr. Cowling says.
If you don’t typically have an appetite after your workout, a protein shake may be a good option. Quality protein powders typically offer 20 to 25 grams of protein per scoop; one to two scoops should be more than enough (1).
And, for building muscle mass, be sure to aim for a total of 1.4 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, as recommended by the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) (3). To figure out how much that is for you, start by dividing your weight by 2.2 to get your weight in kilograms. Then, multiply that number by 1.4 and 2 to figure out the right protein range for you.
Muscle soreness is a byproduct of the recovery process.
Self-massage with foam rollers, massage guns (also called “percussive massage treatment” or “vibration therapy”), and/or massage sticks is another effective method for muscle recovery. There are differences between these massage tools, but they all work by sending more blood to damaged tissues. “That will help reduce tissue swelling and may stimulate the repair of the area,” Dr. Cowling says.
Massaging damaged tissue can also ease soreness by interfering with pain signals. “The pain receptors in the body share a common pathway with temperature and touch sensation,” explains Dr. Cowling. Your body’s pain transmission system can only send so many signals at once, so if you introduce another sensation (like touch), it has to cut back on other sensations (like pain). “That’s why, when you bang your knee, you rub it, and it feels better,” Dr. Cowling adds.
He recommends doing five to ten minutes of self-massage after exercise. Work through the areas you hit during your workout, making sure to avoid joints and bones.
Ice baths are one recovery trend you can get behind. A study published in 2011 in The American Journal of Sports Medicine, found ice baths moved blood from muscles to skin, which helped lower post-workout muscle inflammation (4). Less swelling may help your muscles recover more quickly.
Plus, ice baths can decrease pain in much the same way as massage, says Dr. Cowling.
To try it for yourself, fill your bathtub (or buy an ice tub) with water and ice immediately after your next workout. Cowling recommends aiming for a temp of 15 degrees Celsius, or 59 degrees Fahrenheit. (You can test the temperature with a standard kitchen thermometer.)
Thankfully, you don’t have to sit in that cold water for very long. According to Dr. Cowling, you can reap benefits in just one minute. Feel free to hang out for five to ten minutes, if you’re up for it, “but I would say 15 minutes is the max,” Dr. Cowling advises.
Shop Products for Muscle Recovery
Compression gear like socks or leggings can aid muscle recovery when worn during or after a workout.
Compression works by gently squeezing your muscles to promote better blood circulation. This helps prevent blood and other fluids from pooling up and helps flush out inflammatory mediators, according to Dr. Cowling. Inflammatory mediators are messengers that respond to muscle damage by telling your body to generate inflammation. By tamping down on these mediators, you can help reduce swelling and pain.
For example, wearing compression socks over your calves during a long run can help prevent inflammatory mediators from entering the muscles, which lowers swelling from tissue damage. This ultimately can lead to less severe, and instead minor post-workout soreness and better recovery, Dr. Cowling says.
If you want to try wearing compression gear during or after your workouts, remember to compress the area where you’re most concerned about having soreness. There are compression socks of varying heights, as well as compression tights, shorts, and tops. Pick the gear that makes the most sense for your workouts.
It’s also important that your compression gear is comfortable, Dr. Cowling says. Start with clothing that offers mild compression (8 to 15 mmHg) and work your way up as needed (5).
Going for a light walk or doing another easy-effort activity after an intense workout, also known as “active recovery,” may help speed up recovery by increasing blood flow and flushing your muscles’ metabolic waste that contributes to soreness. However, the evidence is limited: “I wouldn’t hang my hat on it,” Dr. Cowling says.
Still, it couldn’t hurt. Plus, any time you can sneak in a bit of movement, that’s fewer minutes you’re spending on a chair or couch. So if you have time to spare, why not use it to move your body? Take an easy walk, flow through a few yoga poses, or pedal slowly on your exercise bike.
Despite its popularity, there’s little evidence that stretching helps with recovery, according to Dr. Cowling. In fact, a 2011 Cochrane review of 12 studies that looked at stretching pre- and post-workout found that stretching had no effect on muscle soreness (6).
That said, some experts suggest that stretching after a workout may help improve flexibility, which may help you move better during exercise and daily activities, whic can help avoid injury (7). Consider stretching out your major muscle groups after a workout to increase flexibility.
The Bottom Line
- Interview with Dr. Matthew Cowling, physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist in Madison, Wisconsin.
- Fullagar, Hugh & Skorski, Sabrina & Duffield, Rob & Hammes, Daniel & Coutts, Aaron & Meyer, Tim. (2014). Sleep and Athletic Performance: The Effects of Sleep Loss on Exercise Performance, and Physiological and Cognitive Responses to Exercise. Sports Medicine. 45. 10.1007/s40279-014-0260-0
- Jäger, R., Kerksick, C.M., Campbell, B.I. et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 14, 20 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8
- Gregson, Warren et al. “Influence of cold water immersion on limb and cutaneous blood flow at rest.” The American journal of sports medicine vol. 39,6 (2011): 1316-23. doi:10.1177/0363546510395497
- “Compression Socks Compression Levels.” Healthwick, healthwick.ca/pages/compression-socks-compression-levels. Accessed 5 Apr. 2022.
- Herbert RD, de Noronha M, Kamper SJ. Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2011, Issue 7. Art. No.: CD004577. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD004577.pub3
- Long, Amber. “Three Reasons to Stay for the Cool-Down.” Ace Fitness, 2 Feb. 2018, www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/lifestyle/blog/6926/three-reasons-to-stay-for-the-cool-down.