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Muscle Recovery Do’s and Don’ts for Optimal Fitness

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Muscle recovery - Dr. Axe

Whether you’re trying to burn fat or gain muscle, what you do in terms of exercise, diet and the time you rest in between workouts makes all difference. We all know that working out is great for boosting strength, slimming down and toning up, but unless you want to deal with ongoing muscle soreness, fatigue and poor performance, it’s important to pay attention to muscle recovery “dos and don’ts.”

How many days off from training should you take each week? What should you eat post-workout? Let’s find out below.

Importance of Muscle Recovery

Exercise is actually a form of physical stress. This may surprise you, but it’s considered a “good stressor” because it helps the body grow back stronger once it adapts.

That being said, too much exercise leads to too much stress that the body can’t cope with. Over-exercising without enough rest in between workouts is “maladaptive” and can lead to physiological symptoms, including:

  • Soreness and pain
  • Susceptibility to injuries, such as muscle tears
  • Dehydration
  • Fatigue and increased need for sleep
  • Poor performance
  • Low motivation and moodiness

If you want to benefit from exercise (and who doesn’t?), then you need to let your muscles recover. According to experts, this involves:

  • resting
  • feeding yourself well
  • hydrating
  • doing active recovery
  • possibly doing cold water immersion
  • getting enough sleep

Muscle Recovery Do’s

The No. 1 thing to do to promote muscle recovery is to feed your body all the nutrients it needs. While physical activity is key for overall health, your diet is still the single most important aspect to focus on.

Here’s what to do to help your muscles recover properly: 

1. Eat Plenty of Protein (Amino Acids)

If you’re active but eat a modern/processed diet, you may not be eating enough protein foods.

How much protein do you need? You want to measure your body weight in pounds. Typically if you’re trying to build muscle, eat that many grams of protein a day.

Alternatively, you can eat half of your body weight in grams of protein a day if you’re trying to strengthen up. According to an article published in Nutrition and Muscle Recovery, “the most influential nutritional resources for promoting muscle anabolism are proteins, amino acids, carbohydrates, antioxidants, and dietary supplements.”

Protein plus complex carbs make the best basic combo for supplying your stained muscles with nutrients so they recover. Immediately post-workout, try having collagen protein, creatine protein or whey protein to help your muscles repair so you can get stronger.

Combine these with healthy foods, like berries, leafy greens or yogurt, for even better results. Other foods that can aid in muscle recovery include chicken, turkey, raw milk, yogurt, grass-fed beef and fish.

2. Consume Anti-Inflammatory Foods and Hydrate

Add plenty of omega-3 fatty acids to your diet, which are found in omega-3 foods like wild-caught salmon, nuts and seeds.

Fish oil  from a supplement is also beneficial — plus consuming chia seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts and grass-fed beef can help boost your omega-3 intake. These fats are great for boosting blood flow and supporting your immune system and mood as well, especially if you have inflammation tied to a condition such as arthritis.Additionally, don’t forget about your fruits and vegetables. These foods are low in calories and might not have much protein, but they’re the best sources of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that your body needs to fight soreness, oxidative stress, inflammation and soreness.Finally, drink lots of water! Other hydrating drinks include coconut water, fresh pressed juices, herbal teas and bone broth.

3. Do Compound Movements With Large Muscle Groups

If you’re going to the gym and just doing a bunch of bicep curls and calf raises, that’s not going to build the maximum amount of muscles. Instead, target your largest muscle groups, which include your legs and your back, as well as your chest and shoulders.

Focusing on larger muscle groups, do full compounding movements — things like squats with overhead presses combined. Those sorts of exercises stacked together increase the intensity of your workout and use your entire body, which releases the most human growth hormone, builds testosterone naturally and helps you recover even faster.

4. Stretch After Working Out

Post-workout, stretch for about 10 minutes to help your muscles transition to a resting phase.

5. Have Active Recovery Days

“Active recovery” describes light, low-intensity types of exercise that can be done on days when you’re not training. This can include gentle yoga, walking, cycling or other anaerobic activities that are not too straining.

Active recovery can help remove lactate and hydrogen from muscles and boost circulation, so it may have benefits for reducing muscle soreness.

6. Try Cold Immersion

Want to know how to relieve sore muscles fast? Some people swear by cold immersion, such as taking an ice bath shortly after exercising.

Studies suggest that cold exposure can help decrease delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS), especially when you combine it with active recovery. It may also help with performance, since it potentially reduces inflammation, and like exercise, it causes the body to adapt, which can have other payoffs for your immune system.

7. Give Massage Therapy or Foam Rolling a Try

Massages that are not too aggressive may help decrease muscle soreness, pain and even emotional stress. One meta-analysis found that “massage seems to be the most effective method for reducing DOMS and perceived fatigue.”

Massaging yourself, using a foam roller or visiting a professional for massage therapy are also helpful for limiting inflammation and boosting blood flow. Don’t massage very sore muscles to the point of hurting yourself, though. Aim for gentler massages.

Compression garments are another option to consider. Some studies show they can help enhance recovery from resistance exercise when used within 24 hours after a workout.

Related: 20 Exercise Hacks to Sneak More Fitness Into Your Day

Muscle Recovery Don’ts

The No. 1 “don’t” regarding muscle recovery is to avoid overtraining.

Your body needs rest to grow, but your muscles don’t grow when you’re exercising all the time. In fact, they actually grow while you’re sleeping and resting — or, in other words, between your workouts.

Things to avoid:

1. Don’t Train Every Single Day

You want to take off at least one day a week. For most people, taking off from exercise two days a week allows muscles to complete rest and repair. Therefore if you’re currently working out at a difficult intensity six or seven days per week, reduce your exercise load.

2. Don’t Consume Junk Foods or Too Much Alcohol

Avoid added sugar, alcohol and fast foods as much as possible.

If you’re addicted to sugar and consuming it regularly, it’ll cause inflammation that messes with blood flow, performance and body composition goals. The same thing goes for fast foods, plus refined grains and hydrogenated oils, which are found in most unhealthy processed foods.

3. Don’t Do a Lot of Isolated Movements

If you want to maximize your workouts, do more compound movements (see above). This takes stress off of single muscles and focuses on larger muscle groups instead.

You can also try training different parts of your body on different days, which is a traditional bodybuilding approach. For example, you might do a maximum-intensity workout focused on your legs one day, then your upper body another day, then your core on another day.

4. Don’t Skimp on Sleep

Remember, you need lots of sleep to feel your best and perform. Research shows sleep deprivation can lead to many physical symptoms, including poor strength, focus, reaction times and more.

Aim for seven to nine hours per night for the most metabolic health perks.

5. Don’t Overuse Painkillers (NSAIDs)

It’s tempting to take a painkiller such as ibuprofen every time you feel sore and wiped out, but this can actually hinder your ability to adapt to exercise. Instead, follow the other tips in this article, which help your muscles bounce back naturally.

Recovery Time

How long does a muscle take to recover? Ultimately it depends on how often you’re training in general, plus the intensity of your workouts.

What are the stages in muscle recovery?

When your muscles are strained, they first experience tiny tears. Your body recognizes this and works on repairing them. This is a multiple-step process that involves repair of damaged muscle fibers and connective tissue formation.

Your body uses protein and carbs to complete the recovery process. Your blood vessels also dilate so circulation increases, which helps bring more nutrients to damaged tissue.

Then, waste (such as lactic acid and carbon dioxide) must be removed from the damaged area. This is done with help from your lymphatic system.

Once new tissue is formed with help from myokine proteins, then the tissue is remodeled and smoothed so it functions properly. The whole process can take up to several days or sometimes even longer.

How long should you wait between workouts?

If you’re doing very strenuous exercise, you’ll need more time to rest between workouts. The ideal amount of time to give yourself to recover is between one and three days, with a longer duration for high-intensity exercises, such as those that really fatigue muscles.

One study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that it took about three days (72 hours) for full muscle recovery to occur between difficult strength-training sessions.

For most people doing a mix of moderate to intense exercise, taking two days off (48 hours) between tough workouts is the general recommendation. According to Bodybuilding.com, “For most lifters, 2-4 sessions per week works well. Younger lifters can usually handle more workouts, while older lifters should stick with fewer.”

If you’re doing easier workouts and listening to your body, you might be able to work out most days of the week, but still give yourself one day off.

How to Prevent Injuries

If you experience any symptoms of overtraining, then you’re putting yourself at greater risk for injuries. Watch out for the signs below, which indicate that you need extra rest:

  • Decreased energy and performance for more than several days
  • Increased resting heart rate or changes in blood pressure
  • Changes in appetite, which might lead to eating more junk or eating less
  • Sudden changes in body weight
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Irritability, anxiety and moodiness
  • Stubborn muscle soreness and aches

Those who are overtraining can help prevent themselves from getting injured by decreasing their exercise intensity or stopping all workouts (besides active recovery) for a brief period of time. Here are tips for preventing injuries:

  • Reduce your training load and frequency to give your muscles, joints and other tissues a chance to heal.
  • Stop exercise altogether temporarily, such as for one to two weeks.
  • Do another type of gentle workout or active recovery instead of anything too intense, such as more walking and stretching for a couple weeks.
  • Listen to your body. Wait to start working out against at a high difficulty and volume until all your overtraining symptoms are gone.

Conclusion

  • It’s important to take workout recovery seriously if you want to perform well and look your best. Resting between workouts helps your muscles grow back stronger, limits risk for injuries and supports a healthy metabolism.
  • What helps muscles recover faster? First and foremost, avoid overtraining. Be sure to take one to three days off from exercise per week, especially if you’re really straining yourself.
  • To reduce muscle soreness, hydrate, eat a healthy diet, and try cold immersion, foam rolling and massage therapy.

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