After exercise, you and your muscles need time to recover. Our muscle mass and strength reduce as we age, by around 3-8% per year after we hit 30 .
This can be avoided with regular exercise, but your body may need more time to recover as you get older. So what does the science say about muscle recovery?
What is muscle recovery and how can you speed it up?
As the name suggests, muscle recovery is the process by which our muscles recover after intense exercise. It is crucial in preventing muscle fatigue, and can be considered as important as exercise itself.
Understanding how exercise effects the physiology of the body is key to aiding its recovery. During exercise, muscles pull and stretch, creating microscopic tears that are fixed during the recovery period. Satellite cells hurry to repair the damage by replicating, growing into mature cells and fusing onto your muscle fibres. This builds your muscles back bigger and better, preparing your body for more activity in the future.
Exercise also uses up the body’s store of glycogen that powers movement and leads to the build up of lactic acid in cells. This can cause muscle soreness, which we have all experienced during particularly intense exercise. Muscle recovery gives the body a break and allows it to clear the accumulated lactic acid from its system.
Adjust the time, intensity, frequency and type of rest
Resting after exercise is therefore integral to maintaining muscle strength and fitness. However, things are not quite that simple, and the time, intensity, frequency and type of rest can all impact muscle recovery:
- The amount of recovery time between sets of exercise or during an exercise session is important. You need to allot an appropriate time for recovery to match the intensity of exercise. For example, interval training includes short bursts of activity followed by equally short periods of rest.
- The intensity of recovery also matters; this can be measured by the maximal heart rate achieved in the breaks between exercise. For example, interval training at 90-95% maximal heart rate could be followed by a recovery period of about 40-60% maximal heart rate.
- Slightly different to recovery time, frequency of recovery refers to the number of days per week that are dedicated solely to muscle recovery. This varies with the intensity of exercise, for example, a standard training session could require just one day of recovery. While a marathon would require several days of recovery time . Adjusting your number of recovery days according to the intensity of exercise is therefore key to successful muscle recovery.
- This brings us to active vs passive types of recovery. Active recovery is when you continue to move your body even during recovery, for example during a cool down. This can accelerate the removal of lactic acid from the muscles, while stimulating blood flow and promoting muscle healing. Studies have shown that active recovery promotes faster return to homeostasis and muscle recovery after exercise than passive recovery, which uses no movement .
Training different muscle groups
Equally, focussing on different muscle groups during training can allow different parts of your body to rest. Try varying the type of exercise and muscle groups. For example, following weight training with a run the next day gives a different part of your body the chance to rest while exercising another.
Training yourself to exhaustion, fittingly known as the ‘exhaustion phase’ has been shown to increase the risk of injury and illness after exercise . Overtraining our muscles is best to be avoided for better muscle recovery. Common signs of overtraining include:
- Reduced performance over 7-10 days
- Increased resting heart rate or blood pressure
- Decreased body weight
- Loss of appetite
- Disturbed sleep
- Muscle soreness
- Reduced motivation for training.
If you have symptoms of overtraining, solutions can include reducing your training load, taking a temporary break from exercise or changing your type of activity until the signs stop .
Best nutrition for muscle recovery
It is always important to eat a balanced diet for health and longevity, but diet becomes especially important during muscle recovery. Different food groups hold different benefits to muscles, so you must correctly balance them. For example, eating a combination of protein and carbs alongside varied exercise can improve muscle recovery and reduce insulin resistance .
Supplements for muscle recovery
The supplement scene is booming with products promising to improve muscle health. It can be difficult to know which one to trust, and it is important to focus on supplements with claims backed by science.
For example, Timeline, a supplement comprising of Mitopure’s purified urolithin A has been proven to improve mitochondrial health and muscle endurance in human clinical trials. Mitochondria are mostly found in muscle cells and act as microscopic batteries that power our cells and allow us to move.
As we age, our mitochondria begin to dysfunction, which can cause muscle fatigue. Mitopure has been proven to promote mitophagy, the process by which old and damaged mitochondria are cleared away and repaired, improving muscle endurance.
Stretching, massage and compression garments
Stretching signals the long-awaited end of exercise classes in gyms everywhere. But how necessary is stretching? Stretching reduces lactic acid accumulated in muscle cells after exercise, limiting muscle strain and injury.
However, research shows that other methods of recovery like massages and compression garments may merely have a psychological effect.
No one can deny the state of relaxation you enter during a massage. However, research warns that massages performed too aggressively or too soon after exercise can create more muscle damage! 
Getting a massage immediately after exercise can reduce blood flow and removal of lactic acid from muscles, therefore slowing recovery rate. While good for much needed stress relief, the science remains undecided whether massaging helps or hinders recovery – a safe option would be to avoid booking an appointment immediately after exercise and waiting a few days.
Equally, compression garments have become popular for their perceived ability to reduce muscle fatigue and soreness. Studies have shown that compression clothing providing constant pressure can reduce muscle soreness and fatigue, but also slows the removal of by-products like lactic acid .
Research indicates small, possibly psychological benefits from compression garments with no harmful side effects, so compression could be worth a try.
The period of nocturnal inactivity known as sleep gives the body a chance to rest and its muscles to repair themselves, so is especially important after exercise. Muscle recovery is influenced by two types of sleep states:
- Basal sleep – the amount of sleep the body needs every night for recovery
- Sleep debt – which accumulates if we do not get enough basal sleep
Studies have shown that as sleep debt rises, so does stress and cortisol in the body, which can impair muscle recovery. It is therefore important to remember to simply get enough sleep to boost muscle recovery .
The information included in this article is for informational purposes only. The purpose of this webpage is to promote broad consumer understanding and knowledge of various health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.