Understanding the best methods for muscle recovery after exercise will help you optimise your fitness regime.
Many of us exercise regularly for fitness, to lose weight or even just for the fun of it. However a fitness world which constantly preaches for people to ‘punch through the pain barrier’ may be doing more harm than good. While most people will instinctively focus on exercise, what they should really be doing is looking at muscle recovery. Exercise is great for health and longevity, but if you don’t give your muscles time to recover, you could be wasting a lot of time and effort. Here’s why..
What is muscle recovery?
As the name implies, muscle recovery is simply the process by which your muscles recover after a hard period of exercise.
During vigorous exercise, you may push your muscles to muscle failure – the point at which you are no longer able to do another repetition. Exertions can break down the fibres in your muscles rendering them less capable of doing their job. You’ll feel the effects in soreness, stiffness and a reduced ability to lift weights.
Many people will see this as a positive sign that exercise is working. ‘No pain no gain’, goes the slogan. If it’s not hurting, it’s not doing any good.
That’s only partly true. What most people don’t realise is that during intense exercise is not where you experience the real gains. That comes later when your muscles have had time to recover. This is the time your body repairs your muscles, building them back bigger and better than before. If you’ve scheduled your recovery well, the next time you exercise, you should be able to keep going for longer.
Why is muscle recovery important?
Muscle recovery is crucial to combatting muscle fatigue and improving your overall health and fitness, and is important as exercise itself. If you’ve exercised regularly, you’ll will know the feeling of waking up with aches and pains the next morning. Movement causes your muscles to scream in protest and you can’t run as far or lift the same loads as normal. This is your muscles telling you they are fatigued and need time for rest and recuperation.
Your body will use this time to repair the damage and better prepare your muscles for future exercise. In much the same way as your body’s immune system fights disease, exposure to exercise builds endurance. The body learns and builds its resistance to ensure it is in a better position to deal with those strains in the future.
Most training programs will therefore come with scheduled rest days, but if you’re designing your own routine you should always remember to schedule rest for muscles. This could include taking time out completely or varying the groups of muscles you work in each session.
How long do muscles take to recover?
Recovery times can vary for each person. It depends on how intense your exercise session was and your general fitness levels. Relatively light exercise might take around 24 hours for recovery while more strenuous sessions can take two to three days. If you’ve been pushing things particularly hard, it might take even longer.
It’s important to listen to your body – it will tell you when it feels recovered. Generally speaking, including a couple of rest days throughout your weekly schedule will give your muscles the space they need to recover. You should also vary workouts so you’re doing different types of exercise and working different muscles. For example, if you follow up a day of weight training with a run, you’re giving one part of your body the chance to rest while exercising another.
What happens to your muscles when you work out?
Heavy training forces your muscles to contract and stretch as fast as they can. This causes microscopic tears in the fabric of the muscles. This is perfectly normal, but the size of the tears will grow with the intensity of your exercise. The more you do, the greater your chances of experiencing sore muscles the next day. Excessive training can lead to injury such as muscle strains or even muscle tears.
If this happens, you’ll need prolonged periods of rest which can compromise your overall fitness efforts. It makes sense, therefore, to understand where your limits are and leave it at that. A ideal workout will be one which takes muscles to the limits of their endurance but not beyond before giving them space for recovery.
Why muscle recovery is more important than training
Although many people focus on the training element, it is the rest where all the good stuff happens. Exercise will deplete your stores of glycogen which your body uses to fuel bursts of energy and will also lead to the build of up lactic acid within cells. This can have harmful effects which, at the very least, will lead to soreness. Muscle recovery gives your body a change to repair all the damage caused by exercise and clear lactic acid from their system.
When your muscles break down, satellite cells rush to the site of the damage. These cells replicate, grow into mature cells and fuse to your muscle fibres. This process forms new muscle protein strands which will not only restore your muscles but will increase their size and strength to ensure they can cope with physical activity in the future. In other words, they will rebuild your muscles bigger than before, increasing your stamina and building your strength.
Exercise, then, is the ‘pain’ part of the equation. It exposes you to a form of stress known as eustress which might be unpleasant and distressing in the short term, but will lead to longer term gains. Rest is the ‘gain’, where the body rebuilds the muscles making sure they are stronger and more durable than before.
What are the causes of poor muscle recovery?
In some cases, you may find that muscles are taking longer to recover than expected. Soreness and muscle pain can linger for days after exercise.
A number of factors can affect the speed with which your muscles recover including the intensity of exercise and your own physical fitness. Sleep, exposure to stress, diet, wellbeing and other lifestyle factors can all determine how long it takes to recover. Waiting for this process to play out can be frustrating, but if you cut back on your rest and recovery time you may be doing yourself more harm than good. If you start to exercise too soon, your muscles will be working in a sub optimal condition. At best it will slow the rate at which you gain fitness. At worse it could increase the risk of injury.
The good news is that, as you build your fitness, your recovery time should theoretically improve. To get the most out of your exercise routines, therefore, it’s a good idea to gradually scale up activity, so your body’s capacity increases in line with your exercise. You are always pushing your body to do more, but not to the point of breaking it.
How can I improve my muscle recovery?
There are many things you can do to speed up muscle recovery, even from home. Top athletes, for example, will use sports massage and cryotherapy to improve the speed at which muscles recover. Ensuring you get plenty of proteins in your diet, staying hydrated and getting a balanced range of nutrients in your diet can all accelerate your recovery times.
Equally important is to get enough sleep, stay relaxed and avoid stress. Stress is an unavoidable part of our modern life, especially since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to recent World Health Organization, the pandemic triggered a 25% increase in occurrences of stress and anxiety around the world. Studies also show that exposure to psychological stress can harm muscle recovery. Aside from harming our wellbeing, then, stress can also harm our attempts to get fitter.
Top tips to maximise muscle recovery
Boosting muscle recovery, therefore, requires a range of measures including:
- Get more sleep: There’s a reason why you feel like taking a nap after a heavy exercise session. Your body needs it. Sleep gives your heart a chance to rest, cells a chance to grow and your muscles space to repair themselves. It also helps the body build an effective immune system which will fight off disease and ensure you’re in the best possible position to build your fitness levels.
- Eating well: It’s important to eat a healthy balanced diet at all times but it can be particularly important in muscle recovery. When athletes are training they will try to get a lot of protein into the system will help to rebuild muscle fibres. Carbohydrates will restore your glycogen levels which will have been depleted during exercise. Meanwhile a good, balanced diet will ensure the body has a steady supply of the nutrition it needs to maintain operations.
- Drinks: It is always important to stay properly hydrated. During exercise, especially in hot weather, you can lose a lot of water from your body. Dehydration can impair your muscles’ ability to repair themselves. A particularly useful drink could be tart cherry juice which has been linked to reducing muscle inflammation after workouts.
- Avoid bad stuff: Alcohol and tobacco will affect your musculoskeletal system and can hinder recovery.
- Massage: Regular massage can ease the pain you feel in your muscles and improve muscle elasticity and flexibility. Top athletes use massage as a way to improve recovery time as well as reduce the risk of injury.
- Hot and cold-water therapy: Switching between hot and cold water causes blood vessels to dilate and changes your heart rate. It improves blood flow and, according to some research, has been shown to improve muscle recovery.
- Cryotherapy: In recent years, top athletes have taken to cryotherapy treatments in order to improve muscle recovery. The idea is that exposure to extreme cold can improve the muscles’ ability to repair themselves. Research has shown that this can be effective in reducing pain, inflammation and reducing muscle tiredness. This obviously is only available to people with access to specialist facilities.
- Compression garments: Many athletes have taken to compression garments to reduce muscle soreness in relation to exercise. The idea is that it acts as a form of low intensity massage and raise the temperature of the skin promoting improved blood flow to muscles.
- Supplements: Taking some supplements has also been shown to improve muscle recovery. This market is booming with a whole range of supplements being promoted which promise to improve muscle condition. The supplement industry is a big business with a host of products on the market promising you better recovery times, better fitness and increased endurance. Some will be better than others, which is why it’s important to focus on those which come backed by verifiable information.
Supplements that help muscle recovery
One supplement dedicated to improving muscle recovery is Timeline, made of purified urolithin A from Mitopure. A major player in muscle health is our mitochondria, famously known as the powerhouse of the cell. These microscopic batteries power our muscles and allow us to move. Unfortunately, with age, our mitochondria begin to dysfunction, causing muscle fatigue. Mitopure has been proven to support mitochondrial health and boost muscle endurance in clinical trials in humans.
Building back better
Muscle recovery, therefore, is perhaps the single most important part of your exercise regime. Without it, much of the work you do in the gym could go to waste. Some of it may even end up being counter-productive. If exercise is the first part of the equation for gaining fitness, muscle recovery is the second. It’s the time when your body puts the rebuilding blocks in place to become faster, fitter and stronger in the future. So while you may think you don’t have the time to take a rest, the reality is you can’t do without it.
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.