8 Workout Recovery Tips to Help Ease Sore Muscles
If you're feeling sore after you exercise, try these post-workout recovery tactics, from having a meal or snack to moving more.
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Why is post-workout recovery so important?
Whether you exercise to gain strength, improve endurance, or reap the general health benefits of getting fit, you need a post-workout recovery period if you want to see your goals take shape.
In fact, the benefits of strength or cardio sessions don’t just show up when you’ve conquered the last rep or crushed your final mile. It’s the rest time in between that leads to results.
“Recovery is essential for performance,” says Dan Giordano, a physical therapist, certified strength and conditioning specialist, and chief medical officer of Bespoke Treatments physical therapy center.
“When you exercise, you stress your body, you deplete your body’s fuel, and you damage your tissue,” he says. “Resting will allow your body to de-stress, replenish your energy stores, and make the repairs to strengthen your muscles.”
Recovery is about more than performance
Giving yourself adequate recovery, both immediately after a workout and scheduled into your weekly and/or monthly routine also provides endorphins, mental clarity, and better sleep, says Colleen Brough, physical therapist and assistant professor of rehabilitation and regenerative medicine at Columbia University.
Keep in mind, too, that recovery goes beyond rest days.
“Lots of people think of recovery as rest days, sleep, and bodywork, but it’s more than that,” says Rena Eleázar, a physical therapist and owner of Match Fit Performance.
“Recovery includes managing mental and emotional stress, nutrition, and hydration,” she says. “When you’re more intentional about recovery, you are setting your body up for the best environment to thrive.”
If you want to improve your workout performance and better your overall health, paying attention to your recovery strategies is super important.
(Here’s what not to do after the gym.)
What should workout recovery look like?
Recovery has four main components, according to Brough: muscle maintenance, nutrition, active recovery, and rest.
This is a holistic way to think about recovery, she says, explaining that muscle maintenance includes practices like stretching and foam rolling.
In terms of nutrition, eating an overall healthy diet (not just meals or snacks post-exercise) is the best way to fuel up and refuel for your workouts, says Nancy Clark, a registered dietitian and author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook.
“Your body is your machine, and if you want to perform, you need to give it premium nutrition,” she says. “To train and improve performance, pay attention to fueling your body.”
Most important, your recovery tactics should just feel good, says Brough. “This shouldn’t be a painful experience—it should feel rejuvenating,” she explains.
So make sure you’re choosing methods that you look forward to doing, rather than dread.
Don’t overlook the “when” of recovery.
Clark suggests planning out how you’ll fit recovery into your schedule, whether you’re talking mealtime or massage, to help you get it done. Putting it on your calendar will help you stick with it and find success.
How much time should you dedicate to recovery?
People who are just starting out exercising may need more time for recovery overall, says Eleázar. That’s because it’s new to their bodies.
On the other hand, people who have been working out for a long time may be able to do higher-intensity workouts for more days in a row.
Her general rule: take one complete rest day and one to two active recovery days during the week. If you’re doing high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or a super-heavy strength day, you may need 48 hours to recover.
Muscle soreness will be a pretty good indicator of whether you need more rest.
If you’re extremely sore 72 hours after a session, that’s probably a sign that you pushed too hard, and you may want to opt for a lower-intensity workout, active recovery session, or complete rest, Eleázar says.
As it is with your workouts, consistency is key with recovery. You want to do some form of recovery every day, whether that’s right after your workout, in the evening, or during a full rest day, Giordano says.
Keep recovery a consistent part of your routine, and you’ll reap the rewards.
How to improve your workout recovery
To maximize your workout payoffs, it’s smart to create an intentional recovery plan. Here are some of our experts’ tips to help you get started.
Do a cooldown
Your recovery kicks off at the cooldown, right after your sweat session. So make sure you actually do one, especially if your workout was intense.
“If we just stop on a dime, our engines are still revved, and we’re not as efficient as if we slowly bring ourselves down from an increased heart rate, respiratory rate, and increase in energy production,” Brough explains.
A cooldown is the perfect time to do easy stretching, foam rolling, or even meditating.
Get some sleep
When you sleep, you release hormones that promote healing, growth, and repair, like human growth hormone (HGH) and insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), explains Giordano.
You want to focus on both quality and quantity of sleep, he says, as the body releases more hormones in deep sleep.
Make sure you’re sleeping in a dark, cool, quiet room, and limit devices before bed. Prioritize practices like meditation (rather than scrolling) before resting your head, Giordano suggests.
This might help you reach those coveted seven to nine hours of rest, while also helping you get deeper sleep.
“There’s no way to replace rest and sleep,” Brough says. You need it to enhance performance, whether you’re a high-level or everyday athlete.
“It aids in muscle recovery and function, mood, mental clarity, and improvements in your overall energy levels,” she explains. “That translates to a more engaged athlete and primes you for returning to exercise the next day.”
Help your body recover by keeping it well-hydrated.
“Hydration is important for carrying out normal body processes and aids in digestion, which is important for recovery because your body processes the nutrients you get from your food in your gut,” says Eleázar.
For such a crucial step, it’s easy to forget.
“We often neglect hydration,” Brough adds. “Our bodies are not that good at regulating our need for hydration either.”
The best way to make sure you’re getting enough water, she says, is to simply listen to your thirst cues, especially during exercise.
Eleázar suggests a rule of thumb for hydration: drink half your body weight in ounces of water each day.
Keep in mind that the more you sweat, the more you should drink up afterward.
Have a meal or snack with carb and protein
Take post-workout snacks seriously.
“A lot of people are so busy cramming things into life, so food and sleep are low on the totem pole,” Clark says. ” But if you’re going to exercise, you want to get the most out of it, so you’re either fueling up or refueling.”
She suggests backing your workouts up to your meals. In other words, exercise after work, then have dinner soon after your session to refuel. This helps curb overconsumption of calories.
If you’re working out midday or an hour or two after a meal, consider getting in a snack that mixes carbs (to restore energy) and protein (to repair and rebuild your muscles).
Eat plenty of fruits and veggies
Tart cherries get a lot of attention for a post-workout snack or sip. Research shows they may help reduce muscle soreness, according to a recent study in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism.
But Clark says any dark, colorful fruit or veggie, including cranberries, blueberries, and strawberries, have anti-inflammatory phytochemicals that may provide the same benefit.
Eating a rainbow of fruits and veggies is your best bet. That way you get a whole range of health-promoting factors to enhance recovery, she adds.
Roll it out (or add vibration)
Massage guns like the Theragun, balls like the Hypersphere, foam rollers like Trigger Point’s Grid, and compression boots like those from Normatec can all have a place in your recovery routine.
According to two separate studies published in Frontiers in Physiology, many of these practices may help reduce muscle soreness and perceived fatigue,
“All of these tools can improve blood flow/circulation, downregulate or relax your nervous system, decrease cortisol levels, and help your body get into its anabolic state when your body is building and repairing its tissue,” Giordano explains.
Use them before your workout as a warm-up and/or after exercise as your cooldown. You can also use them on rest days—or anytime it feels good.
Take note of any muscles that felt tight during your workout, says Brough. Then make sure you give them extra attention when it comes to foam rolling.
“There’s a benefit in simply taking the time and attending to these areas,” she says.
Even if you’re feeling sore, it’s a good idea to get up and move around.
“This flushes out byproducts of a really hard workout. And the higher intensity of the activity, the more important active recovery,” Brough says.
Cross-training (or choosing an activity that doesn’t mimic what made you sore) is a good idea for active recovery. For example, if you’re been running, turn to swimming or biking.
Giordano also suggests mobility workouts or yoga to improve circulation, movement quality, and range of motion, and to relax your nervous system.
“Motion is lotion,” he says. “The better your body awareness and movement quality is, the better your performance will be.”
(Try this 10-minute yoga workout at home.)
When you’re done with your workout, take a second for mindfulness and reflection. Be present in your body, Brough suggests.
Be grateful for the workout and your body and tune in to how you feel and what you’re experiencing.
“So often, we miss relishing that part of exercise recovery,” she says. “And I think it’s important for building mental resilience and it maximizes mental clarity and calmness of body.”
Giordano also suggests practicing positive reinforcement and positive self-talk, and meditating to let your brain recover right along with your body.
“Periods of mental rest are followed by more-productive work periods,” he says.
How do you know if you’re recovering enough?
“If you are constantly stressing your body and not taking enough rest, your body will never adapt and grow,” Giordano says. “Instead, your body will become inflamed and your performance will decrease, which may result in overtraining syndrome.”
A few signs of overtraining include fatigue, stiff muscles, depression or anxiety, an irregular heartbeat, feeling unmotivated, insomnia, decreased appetite or weight loss, a lack of concentration, and frequent colds.
Injuries are another prime example of working too hard and not recovering properly, Brough says. This can include muscle strains, tears, stress fractures, and more.
So not only do you need rest and recovery—and the intentional practice of giving your body some TLC—to help with performance but also to avoid injury and mental setbacks too.
- Dan Giordano, PT, DPT, CSCS, chief medical officer of Bespoke Treatments in New York City, Seattle, and San Diego
- Colleen Brough, PT, DPT, assistant professor of rehabilitation and regenerative medicine at Columbia University in New York City
- Rena Eleázar, PT, DPT, CSCS, founder and owner of Match Fit Performance in New York City
- Nancy Clark, MS, RD, author of Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook
- International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism: "Tart Cherry Supplementation and Recovery From Strenuous Exercise: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis
- Frontiers in Physiology: "A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Foam Rolling on Performance and Recovery"
- Frontiers in Physiology: "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"