A good workout, no matter the modality, leaves you struggling to walk up stairs or lift your arms overhead. To minimize the time you spend battling muscle soreness — and the number of times you find yourself wondering if you really need to leave the house because, ow, even putting on clothes hurts — you should know how to properly recover from your workouts.
Sure, you can minimize soreness with basic recovery techniques like stretching and foam rolling, but true workout recovery is a blend of physical manipulation and nutrition designed to replenish the exact muscles and mechanisms you taxed during your workout.
Before you decide that that’s too complicated, read this article, where you’ll learn exactly how to recover from long runs, CrossFit workouts, HIIT and more.
How to recover from a long run
The actual distance of a “long run” differs for everyone depending on their cardiorespiratory fitness level, muscular endurance, current training cycle and more. For example, a long run during half-marathon training for me is 10 to 15 miles. Out of half-marathon training season, however, a run of five to eight miles suffices as a long run.
Whatever your distance, endurance training taxes your slow-twitch (type one) muscle fibers, or the muscle fibers responsible for low-intensity, repetitive exercise — like running a marathon. If you run long enough, however, your body will also start to recruit your fast-twitch (type 2) muscle fibers to help with slow-twitch tasks, so long runs present the scenario of taxing all types of muscle.
Additionally, endurance training depletes your glycogen stores (carbohydrates stored in your muscles for instant energy) and trains your body to use fat for fuel. All that said, to recover properly from a long run, you should focus on preventing lactic acid buildup and replenishing your glycogen stores.
Physical recovery: Cold therapy has proven particularly effective at helping endurance athletes recover from training sessions, although the effect may be more on your perception of recovery versus actual recovery. You can try whole-body cryotherapy, take a cold shower or apply ice packs while you rest. Static stretching can prevent muscles and joints from tightening up, while gently massaging and elevating your legs can alleviate fluid build-up.
Nutrition recovery: Eat fast-digesting carbs as soon as you can after your long run, along with ample protein to repair microtraumas in your muscles. Examples of good fast-digesting carbs include bananas, fruit juice and white rice. Avoid high-fat foods during the window right after your run, as fats can slow digestion and can prevent you from rebounding from endurance training. Some fat won’t hurt, so feel free to eat eggs or other lean protein sources cooked in a healthy oil. Don’t forget to rehydrate with electrolytes!
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How to recover from sprints
Whether you run, bike, swim or use some other modality to get your sprints in, speed training primarily taxes fast-twitch muscle fibers, which allow your body to perform high-power, explosive movements. Sprinting burns a lot of calories in a short amount of time, utilizes high levels of blood oxygen and puts stress on your lower extremity joints (ankles, knees and hips). To recover from sprints, you should focus on mobilizing your joints and replenishing lost nutrients.
Physical recovery: Spend 10 to 15 minutes performing dynamic stretches after a sprint workout. This helps to keep your joints mobile and your muscles flexible and can reduce the severity of soreness you experience the next day. Compression therapy may particularly help with sprint recovery, as it promotes healthy blood flow to the joints. Deep breathing may also offer some benefits, such as helping your heart rate return to a resting state and improving circulation.
Nutrition recovery: Similar to endurance training, speed training depletes your glycogen stores, so you’ll want to replenish those with simple carbohydrates. You should also drink an electrolyte-fortified beverage, such as Powerade, and eat protein to fuel muscle repair and growth.
How to recover from high-intensity interval training
Even when you use only your own bodyweight, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) develops speed, power and endurance. The variety of movements, full-body focus and fast pace that characterizes HIIT workouts can lead to muscle knots, limited range of motion and lasting soreness if you aren’t used to such intense exercise.
Physical recovery: The best thing you can do after a HIIT workout is to keep moving — slowly. A few minutes of walking or slow cycling gives your heart a smoother transition from work to rest and keeps your blood flowing, delivering more nutrients and oxygen to your fatigued muscles. Follow up with joint mobilization via dynamic stretching and preempt muscle knots with massage or percussive therapy.
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Nutrition recovery: All exercise induces some level of oxidative stress (an imbalance between antioxidants and free radicals in your body), but fast-paced, high-intensity exercise is particularly notorious for it. Because of that, you should consume antioxidant-rich foods after a HIIT workout in addition to the protein and carbohydrates your body needs to replenish and repair itself. Just a few examples of antioxidant-rich foods include berries, leafy greens, beets and broccoli.
How to recover from a CrossFit workout
CrossFit is essentially a type of high-intensity interval training that combines multiple types of exercise into one: strength, muscular endurance, cardio endurance and speed. As such, the best recovery techniques for CrossFit workouts vary significantly depending on the prominent feature of the workout. Overall, though, you should focus on joint mobilization, muscle repair and nutrient replenishment.
Physical recovery: Many CrossFit athletes are proponents of foam rolling and massage guns as the ultimate recovery tools, because they both help work out tight muscle knots that form in response to the fast-paced, compound movements characteristic of CrossFit. Icing your joints can help offset the pounding from high-impact exercises like box jumps and sprints, while static stretching helps you cool down from longer, more endurance-based workouts.
Nutrition recovery: Consume fast-digesting carbohydrates and protein as soon as you can after a CrossFit workout. You may also benefit from an amino acid drink, as amino acids are the building blocks of protein and spur protein synthesis, which facilitates muscle repair. Follow up a few hours after your post-workout meal with a hearty meal that includes complex carbohydrates, more protein and healthy fats.
How to recover from a strength training session
You may consider strength training and weight training the same thing, but true strength training involves very low rep schemes and very heavy weights. According to the American Council on Exercise, strength-building workouts should include sets of less than six reps with weights at or higher than 85% of your one-rep max for particular movements. For example, if I was trying to get stronger at squatting, I’d program five sets of five (5×5) squats at 85% of my maximum squat.
This type of training tests your ability to generate maximal output, which fatigues your nervous system in addition to your type two muscle fibers. To recover from a strength training session, focus on muscle repair and nervous system modulation.
Physical recovery: Allow your body time to transition from maximal output to rest by engaging in five to 10 minutes of slow, steady-state cardio — try walking, cycling or rowing on a rowing machine. Regulate your breathing as you do this to optimize nervous system recovery. After that, stretch the muscles used during your workout. Also, rest is imperative after a heavy lifting session: According to ACE, you should give yourself at least one full day to recover before training the same muscle group again.
Nutrition recovery: You can somewhat get a head start on your recovery by consuming protein or an amino acid supplement before your workout. Research shows that consuming protein alongside carbohydrates before a workout can trigger your body to utilize those nutrients during and immediately after the workout. Within 30 minutes of finishing your workout, you should eat a meal that consists of three to four grams of carbohydrates for every one gram of protein (e.g., 40 grams of protein and 120 grams of carbohydrates), according to the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
How to recover from a bodybuilding workout
While bodybuilding also employs weight training, the level and modality of resistance differs from that of strength training. When people do bodybuilding workouts, the goal is to increase muscle mass. The type of training used to increase muscle mass is called hypertrophy training, and it typically involves higher rep schemes and lower weights than strength training.
According to ACE, to achieve hypertrophy, you should focus on sets of six to 12 reps with short to medium rest intervals, using moderate to moderately heavy weights. When you lift weights that way, you work both slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscles because your body requires both power and endurance to perform moderately heavy lifts in succession. Like strength training, hypertrophy training also fatigues your nervous system, though not quite as heavily.
Physical recovery: Mobility and blood flow should be your areas of focus after a bodybuilding workout. Dynamic and static stretching can help with mobility, as can foam rolling. Percussive massage may also help with recovery, though the mobility benefits of percussive massage seem to be most prominent before a workout. To encourage blood flow, engage in a few minutes of steady-state cardio, try compression therapy or use heat therapy to increase blood flow to a particular area.
Nutrition recovery: As you might’ve noticed, carbohydrates and protein are essential post-workout nutrients. To optimize potential increases in muscle mass, you should consistently aim for a high-protein, high-carbohydrate within 30 minutes of finishing a hypertrophy workout. Because high-rep weightlifting routines may cause you to sweat more than low-rep routines, make sure to also replenish your electrolytes with a sports drink.
While most recovery tactics prove most effective when employed immediately after exercising, workout recovery is a long game. In addition to utilizing these techniques, you should implement recovery into your daily and weekly regimen beyond the 30 to 60 minute post-workout window.
That means eating a diet that supports your fitness goals; engaging in gentle, mobilizing exercise like stretching and yoga; staying hydrated before, during and after workouts; getting enough sleep on a regular basis; and practicing stress-relief and self-care activities that keep you emotionally healthy.
Another way to ensure that you don’t end up with an overuse injury is to vary your training and space out workouts of the same modality. For instance, if you’re a runner, you shouldn’t plan three speed training workouts in a row.
A week of solid training for a runner might look like this:
- Monday: Speed workout
- Tuesday: 6-mile tempo run
- Wednesday: Cross-training workout with resistance exercises
- Thursday: Rest day, do some gentle yoga
- Friday: Long run
- Saturday: Speed workout
- Sunday: Rest day
Now that you know how to recover from your favorite sweat sesh, learn how to warm up beforehand to prevent injuries and track the intensity of your workouts without a smart watch.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.