How to Improve Your Muscle Recovery After Working Out

Whether you’re an occasional exerciser or a hardcore gym-fan, at some point you’ll have to deal with muscle soreness. The aches and pains you get the day after a good workout can be a source of pride, but there are a few ways to reduce muscle soreness and improve your muscle recovery after a workout.

Muscle fibres break while exercising and then repair and grow during recovery. This is why your muscles feel sore the next day, or even worse two days after a workout. You haven’t done anything wrong and you haven’t injured yourself, but you should do as much as you can to help those muscle fibres repair and grow. You’ll be more comfortable and more keen to get back to exercising.

How to speed up muscle recovery

Quick note first, soreness is very different from pain. If your muscles ache or feel tight, that’s fine. It’s often referred to as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS for short). But if a muscle is giving you sharp pains or twangs, then this might be an injury and should be given the proper time to recover.

The best ways to speed up muscle recovery are to:

If you’ve been working out a lot and going to a lot of classes, good for you. But make sure to follow a few extra steps before and after your workout to help keep yourself free from the aches and pains the next day. Here are a few ways to speed up muscle recovery after a workout for you to try. 

Warm up and cool down properly

If you’re training by yourself in the gym or at home, make sure to allot enough time in your workout to warming up and cooling down properly. For warm ups, focus on mobility exercises, especially if you know you struggle with aches and pains there regularly. Some simple lunges with your back knee on the floor will help open your hips, activate your glutes and generally improve your awareness of your body. Then do a few dynamic movements to get your muscles ready for action.

After you’ve finished your workout a cool down will help your body recover while your heart rate returns to normal and will allow you to stretch out your muscles to prevent soreness. I like to take at least 10 minutes to stretch after a workout, which feels like ages but will leave you feeling energised and flexible after a workout.

Of course if you’re going to group exercise classes the teacher will take you through a warm up and cool down.

Have a post workout snack

There was once a lot of hype about making sure you eat some protein at least 30 minutes after your workout. While it’s not absolutely vital, it’s still helpful to have some food after you’ve finished your workout and if you can combine some carbs and protein then that’s even better. Your muscles need protein to rebuild and they need carbs for energy, if you give them a little post workout snack then they’ll get to work repairing and recovering quicker.

Drink plenty of water

When is drinking water ever a bad idea? Your body will need to replenish after a workout, especially after a particularly sweaty one, so keep drinking as much water as you can to rehydrate as quickly as possible. If you want a little extra help drinking water, try to get some extra electrolytes at the same time, either with fruit, coconut water, a smoothie or electrolyte supplements.

Another tip, in order to stay hydrated, avoid alcohol after a big workout. I know, I know, but booze will dehydrate your body and your muscles will complain the next day. So don’t schedule a big night out after a big workout.

Get plenty of sleep

Sleep is one of the most important aspects of recovery, so making sure you get as close to 8 hours a night should be a priority. Sleep affects your entire body and a lack of quality sleep can have a serious impact on your immune system and your metabolism, not to mention your mood, motivation and energy levels. Put your phone down early and get some sleep, you’ll thank me in the morning.

Check out these natural sleep aids if you need help falling, or staying, asleep.

What helps with muscle recovery?

In addition to the fundamentals above, there are a few other things you can do that help with muscle recovery. Some of which might seem counter-intuitive.

Keep moving

It can be hard to feel motivated to get back to exercise if your muscles are still sore, especially if it’s your first time working out in a while. But as long as you don’t have any injuries (remember, aches are ok, stabbing pains are not) one of the best ways to help with muscle recovery is to get back to work. Don’t avoid training your legs just because they’re still sore, they’ll be fine and will just have to get over it.

Have a rest day

Now I seem like I’m contradicting myself, but remember it’s important to have a rest day. Depending on how you like to train and exercise, it can be easy to pack all your workouts into one end of the week. But if you’ve worked a particular muscle or muscle groups especially hard, they do in fact deserve at least one day to recover. If you do need to workout three days in a row and get it all done by Wednesday, then try and vary your workouts, giving the priority muscle group less of a workout the next day.

Reduce your stress levels

OK, easier said than done, but stress can take a big toll on your emotional, mental and physical wellbeing (read more about stress symptoms here). If you’re stressed out your body will be too focused on that to dedicate the resources it needs to proper muscle recovery. So if there’s an activity you’ve found that helps lower your stress – whether that’s a yoga class, meditation, seeing friends or going for a walk – treat that as part of your exercise routine as it’s just as important.

The best foods for muscle recovery

I mentioned getting a post workout snack earlier, but the food you eat throughout the day will also have a big impact on your muscle recovery. It’s been said that you are what you eat and that’s kind of true, so here are some of the best foods for muscle recovery:

  • Nuts and seeds – great little snack with lots of protein as well as omega-3 fatty acids, which work to fight inflammation and improve bone and joint health
  • Cottage cheese – great source of protein
  • Sweet potato – high in complex carbohydrates, vitamin A and potassium
  • Watermelon – hydrating with vitamins (C and A), potassium and magnesium
  • Salmon – loads of protein as well as omega-3 fatty acids
  • Eggs – the perfect protein for breakfast or any time of the day
  • Spinach – packed with vitamins A, C and K1 as well as iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium.
  • Bananas – great energy source with a healthy dose of fibre and potassium
  • Turmeric –  known for being anti-inflammatory, introduce turmeric into your cooking and make all kinds of great recovery food.

Popular muscle recovery supplements

The most popular muscle recovery supplements are protein, creatine and fish oil. It’s always best to get most of your nutrition from your food, but if you want a little something extra, there are a few popular muscle recovery supplements that might speed up recovery and have you feeling less sore quicker.

Whey protein is incredibly popular in protein shakes and is a great way to get an extra hit of protein straight after a workout. As a vegetarian this is especially useful in making sure I get my daily protein intake. Creatine is another popular supplement and is often mixed in with whey protein to make a super-charged post-workout protein shake. Creatine has been extensively researched and has been found to improve both exercise performance and muscle recovery and delay muscle fatigue.

I mentioned fish oils earlier as they’re known to be powerful anti-inflammatories, so a fish oil supplement can be helpful in muscle recovery. Similarly, electrolytes can be found in fruit juice and coconut water, but you can also get supplements for minerals like sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium. All of which can help reduce muscle cramps, muscle relaxation and muscle contraction and can be lost from the body through excessive sweating.

Nick Baker is a content editor and producer living in London. He’s a qualified yoga teacher and gym instructor and (tries) to get to the gym or the yoga studio on most days. Equal parts intrepid traveller and comic book nerd, Nick can be seen showing his age on TikTok and Instagram (@nicholasmarkbaker)

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