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5 Proven Ways to Recover From Your Workout

Updated on February 3, 2015

Introduction

Many of us have our workouts dialed in - we workout hard day after day, week after week. However, we often forget about one of the most important parts of any workout regimen: recovery. I, too, have often been an offender of this - I give it my all during my workout, but then I skimp out on my recovery.

However, recovery is extremely important. Recovery helps to control and lessen aches and pains as well as help prevent future injury. Most importantly, the positive adaptations you are trying to undergo by working out only occur when your body properly rested and recovered. This means that you could do all the exercise you want. But without recovery, that exercise would be all for nothing.

In this article, I will go through 5 proven and simple recovery methods in detail. They include:

  • Self-myofascial release
  • Mobility work
  • Hot / Cold therapy
  • Compression
  • Proper nutrition

Self Myofascial Release

Self-myofascial release ("SMR"), or self-massage, involves putting pressure upon an affected area in order to address localized tightness in the fascia / muscle. This “releases” the tissue and allows for normal, free range of motion that was being limited by the tightness or pain. If you can’t move your body or get into the proper positions, you haven’t recovered from your workout and any future workouts will suffer.

The common equipment used for SMR are the foam roller and lacrosse ball.

In recent years, a lot of research has been on the potential benefits of using a foam roller. From the research, it has shown that foam rolling can increase knee range of motion, increase hamstring range of motion, reduce soreness after a difficult workout and even improve arterial function. I find the most benefit using the foam roller on my back, quads, interior and exterior thighs and calves.

Since a lacrosse ball is much smaller than a foam roller, it is able to get into the smaller nooks and crannies. It is great for right the hamstrings, above the kneecap, the hips, the glutes and the scapular region.

When purchasing a foam roller, make sure it is durable and hard. A good foam roller will set you back $30-$40. If a foam roller isn't enough for you, try a PVC pipe or Rumble Roller.

A good rule of thumb is to find a sensitive spot and stay there until you feel a change (i.e., it stops being so sensitive). Move through the joint through a full range of motion and oscillate back and forth on the spot. So, if you’re digging into the area above your knee cap with a lacrosse ball, flex and extend the knee while applying pressure.

To learn more about SMR, a fantastic reference book for learning self deep tissue work as well as mobility is “Becoming A Supple Leopard” by physical therapist Kelly Starrett. He also has an excellent website at MobilityWOD.com. Additionally, he has a youtube page here, which is arguably the best free resource on SMR and mobility I have seen. Below is a sample video from his daily MobilityWod. His book, website and videos provide different SMR techniques and methods that are highly effective and often very simple to implement.

A word of warning: SMR is not comfortable and often times can be painful. The only thing I can say is to stick with it, be patient and try to relax. The benefits of SMR far exceed the short bout of being uncomfortable.

MobilityWod: IT Band Hell

Mobility Work

Mobility refers to your ability to move your body and limbs freely and painlessly through your desired movement. This will allow your to perform at your peak during workouts as well as lower any chance of injury. Additionally, when your body is able to move freely and painlessly, it can truly be life changing.

In addition to SMR, which also improves mobility, here are a some other mobility techniques to improve recovery:

  • Walk a lot: walking can do wonders for recovery because it keeps your body primed to move. Since a lot of us are desk workers, make it a point to move around every hour and aim to get 10,000 steps a day.
  • Dynamic stretching: Studies have shown that dynamic stretching can improve power, strength, and performance during a subsequent exercise session. Unlike static stretching where you are “pulling on” a specific muscle group, dynamic stretching, incorporates posture control, stability, balance, and even ballistic and explosive movements such as swings and kicks. There are many ways to dynamically stretch, but any dynamic stretch session is typically comprised of basic movement preparation patterns such as lunges, squats, swings and movements of of joint and muscle through a variety of movement patterns. A couple examples of good dynamic stretch moves are: leg swings, walking lunges, assisted deep squats and bent torso twists.
  • Deep squatting: Aim to get 5-10 minutes of deep squatting in a day. This does not have to be all in one sitting but can be over the course of the day. Techniques such as the Russian Baby Maker (see video below) are great for opening the hips. Another good technique is to squat deep and put the pressure on your heels. If you don't have the balance to hold the squat, try holding onto a ledge, some TRX bands or a super friend. You can also hold the squat against the wall with your feet far out and your squat deep.

Once again, I recommend checking out MobilityWod for more techniques.

Russian Babymaker

Hot / Cold Therapy

Cold water thermogenesis has been used by athletes interested in recovery from their training for decades. Research shows that:

  • Cold water exposure restores muscle contractile function and reduces soreness following simulated collision sports, such as rugby
  • Both cold water immersion and hot/cold contrast therapy help restore force production following high intensity interval training
  • Cold water immersion helps sprinters maintain their performance over the course of consecutive training days
  • Cold water immersion helps basketball players recover from their games (think Kobe Bryant who uses an ice bath every day to rehab his muscles)

Here are a few ways to incorporate hot / cold therapy into your recovery program:

  • Cold water immersion: The main way to do this is ice baths. Yes, it is not much fun, but just fifteen minutes of cold water immersion post exercise can lead to massive recovery
  • Contrast therapy: Alternating hot and cold for 1-2 minutes at a time for periods of up to fifteen minutes has been shown to reduce swelling and lead to faster restoration of speed and power post training
  • Recovery swimming: While not every one can do this, a recovery swim in a cold pool you will allow you to achieve all the benefits of cold water therapy. In addition, it is usually not as cold as ice baths, so you dread it less (meaning you are more likely to do it). Additionally, it involves active recovery versus in a bathtub, where all you can do is sit and shiver

While cold showers may be helpful, evidence suggests that full body immersion is the most effective recovery method.

Compression

While the studies seem to be mixed, it does seem that wearing compression gear during a hard workout does improve your recovery and your performance in subsequent workouts more than if you hadn’t worn the compression gear. This may be because increased blood flow from compression helps to restore muscle glycogen levels and to clear metabolic waste. When you wear compression, there may also be less muscle damage from tissue “bouncing up and down” while you exercise. If you sleep, rest or travel wearing compression gear, you’ll find that the improved support and blood flow leaves you less stiff and sore. Here is a great post by Joe Friel analyzes and summarizes all the relevant research for compression on performance and recovery.

2XU, Skins, and Underarmour are among the leading compression gear manufacturers. Additionally, there is a company called 110% Play Harder that implemented the ability to place recovery enhancing ice packs into compression tights and leggings, which may be able to further increase recovery.

Proper Nutrition

While possibly the least sexy of the recovery methods, proper nutrition is the crux of enhanced recovery. Here are the best ways to use nutrition for recovery:

  • Anti-inflammatory diet: Inflammatory foods can aggravate inflammation, so trying to recovery without proper nutrition won't get you anywhere. Foods that are anti-inflammatory include: ginger, pineapple, blue, red and purple colored fruits and vegetables, garlic, peppers, parsley, dark leafy greens, onions, salmon, avocado and apple cider vinegar. If you are unsure about which foods are inflammatory or not, check out InflammationFactor.com, an excellent website that actually gives an “Inflammation Factor” (IF) for food. The IF Rating system allows you to quickly see whether a specific food is going to have an inflammatory or anti-inflammatory effect
  • Fish oil: While omega-6 fatty acids found in compounds such as vegetable oils are pro-inflammatory (especially when eaten in the quantity that many endurance athletes tend to eat these items), omega-3 fatty acids found in sources such as coldwater fish, algae and fish oil are anti-inflammatory
  • Curcumin: Curcumin is the principal compound you find in the popular Indian spice turmeric. It is a widely recognized herbal anti-inflammatory that has been proven in studies to be as effective in reducing inflammation as injectable cortisone
  • Magnesium: Magnesium, in the form of Epsom salt baths or concentrated magnesium chloride, can have a profound effect on recovery. Multiple studies have shown magnesium to be effective for buffering lactic acid, enhancing peak oxygen uptake and total work output, reducing heart rate and carbon dioxide production during hard exercise, and improving cardiovascular efficiency. While you can take magnesium orally, the best way to use magnesium for recovery is transdermally (through the skin)

Do you use any of these recovery methods?

See results

Conclusion

While many of us don't spend the proper time for recovery, it is an important factor in our workout regimen in order to increase performance, prevent injury and feel better.

Post your recovery methods in the comments below!

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