Nothing beats rest, adequate hydration and healthy food for optimal post-exercise recovery…

The majority of your exercise benefits are not attained during your workout, but during the post-exercise recovery period. There is no doubt that you are putting your body through significant strain during a workout session. The basic principle of exercise is to stress your body and damage muscle so that it repairs itself to a point better than it was before. Failing to understand the importance of post-exercise recovery may  result in long-term injury. Further, if you cannot recover from the previous workout, your performance will lack in subsequent training sessions.

In addition to proper rest and avoiding over training (not working out the same muscle group more than three times per week with one day of rest between sessions), modalities, or therapeutic practices have been developed to supplement the body’s natural post-exercise recovery process. Some have been shown to work better than rest alone, while other practices have not. Let’s take a look at the evidence from a 2006 study published in the journal Sports Medicine.

Hydration

Prior dehydration can be detrimental to performance

The most important step you can take for post-exercise recovery is to rehydrate yourself. If you think about it, your body needs water in your blood to be able to transport proteins, vitamins and nutrients to recovering muscles. Further, an adequate blood volume is needed to remove waste from damage muscles and body tissues. You should be sipping water continuously throughout your workout. Make sure to avoid drinking large quantities at once, which may lead to an electrolyte imbalance. For moderate to intense activity, you should be drinking about 8 ounces over every 10-minute period of your workout. Drink immediately after to optimize post-exercise recovery.

Carbohydrates

If there were ever a time to eat carbs, eating them for post-exercise recovery is a must. Carbohydrates contain sugar, which your muscles store in the form of glycogen. When you workout, your muscles use glycogen as fuel for exercise. Therefore, making sure you have enough glycogen is essential for recovery. For optimal glycogen replacement, Sports Medicine states that you should eat 1.2 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight per hour, for the first five hours after exercise. To translate, the average 150 pound person should eat 84 grams of carbs per hour, for five hours, totaling 420 grams. Because one gram of carbohydrates contains nine calories, this totals to 3,780 calories! While only elite athletes may require this type of carbohydrate replenishment- the point is that you should freely eat carbohydrates on the day of your workout, even if you are trying to lose weight. The days between your workout sessions, you can back off  the carbohydrates. Prefer complex carbohydrates (which burn fat), such as whole wheat breads or brown rice, versus simple carbohydrates, including sweets, white breads and white rice. (Read more on Eating and Exercise).

Massage

While it may feel good, I hate to be the one to tell you that there is no consistent scientific evidence that supports the benefits of massage as a therapy for post-exercise recovery. Few studies show that massage may slightly reduce soreness after exercise, but only for the first 48 hours. A common misconception is that massage increases blood flow to the muscles to help aid recovery, now known to be a false assumption.

If increased muscle blood flow has any post-exercise benefit, mild physical activity, such as walking, would be superior to massage and would be more cost effective.

Cryotherapy (Cold-Water Immersion)

As much as I love recommending cold baths after exercise to my clients and patients, the research is mixed regarding recommendations. Most report a positive relationship between cold-water immersion and reduced soreness and better muscle recovery.  Other studies report no difference and few state that it may actually hinder muscle growth. However, for the most part, cold-water baths are supported to help decrease soreness after your workout. Try a 15 to 20 minute cold bath after your workout to optimize post-exercise recovery and see if it helps you.

From a 2009 article in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport:

Cold water immersion resulted in significantly lower muscle score ratings… and offered greater recovery benefits.

Medications (Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs, or NSAIDs)

Many people use nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as Aleve, Ibuprofen or Motrin for post-exercise recovery. They are highly effective in reducing inflammation and offering pain relief for multiple conditions, including musculoskeletal pain. Particularly, research notes that NSAIDs are particularly useful when muscles are extremely sore, but not found to be effective with minimal soreness. More importantly, these medications can be dangerous to take. Specifically, NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding, liver damage, kidney damage or increase your risk for a heart attack. Do not use these unless absolutely necessary. Sports Medicine notes:

Repeated use of NSAIDs over extended periods might have a detrimental effect on muscle repair and adaptation to training.

Stretching

I wrote a previous article demonstrating the lack of benefit in stretching after your workout. Further, stretching has not been shown to reduce injury risk or help post-exercise recovery.

There is no apparent short- or long-term benefit from stretching as a recovery therapy.

Recommendations

Through many years of research looking into the best methods of post-exercise recovery, only three methods have been proven to be extremely helpful:

  1.  Rest (with light activity)
  2.  Hydration
  3.  Good food (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, lean meats and low-fat dairy)
  4. (and maybe a cold bath…)

While other methods have not been consistently shown to be helpful, if they work for you, by all means continue doing them. Just don’t spend unnecessary money or time using a particularly therapy that may not be beneficial, or may be hurting you or hindering your post-exercise recovery.

References

“Using Recovery Modalities between Training Sessions in Elite Athletes”; Sports Medicine; 2006, A Barnett.

“Effect of water immersion methods on post-exercise recovery from simulated team sport exercise”; Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport; 2009, J. Ingram et al.