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How to Recover from Exercise

June 19, 2019

You don’t have to experience excessive soreness to get results from your workouts.

 

That doesn’t mean you’ll never get sore (as you’ll learn from my example in a moment), but I’m going to show you some ways to minimize it.

 

Make It Stop

 

It’s entirely coincidental, but my calf muscles are currently so sore I look like our toddler when I go up and down the stairs of our house.

 

We went for a family hike a couple days ago. It was only 3 miles, so the plan was to power through it. Only problem was it turned out to be 3 miles straight up.

 

Seriously.

 

This hike defied all the laws of nature by starting uphill and never coming back down, even though it was a loop. It was the Penrose Staircase of hikes.

Scientists are still on the trail trying to discover how it works.

 

Anyway, not only did the 3 miles take us 2 hours of nonstop ascension to complete, but I carried our 25 pound 2-year-old for most of it.

 

And now I want an epidural.

 

I guess there’s no better time to talk about recovery.

 

What Works?

 

Recovery methods can be as trendy and fleeting as different exercise programs.

 

For that reason, I’ll highlight just a few specific options. (If you have questions on anything else, feel free to email and ask.)

 

Massage

 

The science is clear: A post-workout massage helps you feel less sore, and less fatigued.

 

The science is also clear: You need a literal dump truck load of cash delivered on a regular basis if you want a massage after every workout.

 

That said, if you know you’re going to be sore (like when starting a new program) and want to decrease the pain, scheduling a massage isn’t a bad idea.

 

You could also do some foam rolling at the end of your workout, but don’t expect the same results as you’d get from a massage. If you do like to foam roll, it works best when coupled with…

 

Active Recovery

 

One of the easiest things to do for recovery is go for a walk, or a light bike ride.

 

Or you could even lift some light weights. We’re talking about doing a few sets of 10 reps with a weight you could lift for maybe 50 reps (that’s a rough estimate, just keep it super easy).

 

Stretching also counts, but the most effective way to do it for recovery seems to be a stretch so mild it produces no discomfort, only a “warm, gentle feeling” according to one study.

 

Regardless of the type of active recovery you employ, the key is to make sure the intensity is low enough that you’re actually facilitating recovery, rather than just doing another workout.

 

Active recovery isn’t a miracle answer, but it’s easy, healthy, and is often shown to be just as effective as these painful alternatives…

 

Cold Water Immersion & Cryotherapy

 

The quick answer here is that neither one of these things are your best option.

 

The long answer is that cold water immersion — taking a 10 min. cold bath after a workout — may help to some extent. But if you do it regularly, it can also end up having a negative impact on the effects of your exercise (side note: taking an NSAID has the same pitfall).

 

Cryotherapy is a bit more controversial. At worst, it doesn’t even do as much for recovery as cold water immersion. At best, it has a similar effect, but costs you a ton of money.

 

And since cold water immersion might not even be any better than active recovery, wouldn’t you rather just go for a walk?

 

An Even More Effective Solution

 

The following three things will do more for you than any of the recovery methods mentioned above.

 

1. Sleep

 

The most effective way to recover from exercise is to get enough sleep.

 

If you aren’t getting 7-10 hours of sleep every night, your body will not recover appropriately from exercise. The more frequent and intense the workouts, the more sleep you need.

 

2. Nutrition

 

If you’re on a diet that has you in an extreme calorie deficit or low protein intake, your muscles will not be able to recover.

 

You might lose weight. But it’ll be muscle loss, not fat loss.

 

3. Intro Weeks

 

Hard truth: If you’re excessively sore all the time, you have a terrible workout program.

 

In order for your body to improve (fitness-wise), it has to be given a chance to adapt.

 

That means when you start a new exercise program, you need a light “intro week” to build up a tolerance to it. Do less sets, less weights, or generally lower intensity than future weeks. Then stick with your program long enough to see changes (and not be as sore).

 

The Bottom Line

 

After all that, what’s my final advice? I’ll use myself as an example.

 

If tough hikes were going to be a new, regular part of my routine, I should have started with a couple smaller, easier hikes to prepare my body in advance.

 

But they’re not.

 

If I had known my hike was going to be so difficult, scheduling a massage for after it would have helped.

 

But that wasn’t feasible.

 

Instead, I started by taking an extra day off from working out. Because when you overdo it, sometimes you just need rest.

 

I didn’t sit on my butt all day, though. I went for a walk. It didn’t feel good at the time, but I know it helped in the long run.

 

I’m also making sure I get plenty of good quality sleep at night to help speed the recovery process.

 

Outside of that, it’s hard to point to a specific form of recovery I’d recommend. That said, if there’s something you’ve tried that you like, just because I didn’t list it here doesn’t mean you should stop doing it.

 

It might not work for everyone, but if it works for you… it works.

 

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