No matter your experience level, if you’re a regular gym-goer, you’re likely familiar with the pain and discomfort that can sometimes follow an intense training session. While it can be a sign that your work in the gym is paying off, nobody enjoys dealing with muscle soreness, especially when it lasts for multiple days.
In addition to impinging on your performance in subsequent training sessions, exercise-induced muscle soreness can also make even simple everyday tasks genuinely uncomfortable.
So what should you do if you’re having trouble bouncing back from your workouts? From staying hydrated to wearing compression garments, in this article, we’re going over 17 scientifically-backed techniques you can use to help promote muscle recovery.
1. Eat Carbs After You Exercise
First and foremost, one of the most important things you can do is to consume carbohydrates after you exercise. Carbs are your body’s main fuel source and if you’re not consuming enough of them, your muscles will have a much more difficult time recovering.
It’s especially important to refuel on carbs after your workout. During an intense bout of exercise, your glucose levels can become depleted -- glucose is a sugar molecule that serves as your body’s main energy supply.
Your muscles also store some energy in the form of glycogen, which is another sugar molecule that can be converted into glucose, however, these reserves are also often depleted during a tough training session.
In order to replenish your muscles’ glycogen stores, it’s recommended that you consume 1.2 grams of carbs per kilogram of bodyweight immediately after you workout.(1) So, if you weight 185 pounds, that’s about 84 kilos. If we multiply 84 by 1.2, we end up with about 100 grams of carbs. Taking in even more cabs every 2 hours or so after your training session will help to further replenish your muscles’ glycogen stores, helping to hasten their recovery.
2. Consume An Adequate Amount of Protein
When it comes to promoting muscle recovery, consuming enough protein is crucial. Protein is made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of muscle tissue. Your body uses these amino acids to rebuild damaged muscle tissues. Exercise actually causes microscopic tears in your muscle fibers, which in turn, must be repaired.
In order to fix the damage, your body relies on a signaling process known as Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS), which coordinates the delivery of proteins (and other nutrients) to cells in need of repair.(2) Having an adequate supply of dietary protein helps to support this process, which can last for up to 48 hours after a workout.(3)
In fact, without enough dietary protein, your body won’t be able to properly repair your damaged muscles at all, which in addition to being painful, can also lead to muscle loss over time.
So How Much Protein Do You Need?
While there is no universally accepted amount, the NIH recommends that between 10 - 35% of your total daily calories should come from protein.(4)
Within the bodybuilding community, an age-old rule of thumb has traditionally been 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight -- so if you weight 185 pounds, that’d equate to 185 grams of protein per day. This target should fit neatly within the NIH’s recommended range for most people.
Does Timing Matter?
While some have argued that consuming protein immediately after your workout is essential to the rebuilding process, the science doesn’t appear to support such a notion.
Instead, research suggests that the window of opportunity may be several hours wide, especially if you consume a meal before you exercise. Long story short, as long as you are consuming enough protein, when you consume it may not be all that important.(5)
3. Have Casein Protein Before Bed
Consuming casein protein before you go to bed may also help with the recovery process. Casein is one of the two types of protein found in milk -- the other one is whey.
Unlike whey, casein is a slow-digesting protein, which means that it’s released gradually into your bloodstream over the course of a number of hours.(6) This helps to assure that your body has a steady supply of the amino acids it needs to rebuild and repair your muscles while your asleep and not taking in nutrients.
4. Take BCAA Supplements
exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD) is the technical term for the microscopic damage that occurs in your muscles when you exercise. EIMD can cause pain and soreness in your muscles for up to 72 hours following a single bout of exercise, which is known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS).
Multiple studies, however, have demonstrated that BCAA supplements can help to reduce the amount of muscle damage that occurs during exercise, helping to lessen the effects of DOMS in the hours and days after your workout.(7)(8)(9)
5. Consume L-Carnitine
L-carnitine is another amino acid that may help to enhance your recovery following an intense training session. In addition to being found in high concentrations in red meat, l-carnitine also comes in supplemental form.
It’s been shown to decrease exercise-induced muscle damage, through a number of different pathways, including the increase of tissue antioxidants. Research suggests that daily supplementation of between 1-2 grams of l-carnitine may significantly reduce your levels of creatine kinase and lactate dehydrogenase which are both cellular markers of muscle damage. (10)
6. Take Supplements That Improve Muscle Function
Taking ergogenic aids (i.e. supplements that improve muscle function) is another way to improve the recovery process.
HMB is an amino acid metabolite that's also been shown to decrease exercise-induced muscle damage through the prevention of muscle protein breakdown.
When combined with other substances like HICA and phosphatidic acid (PA), which help to increase muscle protein synthesis (AKA the process through which your body builds new muscle tissues), the end result is an improved recovery process.
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7. Stay Hydrated
On top of getting enough sleep, staying properly hydrated is also critical when it comes to allowing your muscles to recover from exercise. According to an article published in the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and cited by the CDC, the average adult requires between 91 and 125 ounces of water every day.(11)
Taking in plenty of water both during, and following your workout helps to prevent the build-up of toxins and other waste products that can impinge on your muscles’ ability to adapt and recover.
The average person loses close to 1.5 liters of water per hour when they exercise. When your water supply is depleted, your muscles become dehydrated, which can lead to cramping and muscle spasms. Your muscles are particularly vulnerable to dehydration in the hours after an intense workout, so rehydrating during this time period is essential.
8. Avoid Too Much Overreaching in Your Workouts
If you’re experiencing frequent muscle pain, it could also be due to something known as non-functional overreaching (NFO), which is a condition people may experience when they overtax their muscles.
If you’re training volume is too high -- i.e. your training the same muscle group(s) numerous times a week -- you may not be giving your muscles the time they need to rest and recover.(12)
On top of causing soreness and discomfort, not getting enough rest can also drastically impact your training progress. If gone untreated NFO can eventually lead to overtraining syndrome, which is a more serious condition that can take months to fully recover from, although it’s relatively rarer.
9. Try Active Recovery
Active recovery, which refers to the act of performing low-intensity exercises like walking on a treadmill after you’ve completed a tough workout, is another way to potentially hasten your recovery.
Research shows that active recovery helps to promote healthy blood circulation, which, in turn, helps to reduce inflammation in your muscles and joints. This also helps to clear out lactic acid and other waste products from your muscles, helping to mitigate the pain and stiffness that can follow an intense bout of exercise.
10. Use a Foam Roller
Foam Rolling has emerged in recent years as another possible tool for speeding up your recovery. It’s thought to be a method of self-myofascial release. Fascia is the connective tissue that sits beneath the skin and encloses your muscles. It’s believed that exercise can cause your fascia to tighten up, which can, in turn, cause pain and soreness in your muscles.
Several studies, however, have demonstrated that foam rolling may be an effective method for combating exercise-induced muscle damage as well as delayed onset muscle soreness.(13)(14) It is important to point out though that research on the subject is still emerging, so it’s difficult to say anything for sure.
With that being said, a 2014 study published in the journal of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise did find that foam rolling after an intense bout of exercise significantly improved study participants’ active and dynamic range of motion.(15) Additionally, compared to the control group, self-reported muscle soreness was significantly lower amongst participants who foam rolled after they exercised.
11. Get a Massage
Like with foam rolling, traditional massage therapy is also believed to help relax your fascia, which, again, can become tight following an intense bout of exercise.
A handful of different studies have ultimately concluded that it can be an effective tool for treating muscle soreness, however, also like with foam rolling, more studies need to be conducted before we can make any definitive conclusions. (16)(17)(18)
For example, a 2006 study on collegiate athletes found that those who received massages after an intense training session reported significantly less soreness compared to those who received no treatment.(19)
12. Try Cold Therapy
Cold therapy, such as taking an ice bath, is an age-old technique used for treating post-exercise pain and soreness. Although it’s been in practice for some time, numerous studies have concluded that it’s not an effective technique for reducing exercise-induced muscle damage.(20)(21)
With that being said, it doesn’t necessarily mean that cold therapy has no use. There is some research out there that does show that it helped to reduce study participants’ perception of pain in the hours following an intense workout.(22)
13. Use Compression Garments
Compression garments may also be able to aid in your post-workout recovery. Garments such as tights and sleeves work by applying pressure to your muscles, which is believed to improve blood circulation. This improved blood circulation, in turn, helps to clear out toxins from your muscles.
While there is still some debate surrounding just how effectiveness compression garments are, there is a limited amount of evidence that they may help to reduce certain markers of muscle damage such as your levels of Creatine Kinase (CK) -- CK is an enzyme that’s released into your bloodstream when your body sense muscle damage.(23)
On top of that, some researchers have also found that compression garments significantly reduced study participants’ perceived muscle soreness when worn after an intense training session.(24)
14. Try Cross-Training
If you’re doing a lot of specialized or sport-specific training, you may also benefit from adding some cross-training into your routine. Cross-training is the practice of supplementing exercises that fall outside of your normal routine into your training.
This can be especially beneficial for athletes or specialized weightlifters who may be overworking certain muscle groups during their regular training. In addition to making sure that your muscles are balanced, devoting a few sessions a week to muscles that normally get ignored can give the ones that do see a lot of attention the time they need to recover.
15. Take Anti-Inflammatories, But Be Careful Which Ones You Take
There does appear to be some evidence that pain-relieving drugs like Advil and Tylenol may help to combat pain and soreness following a tough workout.
However, some research has demonstrated that while analgesic drugs like ibuprofen and acetaminophen may help to reduce some of the symptoms of DOMS, they can also potentially impinge on your muscles’ ability to adapt to your training, which can make it more difficult to build size and strength if you’re taking them regularly after you train. (25)
16. Cut-back Your Alcohol Consumption
Reducing your alcohol intake is another easy way to enhance the ability of your muscles to recover. As we’ve already discussed, muscle protein synthesis is the main process through which your body repairs muscle damage, and following an intense workout, your levels of MPS are elevated for up to 2 days.
However, consuming alcohol -- especially in large amounts -- in the hours after you workout may actually impair this process. For instance, a 2006 study published in Alcoholism Clinical & Experimental Research found that alcohol consumption reduced muscle protein synthesis by as much as 20% in cultured skeletal muscle cells.(26)
17. Get Enough Sleep
One of the simplest and most obvious things you can do to help your muscles recover is to make sure you’re getting an adequate amount of sleep. According to the Center for Disease Control, most healthy adults require between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night.(27)
It’s when you sleep that most of the hormones and growth factors your body uses to repair your muscles are produced. If you don’t get enough shut-eye, these substances simply won’t have the time they need to carry out their work rebuilding your muscles.
From getting your nutrition dialed in, to taking the right recovery-enhancing supplements, there are a number of different things you can do to improve the recovery process.
Consuming an adequate amount of protein each day and replenishing your carbohydrates following an intense training session is an easy way to enhance muscle recovery.
On top of dietary factors, supplements like BCAAs, L-carnitine, HICA, HMB, and phosphatidic acid can also help to improve the recovery process by preventing muscle protein breakdown and/or enhancing muscle protein synthesis.
Finally, additional recovery techniques like cold therapy and messages can may help to accelerate the recovery process even further when combined with other factors like nutrition and supplementation.
- “Glycogen Resynthesis After Exercise: Effect of Carbohydrate Intake" Ivy, J.L. International Journal of Sports. 1998.
- “Changes in human muscle protein synthesis after resistance exercise" Chesley, A., MacDougall, J.D., Tarnoposky, M.A., Atkinson, S.A., Smith, K. Journal of Applied Physiology. Oct. 1992.
- “Mixed muscle protein synthesis and breakdown after resistance exercise in humans" Phillips, S.M., Tipton, K.D., Aarsland, A., Wolf, S.E., Wolfe, R.R. Endocrinology and Metabolism. July. 1997.
- “Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs): Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges" Ross, A.C., Taylor, C.L., Yaktine, A.L. Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine, National Academies. 2011.
- “ Pre- versus post-exercise protein intake has similar effects on muscular adaptations" Schoenfeld, B.J., Aragon, A.A., Wilborn, C., Urbina, S.L., Hayward, S.E., Krieger, J. Peer J. Jan. 2017.
- “Protein – Which is Best?"Hoffman, J.R., Falvo, M.J. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine. Sep. 2004.
- “Effects of branched amino acids in endurance sports: a review"Salinas-Garcia, M.E., Martinez-Sanz, J.M., Urdampilleta, A., Lieglo-Ayuso, J., Naravvo, A., Ortiz-Moncada, R. Nutricion Hospitalaria. Nov. 2014.
- “Branched-chain amino acid supplementation does not enhance athletic performance but affects muscle recovery and the immune system"Negro, M., Giardina, S., Marzani, B., Marzatico, F. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness. Sep. 2008.
- “Potential therapeutic effects of branched-chain amino acids supplementation on resistance exercise-based muscle damage in humans"de Luz, C.R., Nicastro, H., Zanchi, N.E., Chaves, D.F., Lancha Jr., A.H. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Dec. 2011.
- “The Effect of Two-Week L-Carnitine Supplementation on Exercise –Induced Oxidative Stress and Muscle Damage"Parandan, K., Arazi, H., Khoshkhahesh, F., Nakgostin-Roohi. Asian Journal of Sports Medicine. Mar. 2014.
- “Dietary Reference Intakes: Water, Potassium, Sodium, Chloride, and Sulfate"Panel on Dietary Reference Intakes for Electrolytes and Water. The National Academies of Science Engineering & Medicine. Feb. 2004.
“Prevalence of non-functional overreaching and the overtraining syndrome in Swiss elite athletes"Birrer, D., Lienhard, D., Williams, C.A., Rothlin, P., Morgan, G. Swiss Federal Institute of Sports. 2013.
- “Foam Rolling for Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness and Recovery of Dynamic Performance Measures"Pearcey, G.E., Bradbury-Squires, D.J., Kawamoto, J.E., Drinkwater, E.J., Behm, D.G., Button, D.C. Journal of Athletic Training. Jan. 2015.
- “The Effects of Self-Myofascial Release Using a Foam Roll or Roller Massager on Joint Range of Motion, Muscle Recovery, and Performance: A Systematic Review"Cheatham, S.W., Kolber, M.J., Cain, M., Lee, M. The International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. Nov. 2015.
- “Foam Rolling as a Recovery Tool after an Intense Bout of Physical Activity"MacDonald, G.Z., Button, Duane, C., Drinkwater, E.J., Behm, D.G. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Jan. 2014.
- “The Mechanisms of Massage and Effects on Performance, Muscle Recovery and Injury Prevention"Weerapong, P., Hume, P.A., Kolt, G.S. Sports Medicine. Mar. 2005.
- “Effects of Massage on Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness, Swelling, and Recovery of Muscle Function"Zainuddin, Z., Newton, M., Sacco, P., Osaka, K. Journal of Athletic Training. 2005.
- “Does post-exercise massage treatment reduce delayed onset muscle soreness? A systematic review."Ernst, E. British Journal of Sports Medicine. Sep. 1998.
- “The effects of massage on delayed onset muscle soreness and physical performance in female collegiate athletes"Mancienelli, C.A., Davis, D.S., Aboulhosn, L., Brady, M., Eisenhower, J., Stephanie, F. Physical Therapy in Sport. Feb. 2006.
- “A single 10-min bout of cold-water immersion therapy after strenuous plyometric exercise has no beneficial effect on recovery from the symptoms of exercise-induced muscle damage"Jakeman, J.R., Macrae, R., Eston, R. Ergonomics. Apr. 2009.
- “The effects of ice massage, ice massage with exercise, and exercise on the prevention and treatment of delayed onset muscle soreness."Isabell, W.K., Durrant, E., Myrer, W., Anderson, S. Journal of Athletic Training. 1992.
- “Cold application for neuromuscular recovery following intense lower-body exercise"Pointon, M., Duffield, R., Cannon, J., Marino, F.E. European Journal of Applie Physiology. Dec. 2011.
- “Compression garments and recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage: a meta-analysis"Hill, J., Howatson, G., van Someren, K., Leeder, J., Pedlar, C. British Journal of Sports Medicine. Sep. 2014.
- “The Effects of Compression Garments on Recovery"Davies, V., Thompson, K.G., Cooper, S.M. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Sep. 2009.
- “Effect of ibuprofen and acetaminophen on postexercise muscle protein synthesis Trappe, T.A., White, F., Lambert, C.P., Cesar, D., Hellerstein, M., Evans, W.J. American Journal of Physiology Endocrinology and Metabolism. Mar. 2002.
- “Alcohol Impairs Protein Synthesis and Degradation in Cultured Skeletal Muscle Cells Hong-Brown, L.Q., Frost, R.A., Lang, C.H. Alcholoism Clinical and Experimental Research. April. 2006.
- “How Much Sleep Do I Need? National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Division of Population Health. Mar. 2017.
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