When thinking about ways to improve your workout recovery, you might start by going back to this post I wrote a couple weeks ago and then doing the opposite of the recovery-impairing items on that list. So, if you’re trying to do too much in the gym in too little time, you should probably start doing less. Since nutrient deficiencies can contribute to poor recovery, you should eat plenty of those nutrients. And if stress is a huge recovery killer, it would obviously make sense to figure out ways to reduce and mitigate stress in your life. Easier said than done, right? Well, today I’m going to give you some concrete tips and techniques I personally use to improve my workout recovery.
Let’s jump right in…
As you know, I like to keep things simple. The days where I’d willingly and happily engage in extensive workout recovery plans are long gone. My entire workout “routine” is designed so that I don’t have to spend half my time recovering from my training. I can take care of most of my recovery passively – through getting good sleep every night, sticking to a Primal way of eating full of (colorful) plants and animal parts, avoiding stress when possible, and getting plenty of outdoor time. In other words, just doing what I already do as part of my daily routine is effective. But if I happen to conduct a particularly strenuous and challenging and/or long workout, I’ll often employ a few extra recovery tactics.
Although most of these suggestions will be familiar to you, I’ll bet you’re still not employing them as often or as effectively as you should. We have the tendency to neglect the simple, time-tested stuff in favor of the sexy, elaborate stuff, when the vast majority of people would be better served by the former. Without further ado, here’s what I do for recovery.
Warmups get most of the attention, and they’re definitely important if you’re not addressing your mobility and flexibility on a regular, ongoing basis, but I’m more keen on cool downs, which don’t get nearly enough attention. In fact, for workout recovery, cool downs are essential. Why?
It hastens recovery from the stress of exercise. An elevated heart rate is an indicator of a stressed state. A cool down period following exercise, meanwhile, lowers the resting heart rate by increasing cardiac vagal tone, a physiological marker for reduced stress. Since exercise is a huge stressor (that’s why it works!), recovering from exercise requires stress reduction, or normalization.
For nighttime exercisers, it helps you get to sleep after training. Parents, you know how small children who’ve just been playing need to wind down in order to fall asleep? Same thing applies here. A nice gradual cool down can lower the heart rate and “ease you into” a more sleep-appropriate physiological state.
Though research suggests that cool downs do not reduce delayed onset muscle soreness, I’ve had the opposite experience.
My “cool downs” aren’t very involved. Most times I’ll just go for a walk or a light jog afterwards, maybe with some light stretching. They’re always easy. Light jogs are very light. I’m not grinding out super tough stretches and staying in a painful spot; I’m touching the end range and pulling back immediately.
If the workout was a full-body affair (strength training, Ultimate Frisbee), I’ll do some sort of cool down “cardio” – walking, light jogging, cycling, rowing. And then I shake things out: first by bouncing on the balls of my feet and letting my arms hang limp and bounce as they will all over the place and then by planting my feet, rotating my hips back and forth, and letting my arms flop all over.
There are no set guidelines here. Just cool down until you feel sufficiently relaxed with your regular heart rate.
Cold water thermogenesis was all the rage a couple years ago, but athletes interested in recovery from their training have been employing cold water for decades. Contrasted hot/cold baths, ice water plunges, cold water immersion – whatever the exact modality, getting cold water all over your body seems to help speed recovery. A few of the latest examples:
Cold water exposure restores muscle contractile function and reduces soreness following simulated collision sports (in this case, 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, according to a new study.
Cold water immersion helps basketball players recover from their games.
I’ve been using my pool, which I keep fairly cold (in the mid 50s in winter, warmer in summer), for workout recovery for several years now. Some people use full-on ice baths. Others stick to cold showers. They all work. I prefer the pool (or alternately the ocean) for a few reasons:
Evidence suggests that full body immersion is the most effective cooling method and sprinting is the most responsive type of training.
A couple years ago, I tried compression garments following sprint workouts. I did this at the recommendation of the same friend who got me into cool water exposure. His general trustworthiness and the fact that it “just worked” was enough for me, but there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that compression gear really does improve exercise recovery:
Compression garments appear to reduce muscle soreness and improve subjective perceptions of recovery, according to a recent study.
Following a sprint and 3 km run workout meant to simulate a rugby match, players wearing compression clothing experience less muscle soreness 48 hours post workout and improved performance.
A 2013 meta-analysis concluded that “compression garments are effective in enhancing recovery from muscle damage.”
I’ve tried wearing compression tights both during and following a sprint session and grueling strength training session. I haven’t seen major improvements in recovery or soreness, but the research is interesting. I’d say it’s worth trying if you’re looking for an additional way to tinker with your own recovery.
Even though collapsing into a slovenly heap on the couch might be a superficially attractive option after a really hard workout, don’t do it. You’re gonna regret it. Your muscles and the fascia that surrounds them are trying to recover from the day’s work. They’re trying to get their bearings. If you “recover” by sitting around, your muscles are going to get extremely comfy and established in those sedentary positions. Then, when you try to train again, you’ll need a lengthy and protracted warmup session just to feel somewhat normal and ready to move. Why go through that when you could just maintain a steady flow of movement throughout the recovery period?
Here’s what I swear by on a daily basis:
Lots of walking. You guys know this about me, but I really feel constant low-level movement is a major contributor to my workout recovery because it just keeps my body primed to move. Aim for 10,000 steps a day as a nice goal.
Frequent Grok squatting. I try to squat for at least five-ten solid minutes per day. Not all in one chunk, mind you, but distributed throughout the day. The Russian Baby Maker is a great way to start the morning and open up the hips, I’ve found.
And if I really need to focus on mobility:
Search MobilityWOD for whatever body part or movement is ailing me, and then do that WOD.
Do some yoga. I’m not a regular, and probably never will be, but I’ve personally had great success fixing some nagging mobility deficits with yoga techniques. Yoga’s also a great way to reduce stress and improve sleep, two common impediments to workout recovery.
Of all that stuff, though, walking is probably the most profound.
Although a legitimate deep tissue massage from a professional (or enthusiastic loved one) can’t really be topped, its beneficial effects on recovery can be emulated. Self massage, also known as self myofascial release, involves using an object (usually an external implement, but sometimes a knuckle, elbow, or knee) to break up adhesions/knots in the fascia/muscle. This “releases” the tissue and allows normal, full movement that was being limited by the adhesions. 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. Here’s how I do it when my muscles need a release:
I foam roll. A formerly conspicuous dearth has recently given way to a steady stream of evidence supporting the use of foam rolling for increasing knee range of motion without decreasing strength, increasing hamstring range of motion without decreasing strength, reduced soreness after a hard workout, and even improving arterial function. In my experience, foam rolling is most effective on the upper back, the anterior and lateral thighs, and the calf. If the foam roller isn’t enough for you, try a PVC pipe or the Rumbleroller.
I use a lacrosse ball. More precise than the foam roller, the lacrosse ball is well suited for hamstrings, that area right above the knee cap, the hips, the glutes, and the scapular region. The RAD Roller is also great.
A good rule for self release is to find a sensitive spot and stay there until it stops being so sensitive, moving the joint through a full range of motion and oscillating 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.
A big part of workout recovery is mental. Workouts are, well, work. They’re hard. People fear them. They dread them even as they “know” it’s for their own good. This makes a workout a mentally stressful endeavor that you feel obligated to undertake, as if a choice is being made for you. That’s an awful feeling – helplessness – that has been shown to increase stress.
Play, on the other hand, is fun. You look forward to it. You willingly choose to play. You’re happy to do it. When I can obtain a training effect through play, I’ve won. When I can get my sprints via Ultimate Frisbee and my core and balance training via stand-up paddle boarding or slacklining, I couldn’t be happier. (Some of you have asked for recent photos of me following my 60th birthday last month. The photos in this post were taken after an hour and a half paddle session in the Pacific Ocean near Malibu a few weeks back.) These activities are still physically demanding, yes, and they still require physical recovery, but I’ve nullified the mental stress that often accompanies a grueling workout. Since general stress places a burden on our recovery capabilities, this leaves me more resources to devote to physical recovery from training.
I don’t follow all these all the time (well, accept for the post workout cool downs and the play one – I am always trying to figure out new ways to train through play), so don’t think you need to find a cold body of water every day, buy a full body compression garment for every day of the week, spend every idle moment with a lacrosse ball embedded in your glutes, or eschew all furniture to perpetually work on your mobility in order to recover from your workouts. These are merely tools to be employed as needed, and that work for me personally.
That’s all I’ve got for today, folks. Hope you found it helpful!