One of the biggest mistakes I see among people who exercise is they forget this core truth: we get fitter not during the workout but from recovering from the workout. Some of the most experienced, hardest-charging athletes I know fail to heed the importance of recovery. Hell, the reason my endurance training destroyed my life and inadvertently set the stage for creation of the Primal Blueprint was that I didn’t grasp the concept of recovery. I just piled on the miles, thinking the more the merrier to the point where recovery simply wasn’t possible.
It didn’t work for me, and it won’t work for you. In order for your muscles to grow, you need to be focusing on muscle recovery.
Food comes first, both chronologically and in importance. Food provides the raw substrates your body needs to recover from and adapt to training: the macronutrients to provide structure and energy; the micronutrients to produce and activate the hormones, neurotransmitters, and other chemical messengers we use to make things happen in our bodies.
For about 2 hours after the workout, you have a “window” of opportunity for optimal distribution of nutrients for muscle recovery:
Your muscles are primed for dietary protein to lay down new tissue and begin repairing the damage done by the workout. 40-50 grams is a good amount for your first post-workout recovery meal.
Your muscles are primed to accept carbohydrates as glycogen (the form of carbohydrate stored in muscles and used for intense activities).
Your entire body is insulin sensitive, so you can shuttle nutrients like protein and glycogen into muscle without needing as much insulin as you’d normally need.
Your body has also triggered something called “insulin independent glucose transport,” which allows glycogen repletion without the use of insulin.
All in all, now’s the time to eat.
Protein: Aim for at least a gram of protein per pound of lean body mass. You could go even higher, as there’s evidence that eating 3 grams of protein for every kilogram of bodyweight can improve immunity in people training particularly hard.1
Calories: Working out expends energy. That energy must be replenished before you’re fully recovered and prepared to do another workout. This is a common issue for folks trying to lose weight through diet and exercise. Inadequate calorie intake coupled with intense exercise sends a “starvation” signal to the body, causing a down-regulation of anabolic hormones.2 Instead of growing lean mass and burning body fat, starvation (whether real or simulated) promotes muscle atrophy and body fat retention. Either alone can be somewhat effective, but combining the two for too long will only impair recovery.
Control Your Stress
Stress is stress. Traffic is a stressor. A job you hate is a stressor. Procrastinating until you absolutely must get working is a stressor. And yes, exercise is a stressor. Too much of the psychological, lifestyle, or mental stress we all face impairs our ability to recover from exercise-induced stress.
Research confirms that “mental stress” impairs workout recovery, and it doesn’t speak in generalities. Thirty-one undergrads were assessed for stress levels using a battery of psychological tests, then engaged in a heavy lower body strength workout. At an hour post-workout, students in the high stress group had regained 38 percent of their leg strength, while students in the low stress group had regained 60 percent of their strength.
Some stress is unavoidable. But most of us create additional stress in our lives and fail to do enough to counter or manage it. Stop making unforced errors.
Get More Sleep
Assuming you’re eating enough high quality food, sleep is probably the most important factor in muscle recovery. We know this because we see what happens to workout recovery when you don’t get enough sleep.
Inadequate sleep increases cortisol and reduces testosterone production, which lowers muscle protein synthesis. It also disrupts slow wave sleep, the constructive stage of slumber where growth hormone secretion peaks, tissues heal, and muscles rebuild.3 Sleep deprivation has been linked to muscular atrophy and increased urinary excretion of nitrogen (literally peeing out your muscle tissue), and the kind of cortisol excess caused by sleep deprivation has been shown to reduce muscle strength.456
Additionally, sleep loss can increase the risk of injuries by decreasing balance and postural control.7 If you trip and fall, or throw out your back due to poor technique, you won’t even have a workout to recover from.
On the other hand, when we get more sleep—not just adequate sleep—our performance in the gym skyrockets. College swim and basketball athletes who get an “extra” 2 hours of sleep a night see their swim times improve and their shooting accuracy increase.89 Our muscles literally recover from damage faster when we get enough sleep.10
Address Nutrient Deficiencies That Impair Muscle Recovery
Since every physiological function requires a micronutrient substrate—vitamin, mineral, hormone, neurotransmitter, etc.—and physiological functions increase with exercise and recovery, active people require more micronutrients in their diet. “More of everything” is a safe bet, but there are a few key nutrients that working out especially depletes:
Zinc: Exercise, especially weight training, works better with plenty of testosterone on hand to build muscle and develop strength. Zinc is a key substrate for the production of testosterone, and studies show that exercise probably increases the need for zinc. In fact, one study found that exhaustive exercise depleted testosterone (and thyroid) hormones in athletes, while supplementing with zinc restored it.11
Magnesium and Other Electrolytes: Magnesium is required for a number of physiological processes related to workout recovery, including oxygen uptake by cells, energy production, and electrolyte balance. Unfortunately, as one of the main electrolytes, lots of magnesium is lost to sweat during exercise. The same could be said for other electrolytes like calcium, sodium, and potassium, but most people get plenty of those minerals from a basic Primal eating plan. Getting enough magnesium, however, is a bit tougher, making magnesium deficiency a real issue for people trying to recover from workouts.12
Iron: Intense exercise depletes iron, which is instrumental in the formation of red blood cells and oxygen delivery to your tissues during training and the immune response after it. They even have a name for it—exercise-induced anemia.13
Drink Less Alcohol
Drinking directly impairs muscle protein synthesis, the essential step in muscle recovery and adaptation to training.14 Moderate or “social” drinking is probably safe (just don’t use alcohol as a post-workout recovery drink), but even just a single day per week of binge drinking is linked to 4x the risk of sarcopenia, or muscle-wasting.15 Muscles recovery is hard if your muscles are atrophying.
Oddly, drinking directly after a training session also increases testosterone levels. One theory is that testosterone levels rise after drinking because it becomes less bioavailable; your muscle cells’ resistance to testosterone goes up, so it just circulates and gives “false” readings. On the other hand, Arnold Schwarzenegger famously enjoyed a bottle or two of pilsner after his workouts.
Eat Foods That Improve Workout Recovery
Watermelon: L-citrulline is an amino acid found in watermelon with a huge effect on post-workout muscle pain, or delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). You can also supplement directly with L-citrulline, which may work, but watermelon is so good with a little salt, lime juice, and cayenne pepper, and it’s actually lower in carbs than you probably think (about 10 grams per cup of watermelon). I recommend fresh watermelon over pasteurized juice, as heat treatment reduces the effect.16
Beets: Beets (and beet juice) aren’t only good for exercise performance. They also reduce DOMS and promote restorative blood flow to your tissues.17 Nitrates have been posited as the primary constituent responsible for the effect, but beet juice works better than pure sodium nitrate.
Tart Cherry Juice: Tart cherry juice is best used to recover during competition, when your primary concern is to get back out there and perform.18 It also improves sleep, which should translate into better muscle recovery.
Dairy: Hard cheeses, kefir, milk, yogurt, and other high quality dairy sources provide ample calcium, an underrated nutrient for post-workout recovery. Most people know that protein is important for muscle recovery—it’s what we use to build new muscle tissue. But workouts also stress bones, and having enough calcium in our diets helps reduce the post-workout rise in parathyroid hormone and increase the adaptation of our bones to the training. Muscle is to protein as bones are to calcium.
Take Supplements That Improve Workout Recovery
Whey: Compared to other proteins, whey protein accelerates muscle adaptation to eccentric exercise.19
Creatine: Although we get creatine from red meat and fish, supplementary creatine can boost our recovery from exercise via a couple mechanisms. First, it increases muscle content of phosphocreatine. That’s the stuff we use for quick bursts of maximal effort, so carrying a little extra can do wonders for our ability to perform. Second, it enhances muscle glycogen replenishment without increasing insulin.20 A nice side benefit is that creatine can also partially counteract the negative effects of sleep deprivation (in a pinch).
L-carnitine: L-carnitine enhances blood flow to tissues with exercise-induced muscle damage, speeding up recovery, reducing soreness, and enhancing adaptation to the training stimulus.21
Thiamine: Lactate levels predict recovery—the higher your lactate, the lower your recovery—and thiamine is a quick way to drop lactate.22
Fish oil: Adding fish oil to a recovery drink reduced post-workout muscle soreness without affecting performance.23Fish oil may also enhance muscle recovery from and adaptation to strength training.24
Make Massage Part of Your Workout Recovery
Massage does far more than feel good or help you rehab injured tissues. According to extensive human research, post-workout massage can actually make your workouts more effective by enhancing recovery.
It speeds up the recovery of muscle strength and enhances proprioception—your ability to “feel” where your body is in time and space throughout movement. All the best athletes have excellent proprioception, almost a sixth sense. 26
It improves central nervous system parasympathetic/sympathetic balance, a good marker of recovery and overall stress load, even if the masseuse is one of those weird back massage machines.27
Massage isn’t cheap, but getting them once or twice a month can really help you make the most of your workouts.
Sunlight improves workout recovery via several pathways.
It boosts vitamin D, which is important for testosterone production and bone density—two key elements of the adaptation to training.
It increases nitric oxide, which increases blood flow. More blood flow to your muscles and other tissues means better delivery of nutrients necessary for recovery.
It lowers stress hormones, which are catabolic in nature and oppose the actions of testosterone.
One study in soccer players even found that increasing sunlight exposure led to increases in testosterone levels and sprint performance over the course of a season, indicating better workout recovery.28
Wear Compression Garments
These aren’t just for show. A recent meta-analysis of the available research concluded that compression garments enhance muscle recovery after strength training and improve next-day cycling performance.29
Consider Cold Water
A cold water plunge after training can enhance muscle function recovery and reduce soreness, enabling you to get back into competition more quickly.3031 In fact, cold water immersion has been shown to help athletes across various sports, such as rugby players, sprinters, and basketball players, bounce back from their activities.3233 This is why you see athletes hopping into ice baths after games: so they can play again tomorrow.
However—and this is a big “however”—post-training cold water plunges also appear to impair long-term muscular adaptations to resistance training, such as strength and muscle growth.3435 This drawback occurs when cold immersion is done immediately post-workout (within 10 minutes after a training session).
So, how do you reconcile this?
If your goal is to recover from a workout and focus on long-term adaptations to your strength and cardiovascular fitness, avoid cold water immersion for at least 6 hours after your training.
If you need to recover quickly to compete again, a cold plunge taken right after your workout or competition will help you perform better in the short term. Just be aware that this choice might come at the cost of long-term adaptations like strength and muscle growth.
Use the Sauna
If the post-workout effects of cold immersion are often undesirable, the post-workout sauna is a wholly positive force for workout recovery.
Post-workout sauna sessions improve endurance performance in runners.36 For three weeks, endurance runners sat in 89° C (+/- 2° C) humid saunas for 31 minutes following training sessions. This amounted to an average of 12.7 sauna sessions per runner. Relative to control (no sauna), sauna use increased time to exhaustion by 32%, plasma cell volume by 7.1%, and red cell volume by 3.2% (both plasma cell and red cell volume are markers of increased endurance performance).
Post-workout sauna use increases plasma volume in male cyclists.37 Following training sessions, cyclists sat in 87° C, 11% humidity saunas for 30 minutes. Just four sessions were sufficient to expand plasma volume. This is important because increasing plasma volume improves heat dissipation, thermoregulation, heart rate, and cardiac stroke volume during exercise.38
Eat the Carbs You Earn
I always say “Eat the carbs you earn.” While that usually means eating fewer carbs than before if you’re sedentary, it can also mean eating more carbs if you’ve trained hard enough to warrant them. Earning carbs means training hard enough to deplete the glycogen in your muscles. Eating the carbs you’ve earned means refilling those glycogen stores—part of muscle recovery.
If you went for a long hike or easy bike ride that burned primarily body fat, you didn’t earn any carbs. If you’re coming off a 30-minute full body CrossFit session that left you gasping on the ground in a puddle of sweat, you earned some carbs. You probably have some glycogen stores to refill.
This even applies to keto folks; depleting glycogen through exercise creates a “glycogen debt” that you can repay without inhibiting ketosis or fat-adaptation too much. The carbs—which you don’t need much of—go into muscle glycogen stores for recovery and later use without disrupting ketosis. This is why even high-carb endurance athletes will often be in mild ketosis most of the time.
Walk To Enhance Muscle Recovery
There’s a real epidemic of people who train hard in the gym a few times a week and then sit on their asses the rest of the week. They might even look strong or fit, but they’re leaving a lot of fitness on the table by not moving frequently at a slow pace. Resting doesn’t mean “being sedentary.” On the contrary, consistent low level movement helps stimulate lymph flow, which helps reduce and repair muscle damage and speed up both recovery and adaptations.
What have you found to be the best way to recover from your training? What are the biggest roadblocks? Let me know down below, and thanks for reading!
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.