The most important part of the workout isn’t the workout—it’s after. That’s when muscles grow, when you get stronger, when mitochondria replicate, when glycogen regenerates, when depleted cells rehydrate. It’s where the actual benefits of physical training occur. The workout is the stimulus, and the time after your workout is where your body adapts to the training. Your recovery methods make or break your training.
What’s the typical advice?
Eat, sleep, repeat.
This advice isn’t bad. It’s actually the foundation of workout recovery. Of course you have to eat food, sleep, and do the whole sequence consistently to get results in the gym. That goes without saying. But it’s the absolute bare minimum. There’s more you can do, and should do.
There’s also the possibility of doing too much. Of getting lost in the weeds. Of optimizing all the gadgets and hacks and supplements and forgetting about the foundational precepts of workout recovery methods: good food, good sleep, and consistency.
So today I’ll lay out everything I’ve learned about recovery methods over the last 40-50 years of training.
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:
Your muscles are primed for dietary protein to lay down new tissue and begin repairing the damage done by the workout.
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.
That said, the “window” isn’t closed forever after the two hour mark. Eating later will still improve recovery, replete glycogen, and so on. And a post workout fast (or abstention from food for a few hours) can actually increase growth hormone secretion. Whether this is physiologically relevant to workout recovery remains to be established, but it’s something you can play around with.
But the point is that food matters, maybe more than anything else. You need high quality Primal food and you need adequate amounts of it.
What I do:
Follow my hunger. If I’m ravenous after a training session, I eat right away. If I’m not, I hold off a bit. I trust the instinctual cravings of my subconscious to let me know what’s optimal in any given post workout period.
I aim for protein, first and foremost. 30-50 grams for the first meal, usually in the form of meat or seafood or eggs but sometimes whey.
Protein is my primary concern. I’ll eat whatever fat comes along for the ride, and if I’ve expended a lot of glycogen I might include some fruit or tuber. But personally, I’m not that worried about refilling my glycogen right away. I’m at the point in my life where I’m not destroying myself in the gym anymore, nor am I trying to compete the next day in some grueling event. “Refueling” isn’t my primary concern.
Cold Water Immersion
Cold water immersion done right after a workout can reduce soreness and muscle pain and get you back into competition more quickly, but it may impair strength and fitness gains.
How do you reconcile this?
If you absolutely need to get back into the gym or on the track on short notice, cold immersion will get you competing faster. The studies are clear:
Cold water exposure restores muscle contractile function and reduces soreness following simulated collision sports (in this case, rugby).1
Both cold water immersion and hot/cold contrast therapy help restore force production following high intensity interval training.2
Cold water immersion helps sprinters maintain their performance over the course of consecutive training days.3
Cold water immersion helps basketball players recover from their games.4
This is why you see athletes getting into ice baths after games: so they can play again tomorrow. Makes sense for competition, but not training.
If you’re training for long term adaptations to your strength and cardiovascular fitness, cold immersion should not be done immediately post-workout. Doing so (within 10 minute after a training session) has been shown to reduce long term strength adaptations and even size gains by attenuating the normal post-workout rise in satellite cell number and activity of the kinases that control muscle hypertrophy.5
What I do:
Take a cool bath/shower or dip in the ocean the evening after a workout, or the next day. I don’t do it right after the workout. I don’t do it every time. I wait at least 5-6 hours for the acute inflammation of a training session to subside.
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.6 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.7 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.8
What I do:
Either use a dry sauna, an infra-red sauna, or take a hot bath or dip in the hot tub after my workout. I’m not a stickler for timing or heat medium (dry, wet, bath, IR). Whenever I can squeeze it in, I do it then.
And foam rolling just after the sauna while your muscles are warm feels incredible.
Walking is always a good idea. No matter your situation, go for a walk. At the worst, it doesn’t make anything worse and nothing changes (but you still got a walk in). And there’s a very good chance it improves whatever situation you’re dealing with. Same goes for workout 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.
A post-workout walk will also burn many of the free fatty acids you just liberated during the workout. This can improve body fat loss, if you’re going for that.
What I do:
Immediately post workout, I like a brisk 15-20 minute walk to cool down and to get some gentle movement for the tissues I just stressed.
On the off days, I make sure to get a lengthy walk, or series of walks. Walk as much as you can, as often as you can, basically. Let’s call this strategy JFW—”Just F—ing Walk.”
The average person is already deficient in magnesium, and the severity and incidence rise the more you train. Sweating and exertion increases magnesium requirements by around 20%.9 Without adequate magnesium, you shortchange your ability to generate energy, build muscle, and recover from your workouts. It’s one of those minerals that acts as a precursor to hundreds of physiological processes in the body, including those relevant to the post-workout period.
What I do:
If I’m taking a hot bath, I’ll add some magnesium chloride flakes to the water. I also keep magnesium chloride oil (flakes dissolved in purified water in a spray bottle), which I apply generously to my skin—especially the areas of the body I just trained.
As always, it’s not that sleep is magical. It’s that a lack of sleep is so totally destructive.
Poor sleep impairs exercise recovery primarily via two routes: by increasing cortisol, which reduces testosterone production and lowers muscle protein synthesis; and by disrupting slow wave sleep, the constructive stage of slumber where growth hormone secretion peaks, tissues heal and muscles rebuild.10 That’s probably why sleep deprivation has been linked to muscular atrophy and increased urinary excretion of nitrogen, and why the kind of cortisol excess caused by sleep deprivation reduces muscle strength.111213
Additionally, sleep loss can increase the risk of injuries by decreasing balance and postural control.14 If you trip and fall, or throw out your back due to poor technique, you won’t even have a workout to recover from.
Stress is fungible. Psychological stress (“mental” stress, bills to pay, relationship issues, job you hate, commute you hate more) and physical stress (hard workout, lack of sleep, inadequate calorie intake) do not exist in separate categories, never to interact. They are additive. Stress is stress is stress. If you’ve just finished a hard workout, there is good evidence that psychological stress will make recovery go more slowly.
In one study, 31 undergrads were assessed for baseline mental stress levels using a battery of psychological tests, then engaged in a heavy lower body strength workout. At an hour post workout, students with high baseline stress levels had regained 38 percent of their leg strength, while students low baseline stress levels had regained 60 percent of their strength back.
Another study showed that tissue healing is impaired during times of stress. Students received puncture wounds to their mouths, and half went on vacation and the other half had exams. On average, the exam group took three days longer for their wounds to heal. Even though we aren’t talking about puncture wounds, the muscle recovery process operates along similar pathways.15
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.