The Best Ways to Support Recovery In Between Workouts, According To Experts
by Amy Schlinger
Exercise is essential for taking your fitness to the next level, but if you’re not paying attention to your recovery in between workouts then there’s a good chance you’re leaving hard-earned results on the table.
“Resting and replenishing is necessary to allow your body to destress, replenish your energy stores, and make the changes to strengthen your muscles,” says Dan Giordano, PT, DPT, C.S.C.S., physical therapist and co-founder at Bespoke Treatments Physical Therapy in New York City. “Recovery is essential for human performance.”
“The recovery process involves healing and a functional recharging of the muscles at a cellular level,” says Jordan Metzl, M.D., a sports medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. “Muscle cells recharge, micro-healing occurs, and you ready yourself for your next workout.”
There are several different ways to support recovery between workouts, from simply resting to taking a more proactive approach. Here are some of the methods that the experts recommend.
Foam Rolling and Massage Guns
While many individuals turn to the foam roller or massage gun to help warm up before a workout, they’re also great tools that, when used correctly, can support recovery.
“These tools can be used to improve blood flow or circulation, which brings more oxygen to the area,” explains Giordano.
However, using these products correctly is half the battle. Educate yourself and be gentle when using them so as to not cause any trauma or damage. “None of these should hurt you in any way,” says Giordano. “Personally I like to use these tools for 60 to 120 seconds per muscle group after a workout or at the end of the day.”
One of the most important ways to recover after exercising is through nutrition.
“The purpose of refueling after workouts is to help with muscle glycogen synthesis, which is what carbs do; help to rehydrate, which is what fluids and electrolytes do; and help with muscle protein synthesis, which is what both carbs and protein do,” explains Leslie Bonci, R.D., nutrition consultant for the Kansas City Chiefs and founder of Active Eating Advice.
Refueling may be critical, but you don’t need excessive amounts of food to do it. “Aim for at least 20 grams of protein in the hour after any exhaustive vigorous exercise lasting longer than an hour,” Bonci suggests, “along with 40–80 grams of carbs. And for strength workouts or more endurance-based or HIIT-like workouts, you can go for even fewer carbs.”
Bonci’s advice is to think of refueling as a snack rather than a meal. “You could have a protein smoothie, trail mix, half of a wrap, yogurt with cereal, a bowl of cereal and milk, chocolate milk and a banana, or pretzels and jerky,” she suggests. “Just remember, there isn’t one nutrient that does it all—you need carbs, protein, electrolytes, and fluid—and if refueling in liquid form is more comfortable or convenient for you, that works.”
A popular recovery tactic among athletes, contrast therapy involves alternating your body’s exposure to heat and cold. This can be done with hot and cold water, or by incorporating an ice bath (like this at-home model from Ice Barrel) and a sauna.
“In theory what happens is that when you go into a cold tub, vasoconstriction of the blood vessels occurs,” explains Giordano. “When you go into a hot water tub, vasodilation of your vessels occurs.
As for specific temperatures, Giordano recommends cold tubs be between 50–59°F (10-15°C) and hot tubs be between 95–113°F (35-45°C). He suggests spending about one to three minutes in reach, alternating for 20 minutes total.
The benefits of sleep are almost too numerous to list, and post-workout recovery is certainly one of them.
“There is an increasingly robust amount of evidence that shows that sleep not only adds to performance but also supports recovery,” says Dr. Metzl. “Trying to maximize sleep through hours sleeping, timing of sleep schedules, and consistency all make a difference.”
These days, one of the biggest challenges standing between us and a good night’s sleep is, coincidentally, ourselves—specifically, our fervent use of electronic devices before bed. Dr. Metzl suggests unplugging from technology an hour before bed and keeping devices out of your bedroom. It’s just one of the ways to help your body prepare to get the best sleep possible.
Red Light Therapy
While total darkness can help you get the most out of your sleep, certain types of light during waking hours can actually help support recovery.
Red light in particular has been gaining popularity as a recovery tool, and most med spas today will offer some version of red light therapy, also known as photobiomodulation.
“Red light therapy creates a photobiological reaction that occurs at the cellular level, stimulating energy production in your cells via your mitochondria,” says Giordano.