For a natural bodily process, post-exercise recovery has become downright trendy. Just consider Instagram, on which lifestyle luminaries tout gadgets and strategies. Although the specific modalities and goods these influencers are showcasing often don’t hold water, recovery itself is worth prioritizing. “Recovery from exercise and training is just as important as the training itself,” says Anthony Hackney, Ph.D., DSc, professor of exercise physiology and nutrition at the University of North Carolina. That’s because recovery is crucial to making muscle gains (not to mention for mental health). Read on to get the lowdown on this key process, including the best methods to adopt in your own regimen.

What is recovery?

When we’re exercising, we’re literally imposing stress on our bodies, explains Brandon Marcello, Ph.D., performance strategist for the U.S. military and professional sports teams. Our sympathetic nervous system is dominant, with our heart rate and blood pressure elevated and blood flowing to our brain and extremities. Strenuous activities, such as lifting heavy weights or sprinting, actually tears our muscles.

They can only be repaired and enlarged when the parasympathetic nervous system takes over. In this state, our heart rate slows, airways constrict and blood flows to our digestive system. Most important for athletes, this is also when our immune system repairs our muscles, increasing the mitochondria in their cells, says Christie Aschwanden, author of “Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn From the Strange Science of Recovery” (W. W. Norton & Co., 2019). “If we’re under stress, our body’s ability to recover is limited,” she adds. “So anything we can do to quiet the mind and reduce stress is very helpful for improving recovery.”

Of course, switching from “fight or flight” mode to a relaxed state isn’t always so easy. “The body has an amazing ability to recover on its own, but we can introduce some stimuli to expedite the recovery process so we can get back to our baseline level of performance more quickly,” Marcello says. Particularly after intense exercise, such as heavy weightlifting, long endurance bouts or high-intensity workouts, it’s helpful to try recovery strategies, recommends Katie Lawton, exercise physiologist at Cleveland Clinic’s Rehabilitation and Sports Therapy.

Sleep and nutrition are most important

They might not be novel or exciting, but sleep and nutrition are at the top of the recovery pantheon. In fact, Marcello refers to sleep as “pre-covery,” explaining that seven hours should be the minimum and that some athletes need up to 10 hours. As far as diet, Marcello says that—despite popular belief—it’s not essential to eat within a certain window after exercising. What is crucial, though, is to consume sufficient balanced meals throughout the day. Be sure to glean at least 20 grams of protein in each meal, says Alex Hutchinson, author of “Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance” (William Morrow, 2018).

Hydration is also essential because water transports nutrients throughout the body, Lawton explains. “If you are dehydrated, your body can’t do this in a timely manner. Electrolytes (sodium, magnesium, calcium and potassium) are helpful for retaining water during workouts where you might sweat more,” she says. “The amount of water consumed during the day should be at least half your body weight.” Just try to avoid coffee after workouts. According to a 2014 study conducted by the Department of Kinesiology and Nutrition at the University of Illinois, caffeine delays the recovery of the nervous system following acute exercise.

Other recovery strategies

In general, recovery modalities should help us relax, return blood flow to the heart without elevating heart rate and accelerate the removal of metabolic waste products, Marcello says. Of course, since relaxation is personal, so too are the most effective recovery strategies. Since scientific evidence is sparse for basically all these methods, pick and choose the ones that work best for you.

  • Active recovery: Lawton describes this as low- to moderate-intensity workouts after a day or two of high-intensity exercise. To be active without the need to restart the recovery process, she recommends a sport or activity unrelated to your normal workouts, for instance biking or swimming for runners or hiking for weightlifters.
  • Massage and stretching: This type of bodywork seems to be the most effective method for reducing delayed onset muscle soreness and perceived fatigue, according to a 2018 study conducted by the faculty of sport sciences at the University of Poitiers in France. For stretches, Marcello recommends the “legs up the wall” stance.
  • Myofascial release: Foam rolling can help release trigger points in muscles to decrease tightness or pain, Lawton explains.
  • Electrical muscle stimulation machines: This method involves attaching an electrical device to the skin near the knee. Delivering electrical impulses to the nerves, it causes muscle contractions.
  • Hydrotherapy: Water therapies, such as contrast bath methods, come from ancient Rome, Marcello says. Immediately post-exercise, spend three minutes in a hot shower or the sauna or steam room, then 30 to 60 seconds in a cold shower or bath. Repeat up to seven times. A 2018 study conducted by the University of Eastern Finland revealed that “taking a sauna bath of 30 minutes reduces blood pressure while also increasing heart rate similarly to medium-intensity exercise.”
  • Cold therapy: “The theory is that cold therapy increases recovery time by improving blood flow and reducing inflammation,” Lawton says. Yet a 2015 study conducted by Queensland University of Technology in Australia found that “cold water immersion after strength training hindered muscle adaptation.” Plus, as Marcello points out, cryotherapy is somewhat risky from a safety perspective. According to Aschwanden, it’s not worth trying.
  • Breathing, meditation and music: Many swear by deep breathing, meditation and calming music. “Classical music from the Baroque era can help stimulate the biorhythms that are conducive to recovery,” explains Marcello, who says that he has played Johann Sebastian Bach for athletes while they elevated their legs and focused on breathing.

Short-term vs. long-term recovery

When planning your routine, take into account short-term and long-term recovery. The first, Lawton explains, refers to strategies followed immediately after a workout, from the cool-down all the way until the beginning of the next workout. Meanwhile, long-term recovery is a scheduled recovery period, in the context of a long-term exercise program. Think days or weeks of active recovery, often after a competition or an extremely intense couple of weeks of training.

The bottom line

Make sure to get enough sleep, nutrition and hydration. As far as specific recovery methods go, opt for strategies that help you relax. Just don’t stress about picking the right ones, Aschwanden says. After all, that would defeat the purpose.

Photo credit: alvarez, Getty Images