When we exercise, we push, pull, and stretch our muscles to their limits. Without allowing sufficient recovery, we can cause muscle damage ranging from short-term soreness to long-term stiffness/pain.
As of recent, recovery from training is rightfully becoming recognized as one of the most important aspects of physical activity and wellness. The following tips should give you ideas of how to improve your muscle recovery but aren’t meant to be a comprehensive list that you need to follow point for point.
You don’t need us to tell you that food is our fuel - but it is undeniable that what we eat before and after our workouts has an impact on our muscle health and recovery. One thing to keep in mind is protein intake. Proteins are made up of small molecules called amino acids, which our bodies use to repair tissue. This is important because, during exercise (particularly strength training), we create tiny tears in the muscles which protein-rich foods help us recover and rebuild. Reach for some trail mix, yogurt, or eggs to boost your protein before your next session.
Carbohydrates are also crucial before workouts, despite many people’s apprehension towards them. Our bodies use the glucose from carbs and store it as glycogen - this little energy store is where our muscles find the strength to work as hard as they do. You can find a good amount of healthy carbohydrates in foods such as wholegrain pasta or bread, fresh fruits, and beans or lentils. Make sure that you give your body that boost before your next workout.
One of the most important things we can do for muscle recovery is to get enough sleep. The amount of sleep we need varies from person to person, but the recommended healthy amount is at least 7 hours per night for adults (preferably 8). During sleep, our body helps muscles release protein-building amino acids into the bloodstream at an increased rate which helps them grow bigger and stronger over time. That’s why we need a decent amount - anything less than 7 hours doesn’t allow sufficient time for our muscles to grow. Sleeping also helps to release growth hormones during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep which helps with muscle repair.
Arguably the most important (but often forgotten) tip for muscle recovery is… stretching! Stretching is the name we give to the process of placing particular parts of the body into a position that will lengthen the muscles. It helps your muscles relax, which accelerates the healing process due to increased blood flow. Stretching before your workout can increase your flexibility and prepare your muscles for the strain of training. This is a good preventative tool against injuries. Stretching after your workout, however, is essential! It’s beneficial for both body and mind to gradually slow down. When you stretch after a workout you’re giving yourself the chance to gradually wind down. It also helps us eliminate lactic acid. We produce lactic acid when we work out. This substance can make muscles feel achy and tired, so stretching can help reduce the amount of lactic acid throughout your body.
What happens if muscles don't recover?
As mentioned before, working out creates minuscule tears in the muscle fibers - however worrying this sounds, it’s an entirely normal part of the process. The only time it becomes a problem is if you don’t give them adequate time to heal. The tears may start to grow and your muscles feel inflamed, swollen, and exhausted. This pain usually begins a day or two after your workout, and it’s called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). Many people wrongly believe that feeling sore and stiff the day after is a sign of a ‘good workout’! This is not the case at all - all it means is that your muscles were not given the well-deserved TLC they needed before, during, and after your session. If you’re working hard, every day, your body might not have time to do all its rebuilding during one sleep period. You may even lose muscle cells from this, and these bad habits can mean that you’ll actually get weaker in the long term.
Luckily for us, all it takes is a little conscious effort to look after our muscles to rest and recover. Let's take these tips on board and show our bodies the respect they deserve!