Have you ever felt sore or fatigued the day after an intense workout? You may have though to yourself: “There is no way I can workout today because my body is too sore.” While post-workout soreness may feel uncomfortable, certain proven recovery methods help to reduce the time needed between training sessions and to relieve muscle soreness quicker. In the month of January, we often make resolutions and set goals for the upcoming year. Many of us set health goals related to weight loss, increased activity and healthier eating, among others, but we often neglect a recovery-specific resolution.
The primary goal for recovery efforts is to increase blood flow to the sore muscles.
Recovery is a broad category that includes passive and active recovery activities. Examples of recovery activities include low-intensity aerobic exercise, stretching, yoga, wearing compression, completing a session in the cold plunge or infrared sauna, getting enough sleep, and receiving massage therapy. To understand how recovery methods work, it is important to first understand why muscle soreness occurs.
Why do muscles get sore?
Muscle soreness typically occurs 24-72 hours after strenuous workouts, such as sprinting, plyometrics, heavy weight-lifting, or high-intensity training (HIIT). The soreness you experience in the muscle is known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). The muscle strain experienced during intense workouts causes microtears in muscle and irritation in the connective tissue. Strenuous or ‘short-burst’ (i.e., high-intensity and limited duration) exercise regimens use glucose and glycogen as the energy source for a muscle contraction. This is because ‘short-burst’ activity does not provide the body adequate time to supply oxygen (the typical energy source of aerobic respiration) to contract a muscle; in turn the body relies on glucose and glycogen (anaerobic pathway of operating without oxygen) instead. Lactic acid build up occurs when a muscle continues to work in an anaerobic pathway. Excess lactic acid in the muscle results in the feeling of cramping or burning. While your body naturally flushes the lactic acid in the muscle within hours of exercise, the buildup signals your brain to initiate muscular repair for strength development and adaptation.
It is challenging to completely prevent muscle soreness from vigorous activity because improvements in strength, power, and aerobic capacity require a high level of intensity during workouts. SHIFT Physical Therapists provide strategies below to help you improve the speed and quality of recovery, enabling a safe return to high-level training or exercise.
Passive recovery methods focus on inactivity and rest. They involve getting sufficient rest, proper nutrition, and adequate hydration to promote muscle healing.
A series of recovery mechanisms occur when we sleep. During deep (non-REM) sleep, the brain releases growth hormone that stimulates tissue growth and muscle repair. In addition, while asleep, the brain directs an increase in blood flow and oxygen to the muscles for cellular repair. At the cellular level, myofibrillar protein synthesis increases muscle mass development after resistance training. A recent study found that young men deprived of sleep for five consecutive nights had decreased myofibrillar protein synthesis compared to those who had normal sleep patterns.1 Lastly, while we are asleep, the muscle glycogen stores are replenished, which restores energy needed for anaerobic activity. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night for the average adult. Prioritizing a quality night of sleep encourages optimal recovery from exercise.
Muscle protein synthesis (i.e., the process of building muscle) requires adequate cellular hydration levels. If the muscle is dehydrated post-exercise, the protein synthesis process is slowed. Lower blood volume, a result of dehydration, forces your cardiovascular system to work harder to pump blood and oxygen throughout your body, which further delays the recovery process. In general, we recommend consuming half your body weight in ounces (plus 16 oz. for every hour of exercise) of water per day.
Active recovery involves low-intensity movement or treatments that stimulate blood flow to muscles. Growing research on performance optimization in elite athletes places a greater emphasis on recovery strategies, especially these active methods. Active recovery shifts the stress-induced metabolic inflammation created by exercise toward homeostasis by enhancing blood flow and oxygen delivery to the exercised area.2 Studies show that active recovery techniques, when compared to passive recovery, allow the body to generate significantly more anaerobic power output in subsequent workouts.3
Low intensity activities, such as running, biking, and rowing facilitate aerobic oxygen consumption and physiological recovery. The typical duration of an active recovery aerobic session can be anywhere from 15-45 minutes. When performing these activities, it is important to keep your heart rate in low to moderate zones.
Compression devices, such as Normatec® boots, are popular recovery tools within the athletic community. The compression of either the arms or legs improves circulatory return by simulating the skeletal muscle pumps within our body. Compression reduces the space within the muscle – a space normally available for swelling caused by the inflammatory response – following intense exercise. We recommend utilizing compression tools for 15-30 minutes with medium to high pressure. Consult your physician or healthcare team to determine the best compression pressure for you.
The infrared heat in a sauna increases circulation of oxygen-rich blood to our muscles and accelerates the movement of metabolic byproducts from the muscles into the lymphatic system. The intense heat combined with deep breathing techniques also serve to relax muscles, resulting in improved joint range of motion. Make sure you are properly hydrated and then aim to spend anywhere from 15-45 minutes in an infrared sauna for the best results. Consult your physician and healthcare team to determine the appropriate frequency and duration for you.
When a limb is immersed in cold water (45 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit), hydrostatic pressure forces intramuscular fluid (created from inflammation), back into the circulatory system (i.e., into the blood volume).4 This, along with the cold temperature of the water, reduces soft-tissue inflammation and aids in muscle oxygenation, improves recovery.3 We recommend spending 5-10 minutes in a cold plunge for optimal recovery benefits. If you are interested in using cold plunge as a recovery modality, consult your physician and healthcare team to determine the appropriate frequency and duration for you.
Massage techniques work to reduce pain or muscle tension caused by strenuous exercise. Massage increases blood flow, muscle temperature, and muscle elasticity, resulting in a lower perception of pain. The resulting lymphatic drainage from the muscle increases joint mobility and decreases overall pain. Research shows that massage also downregulates the sympathetic nervous system and reduces the stress response that follows intense workouts.5 Generally speaking, effective massage therapy ranges from 50-90 minutes. Use our scheduling link to schedule your next massage at SHIFT.
Similar to massage, soft tissue mobilization with lacrosse balls, foam rollers, and other instruments increases muscle elasticity through enhanced blood flow and trigger-point release. Muscle tightness is a result of muscle fatigue, glycogen store depletion, cellular lactic acid accumulation, and cellular dehydration. Soft-tissue techniques increase blood flow to the muscle and surrounding areas to accelerate recovery from DOMS. We recommend spending at least two minutes per muscle group and an aggregate 15-20 minutes per day of soft-tissue mobilization.
Yoga and stretching
Restorative yoga moves slowly from pose to pose and focuses on controlled movements to stretch and increase muscle length. The practice is slow in order to bring attention to deep-breathing techniques. Similarly, stretching routines, especially when completed after light aerobic activity, ease muscle tension and restore proper muscle length for subsequent workouts. We recommend spending anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes in your yoga practice.
Recovery is vital to peak athletic performance the ability to complete recurrent high-level training and DOMS reduction. In addition, the risk of injury from over-training is reduced as recovery techniques promote muscle healing. When formulating your new weekly recovery plan, aim to include multiple active recovery strategies from those listed above, as well as passive recovery approaches. Make sure your plan works best with your schedule, goals, and available equipment. If this seems daunting, start by targeting an additional 15 minutes of recovery per day. Make this the year you achieve your fitness goals by prioritizing recovery in your 2023 health resolutions.
If you have further questions on how to introduce these recovery recommendations into your routine, please contact your SHIFT physical therapist team at email@example.com or schedule a physical therapy appointment for an in-person assessment of symptoms and to create a more individualized care plan.
In Real Health,
Avis Jason, PT, DPT & Scott Robin, PT, DPT
SHIFT Physical Therapists
- Saner NJ, Lee MJ, Pitchford NW, Kuang J, Roach GD, Garnham A, Stokes T, Phillips SM, Bishop DJ, Bartlett JD. The effect of sleep restriction, with or without high-intensity interval exercise, on myofibrillar protein synthesis in healthy young men. J Physiol. 2020 Apr;598(8):1523-1536.
- Stults-Kolehmainen MA, Sinha R. The effects of stress on physical activity and exercise. Sports Med. 2014 Jan;44(1):81-121.
- Ahmaidi S, Granier P, Taoutaou Z, et al. Effects of active recovery on plasma lactate and anaerobic power following repeated intensive exercise. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 1996 Apr;28(4):450-456.
- Vaile JM, Gill ND, Blazevich AJ. The effect of contrast water therapy on symptoms of delayed onset muscle soreness. J Strength Cond Res. 2007;21:697–702.
- Lee YH, Park BN, Kim SH. The effects of heat and massage application on autonomic nervous system. Yonsei Med J. 2011 Nov;52(6):982-9.