The Best Ways to Recover From a Tough Workout

Whether you pounded the pavement for miles, swam laps in the pool, or put in work at the gym, finishing a tough workout is an accomplishment in itself. Equally important is the recovery process following the workout, so you can be properly refreshed and prepared for your next workout. While doing any extra “work” after a grueling exercise session might seem less than pleasant, utilizing recovery techniques is crucial for an athlete of any skill level.

Think about it: By giving your body that little bit of extra care, you’re allowing it to come back even stronger for the next workout. It may sound cheesy, but slow and steady wins the race: Leveling up often requires sitting out for a few days. Recovery mode will look different for every person, so it’s important to try out varying techniques to find out what leaves you feeling truly renewed. Read on to learn the best ways to recover from a tough workout.

Tips for Workout Recovery

Get enough protein.

Protein is a vital macronutrient in any diet, aiding the body by providing energy, repairing tissue, and building muscle. You should be consuming, at a minimum, 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, and up to 1.6 grams per kilogram, based on your activity levels. If your fitness goal is to add muscle mass, the International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends consuming protein within two hours after your workout. If your goal is to gain muscle, studies suggest spreading your protein intake throughout the day, getting an equal amount with each meal.

female in pink ssports bra drinking a protein shake

Luckily, protein can be found in tons of accessible foods, such as eggs, meat, legumes, and seeds. If you’re on the go, there are several options for high-protein snacks. Try a hard-boiled egg topped with hot sauce, a handful of pumpkin seeds, or a beef jerky stick. You can also throw a scoop of protein powder in a shaker bottle with water, milk, or juice for a quick post-workout drink. Protein powders come in a variety of forms, including casein and whey, as well as soy, pea, rice, and hemp for vegan options.

Try some anti-inflammatory foods.

After a rigorous workout, your muscles can become incredibly inflamed, with muscle soreness lasting for up to 24 to 48 hours. Soreness is perfectly normal (to a point) as the fibers in your muscles begin to break down and then repair themselves. Stocking your kitchen with a few anti-inflammatory ingredients can speed up the process. Sprinkle some turmeric and pepper on sweet potato wedges for a snack that will replenish glycogen stores and decrease muscle soreness. Or, whip up a smoothie with spinach (packed with antioxidants to fight free radicals) and cacao nibs, which have high levels of polyphenols and magnesium to reduce inflammation and stress in your body.

Take a snooze.

Getting at least seven hours of sleep is important every night, but it’s particularly necessary after a hard workout. Your body goes into recovery mode during the non-REM sleep cycle by building muscle, regenerating tissue, and boosting your immune system, so make sure to give your body the rest it needs.

Utilize a foam roller.

A foam roller is exactly what it sounds like: a cylindrical piece of foam used to roll out sore muscles. When used properly, a foam roller can ease muscle fatigue as proven by a study conducted by the School of Human Kinetics and Recreation at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Another review in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy reported an increase in range of motion for frequent users.male in gym clothes using foam roller on his thigh

For best results, begin foam rolling after every other workout and work your way up to daily use. Do your best to avoid rolling out bony areas and your lower back. Spend 30 seconds to one minute on each section of your body, starting with the upper back and shoulder blades, followed by your lats, and then working your way down to your glutes, hamstrings, inner thighs, and calves. If a specific area seems to hurt more than others, try rolling the area side to side. Test different levels of pressure to find the “sweet spot” that’s most comfortable for your body.

Book a massage.

Booking a massage doesn’t have to be reserved for a day at the spa. Sports massages are fantastic for relieving sore muscles and speeding up recovery times. Licensed sports massage therapists are experts in reducing muscle tightness and feeling out trouble spots that may need a longer resting period before being activated in another workout. The New York Times reported on a Science Translational Medicine study that discovered massage diminishes cytokines, a compound that contributes to inflammation. The study also revealed the role massage plays in cell recovery – a crucial part of the body rejuvenation process. So go ahead, call up your masseuse.

Sit in a sauna.

Does your gym have a sauna you haven’t used yet? Take note of this study in the Asian Journal of Sports Medicine investigating the benefits of popping into the sauna after a rigorous workout. The results showed that sauna use increases blood circulation, which is vital for muscles running low on oxygen. The higher temperature releases muscle tension, and prolonging your sweat session allows your body to purge toxins.

Just like every other room in the gym, there is some common sense etiquette to follow in the sauna:

  • Wash off in the shower before entering
  • Wear, at a minimum, a towel and sandals
  • Be quiet and don’t use your phone
  • Don’t be the person who tries to do hot yoga (or other bothersome activity) in a crowded space

Stay hydrated.

Drinking enough water before, during, and after workouts is vital for the recovery process. The sad truth is that American men and women only receive 30% to 34% of their daily hydration from water (as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Similar to sweating it out in the sauna, drinking water helps your body flush out toxins and keeps your muscles in working order. Staying hydrated also ups your pain tolerance so you can increase the length and intensity of your workouts. If that’s not enough motivation to chug some water, how about the fact that water is a building block of synovial fluid, the stuff that gives life to your joints and allows you to move with ease? To keep things exciting, add some cucumber slices, lemon juice, or mint leaves to your water bottle.

Add supplements to your routine.

A healthy, protein-rich diet and proper hydration can take you far when it comes to recovery. Supplements can take you even further. Take magnesium for example: Loading up on magnesium is pretty crucial when it comes to a post-workout routine. Magnesium tends to sweat out during a workout, causing muscle spasms and cramps if your levels get too low. Magnesium comes in liquid, pill, and even gummy form. Epsom salt is also high in magnesium if you’d rather add a cup to a relaxing bath.

If you follow fitness industry influencers on social media, you’ve likely seen BCAAs being lauded for their magical recovery powers. It turns out the magic is backed by science. BCAAs stands for branched-chain amino acids, of which there are three: valine, leucine, and isoleucine. Leucine is responsible for catalyzing the process of making muscle. One study found that drinking 5.6 grams of BCAAs after resistance training resulted in 22% more muscle protein synthesis, compared to people who didn’t consume BCAAs.

Throw some active recovery into the mix.

Active recovery involves doing low-impact exercises on your “off” days. This could mean going for a jog, taking a yoga class, or completing a slowed-down version of your normal workout routine. Slowing down your routine means you can really focus on improving form, lowering your heart rate, and checking in with your body. If you’re new to fitness, active recovery is a fantastic way to ensure you’re not being overly ambitious and avoiding injury. Start by taking an “off” day in between each vigorous workout to slow down and move your body for the sake of moving. This will help you build endurance and feel grounded and comfortable in your more demanding workouts, so you can gradually increase the intensity of your workouts.

Adding a few extra elements to your workout and recovery process doesn’t have to feel like a burden. By taking the time to invest in yourself and your health, you’ll be able to take on bigger, longer, and more intense workouts. Your future self will thank you for sitting out on the sidelines and listening to your body’s needs.