How to Recover After a Workout

Learn techniques to quickly repair muscles, recover after a workout, and reduce post-workout soreness.

Ben Greenfield
3-minute read
Episode #14

How to Recover After a Workout

Nobody likes to be sore, and I’ve received several questions from readers about how to eliminate the nagging aches and pains that come from a workout. Though soreness is completely natural and cannot be completely eliminated, it can be controlled, and proper recovery protocols will not only ensure minimal levels of post-workout discomfort, but also allow your body to recover more quickly and gain better fitness from the workout.

Why Workout Recovery Is Important

As you learned in the article “How to Build Muscle muscles grow and become stronger when they are subjected to forces that cause tiny tears in the muscle fibers. During the recovery period after a workout, the body repairs these fibers,  and builds new blood vessels to the stressed area. Additionally, the energy-generating components of the cells develop a higher work capacity, and bone density increases.

But none of these positive adaptations will occur unless the body has proper rest and recovery. In other words, exercising without recovering properly is a bit like trying to cook a casserole without turning on the oven--you’ll end up going through all the casserole-cooking motions, but getting no final results, or at least a very disappointing final product.

How Sore Should You Be After A Workout?

Excessive soreness is generally an indication that you either increased volume or intensity far too quickly in your exercise routine, or that you did not recover properly. Us exercise geeks use a term called “DOMS,” which is short for “Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness,” and it basically means soreness does not peak immediately after a workout, but rather, about 24-48 hours post-workout. DOMS that manifests in light muscle tenderness and stiff joints is completely normal, but DOMS that results in muscles that are very painful to the touch or sharp pains in the joints is not normal. In other words, if it hurts to twitch, sneeze, giggle or blink a couple of days after a workout, then you need to pay attention to what you are about to read.

How to Recover After A Workout

When it comes to recovery, dehydration is one of your biggest enemies, so try to drink one 20-24oz bottle of water for each hour of exercise.

Nutrition: Immediately after a workout, you have a maximum of about one hour to eat something. If you do not eat, you will not have enough carbohydrate energy for your next workout, you will not have enough protein to repair muscles, and you will not have enough fat for hormones and joints. Try a bowl of quinoa or brown rice with chicken, a protein smoothie with whey protein powder and a piece of fruit, or even a slice of last night’s pizza. For specifics on exactly what you need to eat, read the article “What to Eat Before and After Exercising.”

Hydrate: When it comes to recovery, dehydration is one of your biggest enemies, so try to drink one 20-24oz bottle of water for each hour of exercise. Within a couple hours after a workout, your urine should be light yellow or clear. If it is dark yellow, then you are inadequately hydrated. If it is any other color of the rainbow for that matter, you either need to get glasses, or see your physician.

Compression: Performing a brief cool-down after a workout helps contracting muscles milk out excess soreness-generating fluids. In the same way, techniques such as massage and a foam roller can not only help to move inflammatory fluids out of the muscle, but also can remove adhesions and sore or tight spots from the worked muscles. If possible, perform these exercises with a foam roller once a week or even after every strenuous workout, and schedule a massage once a month.

Blood flow: Circulation of blood in and out of a stressed body part improves speed of recovery. Techniques that can improve blood flow include cooling down after your workout with a walk or easy bike ride, performing light stretching during or after each workout, alternating every 30-60 seconds between hot and cold running water in your post-workout shower, taking an ice bath after a very strenuous weight training workout or long run, and performing a light walk, swim, or easy exercise routine the day after a hard workout.

Topical ointments: There are several compounds that you can rub on a muscle to eliminate soreness and improve recovery. Most of these compounds work by creating a pain-relieving and cooling sensation, increasing blood flow, or displacing elevated levels of calcium. Popular remedies that have worked for me and my clients include Arnica rub, Traumeel, Ben-Gay, Tiger Balm, and Magnesium Oil. On my personal blog, I have a fascinating interview with a physician about topical magnesium oil and how it works. You can listen to it here. All of these ointments can be rubbed into the muscle immediately after and up to several days after a workout, until soreness subsides.

There is no need for getting fit to be a suffer-fest, so if you find yourself constantly sore, or at a fitness plateau, then use the techniques in this article to recovery properly and get fit more quickly!

Protein Smoothie image from Shutterstock

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ben Greenfield

Ben Greenfield received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Idaho in sports science and exercise physiology; personal training and strength and conditioning certifications from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA); a sports nutrition certification from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), an advanced bicycle fitting certification from Serotta. He has over 11 years’ experience in coaching professional, collegiate, and recreational athletes from all sports, and as helped hundreds of clients achieve weight loss and fitness success.