The Perfect Workout Recovery Day

A closer look at some protocols that will not only ensure that you keep your post-workout aches and pains to a minimum while also allowing your body to gain better fitness and strength from that killer workout that landed you in this hot and sweaty mess.

Brock Armstrong
9-minute read
Episode #404
Photo of a woman laying in bed in workout clothes

My Top Workout Recovery Tips

1. Foam Roll

You can check out the article called "The Many Benefits of Foam Rolling" for more info on this but I also want to tell you about a study that was published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise that investigated whether foam rolling could reduce soreness and boost recovery. This study looked at how a foam rolling protocol affected soreness following a squat workout.

Twenty men were split up into two groups and both groups underwent a pretty serious squat workout that included ten sets of ten back squats at 60% of one-rep squat maximum. After the squats, both groups were evaluated for their soreness level, quadriceps and hamstring range of motion, performance during a vertical leap test, and measurements of muscle electrical activity. After these tests, half the men did a foam rolling routine and the other half hit the showers.

The study concluded that the foam rolling had three effects.

  1. It significantly reduced muscle soreness.
  2. It caused a significant increase in quadriceps range of motion.
  3. It led to better performance in a vertical leap test.

Another study at Memorial University of Newfoundland looked at the immediate benefits that you get when you finish a foam rolling routine. In this study, after only two minutes of foam rolling, quadriceps range of motion had increased by ten degrees, where the control group, who did not foam roll, only saw an increase of one degree.

What makes foam rolling decrease soreness, speed up recovery, and increase range of motion? Well, it comes down to movement of connective tissue. While exercise damages connective tissue, which stimulates pain receptors and inhibits muscle activation, using a foam roller helps repair damage to your connective tissue. This has a direct effect on decreasing soreness and preventing a drop in performance after a hard workout.

2. Hot or Cold Therapy

The second thing listed on my “recovery day” workout is some hot or cold therapy. I include this for a few reasons. One being that growth hormone is crucial for repair and recovery of muscles and research has shown that two 20-minute sauna sessions, separated by a 30-minute cooling period, elevated growth hormone levels two-fold over baseline. Two 15-minute sauna sessions at an even warmer temperature separated by a 30-minute cooling period resulted in a five-fold increase in growth hormone. Which is pretty important.

Perhaps even more important is that repeated exposure to whole-body, intermittent hyperthermia (or overheating) boosts growth hormone immediately afterward, and two one-hour sauna sessions for seven days have been shown to increase growth hormone up to 16 times.

Adding to the recovery is that a sauna also increases blood flow to the skeletal muscles, which helps keep the muscles fueled with oxygen, amino acids, fatty acids, and glucose while simultaneously removing byproducts of metabolic processes such as lactate and calcium ions.

Then there are the benefits to your immune system. In Germany, sauna medical research showed that heat therapy is able to significantly reduce the incidences of colds and influenza. And both Finnish and German studies show that regular sauna bathing leads to a 30% lower chance of getting a cold and influenza.

On the other side of the temperature spectrum, a cold water soak after a workout enhances the recovery of muscle function. But—and this again is a big but—cold water plunges immediately after training also appears to impair long-term muscular adaptations to resistance training. In a nutshell, a cold bath may help you get movin' in the short term but it may be at the cost of all those long-term adaptations.

In any case, science still shows us that cold water exposure can restore muscle contractile function and reduce soreness following collision sports like rugby. And both cold water immersion and hot/cold contrast therapy can help restore force production after performing some high intensity interval training.

Cold water immersion also helps cyclists maintain their high performance when they are training hard on consecutive days. And basketball players who use cold immersion recover from their games and maintain a higher jump height.

3. Good Food and Drink

The last “workout” on my recovery day list is to eat and hydrate well because working out expends energy (calories) and that energy must be replenished before you are able to fully recover and get yourself ready for another workout.

A friend and mentor of mine, Marks Sisson, always says “eat the carbs you earn.” While that often means eating fewer carbs, it can also mean eating more—if you’ve trained hard enough to warrant them.

It is important to remember that what you replenish depends on the type of exercise that you engaged in. If you went for an easy bike ride or a long walk that burned primarily body fat, obviously you don’t want to worry about replenishing that! But if you just crushed a 30-minute full body (insert brand name) session that left you feeling weak as a kitten and sweaty as a Florida Gator, then you probably have some glycogen (carbohydrate) stores to refill in your liver and your muscles.

Eating inadequate calories coupled with some intense exercise sessions can eventually send a "we’re in trouble" signal to the body. This can cause the body to down-regulate our anabolic hormones. So, instead of growing the lean mass that we want and burn the body fat that we don't want, this state of "starvation" can actually cause muscle atrophy and body fat retention. Not what we are looking for at all!

As far as protein goes, I am going to quote Monica Reinagel, The Nutrition Dive, from her podcast episode called "How to Build More Muscle with less Protein."

“Building and repairing muscle tissue requires protein—and that’s a nutrient that our bodies have to use as it comes in; we can’t store it for future use. Whenever we eat foods containing protein, we get a little burst of muscle-building activity. The amount of muscle you build is dependent on the amount of protein you take in at that meal. Eat a little protein, build a little muscle. Take in more protein, build more muscle...but only up to a point.”

The research done by Douglas Paddon Jones of the University of Texas shows that muscle protein synthesis (your body’s ability to use protein effectively) peaks at about 30 grams of protein per meal. Anything above that is largely wasted in terms of its muscle-building benefit. So, that amount is a good amount to aim for whether you are using the preferred source of real food protein, a protein powder, or you are getting it in bar form.

Dehydration is also one of our recovery enemies.It is advised that you try to drink one 20-24oz bottle of water for each hour of exercise you are engaged in. Notice that I didn’t say sports drink, energy drink, or soda—I said water. There is a great book on this subject by Tim Noakes called Waterlogged, and I recommend you read it if you are still very much a slave to the sports drink industry. Suffice to say that if you get some good food (which contains many vital minerals) and water in your belly, you will be headed in the right direction.


About the Author

Brock Armstrong

Brock Armstrong is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute. Do you have a fitness question? Leave a message on the Get-Fit Guy listener line. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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