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The Essential Post-Workout Recovery Guide for Athletes

By Brittany Risher and Hillary Oberpeul March 22, 2018

Nine simple, effective tools and techniques to help you minimize muscle soreness and get back to doing what you love.

Pilates—you name it; if you’re active, you should consider yourself an athlete. One thing every athlete knows is how amazing you can feel during and right after your activity... and how sore you can feel the next day or two. That's why a good recovery plan is key.

When you give your body and mind what they need to properly recover, you can keep doing the things you love without worrying about injuries. Plus, it can help you see the results you want, such as running faster times, lifting heavier weights, losing weight or conquering harder trails—something that gives you a little mental boost to keep working hard.

“Recovery days give the body a chance to reboot and recharge,” says Lindsay Winninger, PT, MPT and owner of Sports Rehab Consulting. “Your body can only handle so much load before things start to shut down and break down.”

A good recovery plan means finding ways to relieve soreness and regain energy—it gives your muscles a chance to rebuild any damaged tissues and build up energy for future workouts. Without recovery, you can overwork your body, which may result in decreased performance and an increased risk for injury.

Some people use rest and recovery interchangeably. Although there is some overlap, the two are not necessarily one and the same. Rest may be one step in your recovery plan, but active recovery—an easy to moderate activity to get your muscles moving in a less strenuous way than your normal workouts—can also be helpful. This could include stretching exercises, hiking, yoga and more. Just remember, your recovery plan has to work for your unique situation.

“Each athlete is different, therefore each athlete’s recovery plan is different,” explains Winninger. “You have to take a look at how [your] body responds to training and daily stress.”

One good place to start is adding these nine expert-recommended tips to your recovery after your favorite activities. They’re easy, effective and most can be done right at home! You don't need to do all nine, but several or all of them may help in your recovery process.

1. Try Cryotherapy

Cryotherapy is a fancy term for cold therapy, which traditionally has meant applying ice or even taking ice baths. But today there's a more convenient way to get the benefits of ice without the stiffness, numbness and risk of spills: Biofreeze® Pain Reliever. Biofreeze helps you target exactly where you have pain and allows you to keep moving while you find relief.

This topical pain reliever is thought to work through the Gate Control Theory—it creates a sensation that overrides pain signals to the brain. Biofreeze has also been shown to reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness (commonly known as “DOMS”). Use Biofreeze after a workout to help reduce your soreness and get back to your activities.

When to use cryotherapy: any time you’re feeling sore (pre-workout, post-workout, even when you wake up in the morning!). Just be sure to limit your use of Biofreeze to four times per day.

2. Give Yourself a Massage

You may have seen foam rollers like the TheraBand® Pro Foam Roller at the gym or heard a friend talking about them. They seem so simple, but they’re actually very effective. “Foam rolling is a great thing to do after a workout or activity,” says Cris Dobrosielski, spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise and owner of Monumental Results in San Diego, CA.

When you’re selecting a foam roller, you want to look for a size that works for you. Many people like a longer 36-inch foam roller to target their back muscles, while a shorter 12-inch foam roller works well for areas like your arms and legs—some brands offer both options, so you can get one of each if you want! You can even add a foam roller wrap for a more customized self-massage. Each wrap comes in a different firmness, so you can decide if you'd like lighter or deeper pressure. And the hook and loop closures mean they’re easy to switch out.

Another way to massage your muscles is with a handheld roller massager, like the TheraBand® Roller Massager+. This roller has been shown to reduce muscle soreness. It allows you to vary the pressure you use and can target certain muscles, like your quads, more easily than a foam roller. You can also use the handles of the Roller Massager+ to target sore spots.

No matter which roller you choose, you’re going to see some benefits from using them. “They facilitate muscle relaxation and may help reduce some delayed onset muscle soreness,” says physical therapist Andre Labbe, owner of Total Package Performance in New Orleans. And that means you can get back to doing what you love sooner.

Some experts have even come up with sport-specific techniques for using a foam roller. If you’re a golfer, this warmup video using the pro foam roller can help you get loose and limber before you head to the course .

When to use a foam roller: you can foam roll before and after workouts. Use the roller as a form of dynamic stretching while you warm up, or to help cool down after a workout. You can also use a foam roller as a part of your non-workout recovery days.

3. Move Your Body in Other Ways

Whether you bike, lift weights, hike or take workout classes regularly, it’s common to move in one plane during exercise. For example, a cyclist always has their legs moving in a forward plane. “This causes most athletes to be tight in certain sets of muscles,” Labbe says. “You may want to activate the muscles in other planes of movement afterward to bring your body back into balance and help prevent injury.”

He recommends using the TheraBand® CLX to do some active recovery exercises. The CLX has built-in connected loops, which make it easy to use around your feet, thighs, ankles and other parts of your body. Labbe often has his clients do exercises like monster walks with the center CLX loops around their thighs.

To try monster walks for yourself, grab your CLX band and get ready to move. Do this exercise like you would any other in the gym: start with three sets of 10 reps (five on each leg) and adjust if it’s too easy or too hard.

  1. Place your foot through one of the center loops, bringing the CLX loop to thigh-level, just above your knee.
  2. Carefully repeat with your other leg, adjusting the loops as needed to keep the CLX anchored just above your knees.
  3. Grab the remaining CLX by the end loops.
  4. Maintaining an athletic stance (with knees and hips slightly bent) take 3 steps laterally against the band while keeping your back straight.
Return to your starting position (this counts as one rep!) and repeat with the other leg.

When to branch out: try to alternate days of movement. If you’re cycling on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, try other forms of active recovery on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

4. Stretch It Out

“Stretching post-activity helps lengthen your muscles,” Dobrosielski explains. This can help improve range of motion. A recent study found that static stretching of the hamstrings can increase range of motion by more than 12 degrees in high school males—and similar results were found in individuals 21 to 41 years old. And you don't need to spend a ton of time doing this; hitting your major muscles, such as your chest, lats, hamstrings and quads is enough according to Dobrosielski.

If you need some help, you can use a stretching aid, like the TheraBand® Stretch Strap. The Stretch Strap has loops that easily wrap around your feet or hands, plus it’s designed to have some give which enables a highly effective contract-relax stretch and also provides a more comfortable static stretch.

When to stretch: since this is considered static stretching, you want to do this once your muscles are warm—usually after a workout. You can also stretch like this on days you do light exercise to offset heavy workouts.

5. Refuel

You can find a lot of advice on what to eat post-workout online—which can be a little confusing. To keep things simple, follow Dobrosielski's rule: “The more intense your exercise, the more your body needs,” he says. For example, if you jogged for 20 minutes, you don't need a huge smoothie with nut butter and protein powder. You'll end up slurping down more calories than you burned.

For more cardiovascular-based activities such as running, swimming and hiking, it's more important to consume some carbohydrates afterward. Carbs help replenish glycogen, which your body uses for energy. “Post-workout is when you want to have the bulk of your carbs, most of your protein and eat food light in fat,” explains Hannah Cooper, certified exercise physiologist.

On top of providing energy, carbs can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. And since there’s a number of carbs out there, it’s important to choose wisely. Try to stay away from a lot of sweets and instead focus on fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Protein is an important part of a post-workout meal too. It’s the building block of muscle—and since you’re constantly tearing muscle tissue during workouts, eating some protein can help rebuild your muscles. Combining carbs with protein after a workout has been shown to help replenish glycogen and repair muscle tissue.

Some experts recommend timing your activity so that you have a meal afterward (anywhere from immediately after to three hours post-activity) As long as your meal is balanced, this is an easy way to get the post-workout nutrition you need.

When to refuel: every day. Once you’re done with your workout, make sure you refuel within three hours to ensure your body is replenishing the nutrients it lost during your activity.

6. Consider a Yoga Class

Remember that tip about moving in a different way? Yoga is a fun way to accomplish that. While it can be a good option for active recovery after exercise, you do need to choose the right type of yoga.

“If you're weight lifting heavy or training five days week, I wouldn't consider athletic or power yoga as recovery. I'd consider it another workout,” Dobrosielski says. “I see a lot of people get injured in yoga because they're already working out five days week.” Instead, he suggests a restorative or gentle yoga class to improve mobility and help lengthen your muscle tissue.

“Yoga is relaxing and teaches body awareness and good movement patterns,” Labbe adds. “Anything and everything that makes your body move in planes it’s not used to is a good thing.”

If you've never stepped foot into a yoga class, remember that you don't need to be able to touch your toes to benefit from the practice. Only stretch or go as deeply into a pose as feels good for your body (and your level of soreness!). Remember: This is recovery. You don't want to wind up sitting on the bench because you pushed it too far in recovery.

When to do yoga: try for at least once per week in a restorative or gentle yoga routine, to get your body moving in new planes and to help you stretch the day after tough activity.

7. Respect Your Rest Days

“Many of us are so addicted to exercise, we struggle with this,” Dobrosielski says. When you love your sport or activity and are seeing the results you desire, it can be hard to not move every single day. But taking at least one day off every week or every 10 to 14 days is essential.

“At the cellular level, your physical body and tissues need to be restored, they need time to rebuild and heal, and there needs to be an energy reserve that's built up,” Dobrosielski says. “Plus, if you deplete that at the cellular level, you'll always be operating at less-than optimal.” And that means you won't see any improvements in your fitness while increasing your risk of injuries.

Rest doesn't mean spending all day on the couch, though. An easy walk, pool session or gentle yoga are active ways to recover without taxing your body. Foam rolling is another good rest activity.

When to rest: You can strategically plan your rest days. If you worked hard on Monday, try a less taxing activity on Tuesday, then use Wednesday as your rest day, Labbe suggests. This will help your muscles recover more fully than doing an intense workout on Monday and nothing Tuesday.

8. Don't Neglect Your Sleep

“Some of the best things happen when we are sleeping, in terms of healing and restoring,” Dobrosielski says. And while coffee may help you survive work after clocking only a few hours of sleep, it's not going to help your body recover from yesterday's sweat session.

And sleep can be restorative. By getting a good night’s sleep, your body is better able to perform important duties like maintain the right body temperature, blood pressure and hormonal balances. But you also want to make sure you’re focusing on quality as well as quantity—research shows that a good night’s sleep, not just the amount of sleep you get, can improve your quality of life.

On the other side, it’s been shown that sleep deprivation can lead to decreased performance, and can increase the risk of injuries. Even one night of sleep deprivation can hurt your endurance for your next workout.

Try to keep a healthy bedtime routine that includes putting your cell phone and other electronics down about an hour before bed and doing something relaxing. Everyone needs a different amount of sleep to function at their best, but somewhere between seven and nine hours tends to be the sweet spot.

When to focus on sleep: every day. You should be making sleep a priority all the time, as an athlete. However, we also know you can’t get perfect sleep all the time. So do things to help yourself out: set an alarm to tell yourself to get to bed, put a filter on your phone to disrupt the blue light and make sure you’ve got a comfy place to lay your head.

9. Warm Up Before Your Next Workout

There may be some speculations on which types of warm ups are best, but many experts agree that they’re necessary.

“Prepping the body is essential before starting a workout—a dynamic warm up ensures flexibility and muscle activation before ramping up the workload,”says Winninger. And you have to make sure your warm up fits the activity you’re doing. Winninger’s method? “I create dynamic warm ups based on the demands of the athlete’s particular sport.”

But what’s the best way to warm up for your workout? Our experts recommend focusing on movement and dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretching is different than static stretches (the ones you remember doing in gym class) because it focuses on warming up your muscles through movement, rather than focusing on stretching cold muscles—something that could create an injury.

“Dynamic stretching warms up your muscles a little bit better as opposed to just static stretching,” explains Cooper. “You're more likely to hurt yourself if you just start touching your toes or pulling your arms across your body, which is what a lot of people do before they exercise.”

Instead, focus on moves that get your heart rate up and mimic some of the moves you’ll be doing in your workout. Cooper recommends high knees, buttkicks and karaoke running if you’re training cardio. For lifting, she tells her clients to start with five minutes of running on the treadmill and then do plenty of warm up sets with lighter weights before working up to more challenging ones. This helps prepare muscles for the workout without increasing the risk of injury.

Cooper also likes using dynamic stretches to help your muscles prepare for weighted movements later in your workout.

“Doing band walks (monster walks) is really good for squats,” Cooper explains. You can even use your CLX band for core work to warm up for a big lifting day—since your core stabilizes you during those exercises, you want to make sure it’s warm and ready to go. Try bird dogs, oblique planks and in & outs if you’re not sure where to start.

Monster Walk

    1. Put your feet through the center loops of the CLX band, moving the loops to just above your knees.
    2. Grasp the end loops of the CLX, using either an open or closed grip.
    3. Keeping your knees and hips slightly bent, take three steps to the side while keeping your back straight.
    4. Return to your starting position and repeat.

Bird Dog

    1. Place your feet in the center loops of the CLX band, holding the end loops in each hand.
    2. Kneel down on all fours, stacking your shoulders over your wrists and your hips over your knees.
    3. Extend your left leg as you simultaneously extend your right arm.
    4. Slowly return to the starting position, then do the same on the opposite leg and arm.
    5. Repeat.

Oblique Plank

  1. Put your feet through the center loops of the CLX band, carefully moving the loops to rest just above your knees.
  2. Grasp the end loops of the band in your hands.
  3. Go into a side plank position, raising up on your right elbow and keeping your body in a straight line, with your left arm extended overhead.
  4. Bring your left knee up as you bring your left arm down (so that your elbow and knee meet in the middle).
  5. Extend both your left arm and left leg out again, keeping your body straight.
  6. Return to the starting position slowly.
  7. Repeat the movement with your right arm and right leg.

In & Out

  1. Put your feet through the center loops of the CLX band, carefully moving the loops to rest just above your knees.
  2. Hold the end loops of the band in each hand, then sit on the floor.
  3. Bring your knees to your chest with your hands resting on your knees
  4. Tighten your core and extend your arms at shoulder height while extending your legs straight in front of you, making a V with your body.
  5. Return to the starting position.
  6. Repeat.

When to warm up: every time you work out. Even when you’re doing a light day, you should take the time to get your muscles prepared for whatever activity you’re participating in. Otherwise, you run the risk of hurting yourself.

Find Your Right Fit for Recovery

If you’re sore all the time, or if you think your performance is lacking, it might just be a matter of recovery. Using a few effective tools with the right mindset can wash away your performance blues and get you back to your best self. Treat your body right—invest in one or all of these tips to craft the perfect recovery plan for you—and you can reach your full potential.