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How to recover from a tough workout

Feeling sore and depleted after a hard workout? Here's what will and won’t help you bounce back.

by Amanda Loudin /  / Updated 
The runner
Easy, less-intense days are essential to muscle recovery. Nico De Pasquale Photography / Getty Images
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Winning the Boston Marathon is an amazing feat. When Japanese runner Yuki Kawauchi won it last week, he did it as his fourth marathon in 2018. That was a demonstration of his ability to recover quickly from hard, physical training and racing. While the average Joe doesn’t have (realistic) aspirations of winning Boston, being able to work out hard, recover quickly and move on to the next training session is a goal many share with Kawauchi.

Still, the landscape for recovery methods can be murky. Your training partner might swear by ice baths for putting the snap back in your legs. Your local fitness retailer has a mind-bendingly huge selection of tools to help your muscles recover. And what about old favorites like Epsom salts, massages or popping an ibuprofen?

Methods that promise getting over muscle soreness in a hurry certainly have their appeal, and feed right into the American thirst for quick fixes. But as with most everything in life, a more sustained, holistic approach is the way to go, says Brad Stulberg, author of Peak Performance. “Eating, sleeping and taking easy days are the most important things you can do,” he says. “Everything else is trivial if you’re not nailing these three.”

Experienced running coach and author Jenny Hadfield, agrees. “The more you can naturally do within the flow of your training, the better,” she says. “A systematic approach helps a great deal.”

Within those parameters, then, here’s what the experts recommend for hitting it hard and recovering well to work out another day:

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Nutrition

One of the big keys to ensuring your muscles get all they need to function at their highest levels is the food you eat. Nutritionist Jessica Crandall, RDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says that a solid, whole foods approach to eating, on a daily basis, goes a long way.

That said, after you’ve had a hard workout, ingesting some high quality food can help boost your recovery. “If you can eat somewhere in the 15-minute to one-hour range, your muscles will be most receptive to replacing protein stores,” Crandall says. “That’s the ideal, but if you can’t make that window, you’re not missing the recovery boat entirely, either.”

Stulberg likes to throw down a simple smoothie after his work outs. “My go-to recipe is almond milk, ice, two bananas, a scoop of whey protein and a bit of almond butter,” he says. “Then I crush a few pretzels and mix them in there.”

It’s important to determine the right amounts of protein for the work out so that you’re not adding in calories your body doesn’t need, says Crandall. “Depending on your weight, the duration and the intensity of your workout, you should aim for between 15 and 30 grams of protein.”

Crandall points out that taking in protein isn’t necessary after every sweat session, and the food you choose for repletion matters. “If you’ve just done a 30-minute walk, you probably don’t need to replace anything,” she says, “but if you did an intense, 20-minute Crossfit workout, you do.”

Consider lean sources of protein, Crandall says. “Choose something like one to two ounces of nuts, or half a cup of cottage cheese,” she suggests. “That’s really all you need in most cases.”

Sleep

Stulberg is a big fan of sleep as a recovery tool. “The harder you’re training, the more sleep you need,” he says.

Hadfield puts a big emphasis on quality of sleep. “It’s not just the hours of sleep that matter,” she explains. “Are you taking the steps necessary to ensure you’re getting deep, restorative REM sleep?”

Her suggestions include getting away from electronics toward the end of your day. “Put the phones and devices away an hour before you go to bed,” Hadfield says. “Give yourself time to wind down and establish a regular regimen that tells your body it’s time to nod off.”

Other important components to high-quality sleep include a cool, dark room, routine bed times/wake times, and sleeping on a comfortable mattress and pillows, according to the National Sleep Foundation. While napping can help make up for deficits, the Foundation recommends skipping them if you are struggling with quality sleep at night.

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Easy training days

For some people, it’s hard to fight the temptation to train hard day in and day out. But easy days are essential to muscle recovery. Hadfield says that not only should lower-intensity workouts be a part of your routine, but so should tuning in to your body. “If you have a hard workout on the schedule but your body is telling you otherwise, listen to it,” she says. “Go with your body’s flow from one day to the next.”

In a typical week, says Stulberg, aim for two to three hard workouts, no more. “There should be lots of easy days in there where the sole purpose of the workout is to get the blood flowing,” he says.

Active recovery in place of lounging in front of the television can be a helpful tool, too. “If you do a hard work out and then sit for hours, some active recovery can be a good move,” Hadfield says. “An easy walk or gentle movement is all you need.”

Tools

What about all those fun, colorful tools on the market that promise fast results? They can’t hurt but they won’t help much without the basics listed above. Hadfield does use a foam roller, but differently. “I like to foam roll before a workout to help reach a better range of motion during the exercise that is to come,” says Hadfield.

Beyond that, there’s not much science behind the many gadgets companies like to market to exercisers seeking that quick fix. At the end of the day, says Stulberg, it all comes down to these simple tenets: “Eat after training; sleep a lot; keep easy days easy.”

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