Working out a sore point? Here’s how to recover quickly after exercise

If you find yourself feeling sore after working out, here are ways you can speed up your recovery with our expert advice.

While any type of exercise is good for you, what’s not so lovely is the muscle soreness we can experience afterwards. This can affect your training plans, or just put you off doing more exercise, if you don’t know how best to kick-start the recovery process.

When you exercise, and particularly when you do a high-intensity workout such as a hard run or weight training, this can create micro tears in your muscles. You might feel a little tight and sore straight after exercise, or you might feel fine – until you later experience the dreaded delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

To reduce or avoid this, we’ve asked four fitness experts for their top tips on how to speed up your muscle recovery, so you can feel good after exercise and get back to it sooner.

Active mature man stretching beside an outdoor running track after exercisingCredit: Shutterstock/Mladen Mitrinovic
Stretching is a good way to speed up muscle recovery after exercise

Why carbs and protein are a must after exercise

Carbohydrates are the main energy source used during moderate to high-intensity exercise, and when your carbohydrate stores become depleted, it can lead to muscle fatigue. Lily Chapman, performance coach and sport and exercise nutritionist at P3RFORM, explains why both carbohydrates and protein should be consumed within an hour of your workout ending. This is particularly relevant if you’ve been exercising at high intensity or for more than an hour.

“Try to consume at least 1g of carbohydrates for each kilo of your body weight (for example, 60g, or around 2oz, for a 60kg/9.5st individual) in the hour immediately after, as this will help to replenish your glycogen stores,” she says. That might mean having a banana (27g of carbs) and a couple of slices of wholegrain toast (24g of carbs).

“You should also aim for a high-quality protein source during the hour post-exercise too as this can further help to repair and rebuild muscle. As a general rule, animal proteins (such as dairy milk and yoghurt) do confer an advantage over plant proteins when we consider their biological value (in other words, how many different amino acids they contain) and their digestibility rate. But when a total diet is considered, this seems to have less of an effect.”

In other words, if you prefer a plant-based diet, you can still get the protein you need from foods like wholegrains, pulses, soya milk and soya yoghurt.

Fruit and vegetables rich in vitamin C on a white kitchen surface, good for reducing post-exercise inflammationCredit: Shutterstock/Lilly Trott
Fruit and vegetables such as oranges and peppers are excellent sources of vitamin C

Can supplements help with speeding up recovery?

One study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that supplementing your diet with omega-3 might be beneficial. Researchers at the University of Westminster found it could help to lower the post-workout inflammatory response and this could result in less muscle damage after exercise.

The study used omega-3 fish oil supplements for its research, as oily fish such as salmon and mackerel are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids. There are also plant-based supplements containing omega-3 is derived from marine algae. You can also include anti-inflammatory foods in your diet, for example by eating plenty of fruit and vegetables. Either way, it’s a good idea not to overlook them.

“We cause inflammation in the body when we train,” explains Laura Burke, a fitness and nutrition coach. “While it’s for the most part positive inflammation (it helps to make us stronger and promotes lean muscle mass), your body unfortunately treats all inflammation the same.

“Inflammation of any kind upsets the natural rhythm in your body and puts it under additional stress. That’s why it’s important for those who train regularly to keep inflammation at bay as this will help to speed up the recovery process.”

Vitamin C is also good for helping your body to respond to inflammation, she adds. While you can easily take a supplement, fruit and vegetables are great sources of vitamin C.

“Vitamin C also helps your body to produce more collagen, which is a type of protein that facilitates muscle repair and recovery,” adds Burke.

Could enjoying a celebratory drink slow down your recovery?

The picture is a little mixed on the alcohol front. Firstly, in terms of the impact that consuming alcohol can have, there isn’t much in the way of data on this. But Chapman says it may reduce muscle glycogen synthesis (the process of storing energy in the cells of your muscles), because it tends to get prioritised over carbohydrate ingestion. “It may also reduce protein synthesis, leading to impaired muscle repair and adaptation. This could also affect sleep quality, which is important for recovery too.”

Don’t forget to hydrate

Water is a sound choice to rehydrate after exercise, as is milk, Chapman says. “Research has been carried out on milk and its ability to help with recovery due to its high protein and carbohydrate content. It may also aid in muscle rebuilding, and something as rudimentary as chocolate milk could provide good fuel for recovery.”

Can wearing compression socks speed up recovery?

They tend to divide the crowd as some people find them more useful than others, but they do have benefits, particularly for runners. Lewis Moses, running advisor for CEP and founder of New Levels Coaching, tells us more.

“Wearing compression socks can help to speed up recovery, particularly when they’re worn after a run or leg workout,” he says. “The enhanced blood flow can help with the removal of metabolic byproducts (such as lactic acid) and facilitate muscle repair. This can enable faster recovery between training sessions.”

Middle-aged couple enjoying an active recovery bike ride togetherCredit: Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images
Active recovery such as a gentle bike ride can help your muscles to recover faster

Being active can help

Going for a walk or a gentle bike ride after exercise can make a big difference to how well your muscles recover. Going for a gentle swim or slow flow yoga or Pilates are also good options.

“Active recovery is often considered more beneficial than inactivity or resting completely after exercise,” explains Jade Imani, a personal trainer at Third Space who works with Healthspan Elite. “It can keep blood flowing by increasing circulation and help your muscles to recover and rebuild.

“Gentle activity after intense physical exercise also promotes the removal of waste products, such as lactic acid build-up. It’s a great tool to help you maintain a regular exercise routine as it reduces delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).”

What people might not realise is that active recovery can also include foam rolling and stretching, as you get many of the same recovery benefits with these, Imani adds.

“It’s advisable to foam roll each muscle group for ten to 30 seconds after a workout,” she says. “But how long you will need on each area will depend on how intense your training was and how fatigued you’re feeling. Foam rolling can help to relieve tightness, reduce inflammation and increase your range of motion.

What is foam rolling? It’s a manual therapy technique where a foam roller is used to work on a specific area of the body to relieve tightness, improve flexibility and aid recovery. You can choose from a soft to hard firmness roller and there are vibrating options too. Prices range from £15 to £125-plus.

Stretching is a great active recovery tool

Stretching is one of the most overlooked aspects of training and post-exercise recovery, Imani adds.

“It’s vital to promote recovery, flexibility and injury prevention,” she explains. “Stretching can aid recovery as you’re relaxing your muscles, and this can lessen the build-up of lactic acid, which contributes to the soreness we can experience after exercise. Muscles that haven’t been stretched tend to remain constricted and this prevents you from using them to their full capacity.”

“Regular stretching pre and post-exercise is vital.”

Don’t forget to rest, too!

Rest and recovery is key. “The importance of rest is sometimes extremely underestimated as some people have a tendency to over-train,” says Burke. “But often, the benefit of a workout is seen most when the body is allowed to recover and repair.”

While there isn’t a hard and fast rule for how long you might need to rest for, it’s advisable to have a complete day of rest at least once every seven to ten days. If you have a history of injury, it’s even more important to regularly add in rest days (such as two per week) to ensure you don’t overdo it and risk reinjury.

Prioritising sleep and eating well is also important during rest days, as these can further help to speed up your recovery.

Julie Penfold

Written by Julie Penfold she/her

Updated:

Julie Penfold has been a specialist health and wellbeing journalist for more than 15 years and has been a finalist in three prestigious health and medical journalism awards during that time. She has written for a wide variety of health, medical, wellbeing and fitness magazines and websites. These have included Running, TechRadar, Outdoor Fitness, Be Healthy, Top Sante, Doctors.net.uk and The Guardian’s Social Care network.

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