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How to Recover After a Workout: Your Ultimate Guide

How to Recover After a Workout: Your Ultimate Guide

You spend hours each week getting into excellent shape - running, lifting and sweating...but do you know how to recover after a workout? 

If you miss this one aspect of your fitness, you'll never achieve your peak performance. Following the tips in this guide can fix that. 

Here's the thing - workout recovery is a complex subject. You can have sore muscles from your workouts, but does that mean you're getting stronger, faster or fitter?

Muscle recovery is more than just slamming a protein shake after your strength training sessions or HIIT workouts (yes, that's important). There's a lot more you can do, and we've created this guide to show you the best ways to recover after your workouts so you can get to the next level in your sport. 

But first...what's up with muscle soreness after a workout? 

 

Why Do You Get Sore Muscles From a Workout?

Fitness experts agree: being sore after a workout isn't a bad thing. Muscle soreness is normal, but isn't an indicator of the effectiveness of a workout. 

"Soreness after exercise is mainly caused by tiny tears in the muscle fibers," explains Jacque Crockford, exercise physiologist and education specialist at the American Council on Exercise (ACE), based in San Diego. "These tears cause an inflammatory response in the body, and as they heal, it can be slightly painful." It's 100 percent normal, but don't think in terms of no pain, no gain. "Soreness isn't a good gauge of the effectiveness of a workout," she adds.

If you get sore 36 to 48 hours after you workout, you may have DOMS. 

Do You Even DOMS, Bro?  

It's one thing to wake up a little sore after a workout. It's another thing to get out of bed feeling like you've been hit by a bus...from a workout two days ago. 

That's the type of soreness called DOMS, which stands for Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. Sports Medicine Physician Dr. Thomas Brickner explains what this is all about:

“There’s muscle soreness that could be due to, say weight training, which can cause what we call delayed onset muscle soreness, which is kind of a diffuse soreness in the muscle,” says Thomas Brickner, head team physician for a number of sports at the University of North Carolina. “It usually starts a day or two after a new workout, or a workout that you’re not typically accustomed to.”

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is the kind that happens the day after you dive into your first barre class, first run in a few months, or first time trying out weights. And though it can feel like you can barely move, when worst comes to worst you can straighten your arms if need be.

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We experience DOMS because of diffuse microscopic injuries to the muscles themselves and the inflammation that results from it. (It's a common myth that it results from the build up of lactic acid. Lactic acid does cause that intense burning feeling during your last rep or right when your muscles are about to give in. But your body is able to eliminate it from your blood in a few minutes.)

“Usually the delayed onset muscle soreness is just kind of a discomfort in the muscles themselves that is somewhat diffuse, but the pain is usually just kind of mild and [the muscles] won’t typically lose much in the way of motion,” says Brickner. You don't typically have much in the way of swelling in the area either, he says. For example, if you did some bicep curls a day earlier, your biceps might feel sore, but you'd still be able to straighten your elbows.

“Muscle soreness can happen in the best trained athlete, it can happen in the least trained athlete,” he says. “I think that it can happen to anyone, but the prevention, no matter who you are, is to start off small with any activity that you’re not used to.”

Now that you know why you get sore muscles after your workout...but how long does it take to actually recover from your workout?  

How Long Does It Take to Recover From a Workout?

Workout recovery depends on a lot of factors, but some of the most important factors are the type of workout you're doing - endurance training vs power lifting, for example - the intensity of the workout, and whether you're new to the activity or have been training in it for years. 

This makes sense, right? If you go out and jog a mile at a slower pace than you're used to, your recovery will be a breeze. If, on the other hand, you try to get a PR on a lift or crush your previous best time on a half-marathon, your recovery is going to require more time and attention.

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Researchers at the University of New Mexico reviewed studies on the topic and suggest that when it comes to resistance training, experienced lifters should wait 2 days before exercising the same muscle, and newbies should wait 3 days.

"The greater the stress of the workout, the greater the overall muscle recruitment, and the greater the potential for muscle damage and soreness, therefore the need for longer recovery time.
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Muscle recovery between resistance training sessions for most individuals is also influenced by other types of training performed, such as cardiovascular training, interval sprints and sports conditioning sessions. Rhea (2003) concluded that for untrained individuals and trained individuals a frequency of 3 and 2 days, respectively, per week per muscle group is optimal, which translates to 1-2 days rest between sessions.
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However, this will vary depending on total volume of resistance training, individual training status, and overall goals (e.g., training for hypertrophy, strength, endurance, etc.)."
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The researchers also found something interesting - women recover at a faster pace than men.

"Is there a gender difference in recovery? A gender difference has been shown in fatigue, a factor influencing recovery. Numerous studies have shown fit women have a greater resistance to fatigue than their male counterparts; therefore, fit women are able to sustain continuous and intermittent muscle contractions at low to moderate intensities longer than physically active men (Critchfield and Kravitz, 2008)."

Now that you know how long it takes to recover, let's go through the best ways to recover after a workout so you can get back in the game stronger and faster next time. 

HOW TO RECOVER AFTER A WORKOUT

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Get Your ZZZ's...

The science is clear - getting adequate sleep is important for nearly ever aspect of your life, from athletic performance, to body composition, to mental clarity and more. Workout recovery, of course, is included in this, because you get stronger and rebuild muscle when you're at rest.

Nick Ebner, N.A.S.M. C.P.T. P.I.C.P. explains why sleep is so important to athletes:

“As we sleep, energy consumption is lowered, allowing us to use the high-quality food we eat during the day to more efficiently build muscle. Growth hormone is naturally released, improving muscular recovery and regeneration. Also, as we sleep the brain recharges. This is important for building muscle because a rested brain is a motivated and focused brain.

In simple terms, when you sleep, you recover, and when you recover you replace, repair, and rebuild—all of which are needed for optimal progress.”  

Hydrate

Our bodies are made up mostly of water, but too many of us just don't drink enough of it throughout the day. This can ruin our workout recovery efforts. Robert Wildman, PhD, RD, FISSN explains why:

"During resistance training, water is driven from blood into muscle cells and surrounding areas—known as interstitial space—based on the muscle squeezing during contraction. This creates the "pump" sensation, but on a more fundamental level, it's also just what muscles do when they try to move a heavy load.

However, when body water is compromised because of poor fluid consumption, often in combination with excessive sweating, water is drawn out of muscle and back into the blood. This ensures the preservation of circulation and keeps your blood pressure at safe levels.

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When you don't have enough water to fill the muscle cells, you're at risk of losing more than your pump. Research studies have shown that when cells lose water, and thus volume, protein production can slow down and protein breakdown can speed up. While researchers are still working out the details, it seems likely that post-exercise muscle protein synthesis (MPS) would also be hampered in an dehydrated state." 

So listen to your body - drink plenty of water throughout the day, more when you're exercising intensely and want to prevent sore muscles from your workout.

Wear Compression Garments (Because Tights are the COOLEST)

Compression gear doesn't just make you look cool - it can help you recover from your workouts better, too. 

A study performed on 25 semi-pro rugby players showed that wearing compression gear can improve recovery after intense running. 

"The results of this study indicate that the wearing of CGs may augment the active recovery process in reducing [La] and HR after high-intensity exercise but not effect blood pH. The ability to reduce [La] and HR has important consequences for many sports that are intermittent in nature and consist of repeated bouts of high-intensity exercise interspersed with periods of low-intensity exercise or recovery."

Eat Enough Protein, Bruh!

Protein, protein, protein. You see magazine ads pushing protein supplements, body builders talk about eating massive quantities of it every day, and the supermarket is packed with protein shakes and bars.

Well guess what? There's a reason for it. Protein is essential in rebuilding muscle tissue after workouts, and it's super important to make sure you're getting enough of it every day...especially if/when you're in a calorie deficit with a goal of fat loss. 

Researchers suggest 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight is a good target for strength athletes, especially those reducing calories and looking to lose fat while maintaining lean mass.  

"Elevated protein consumption, as high as 1.8-2.0 g · kg(-1) · day(-1) depending on the caloric deficit, may be advantageous in preventing lean mass losses during periods of energy restriction to promote fat loss."

Take a Bath...on ICE!

Those crazy people doing the Polar Bear Plunge every year may be onto something.

More and more studies are coming out showing that cold exposure can release a cascade of benefits for your body. One of these benefits is improved workout recovery.

"This study demonstrated that COLD following exhaustive simulated team sports exercise offers greater recovery benefits than CWI or control treatments."

BEST WORKOUT RECOVERY FOODSbest foods for workout recovery

Cottage cheese

Cottage cheese has lots of properties that athletes love - it's high in slow-digesting protein and calcium, so it's great for bone health and is the perfect snack before you workout, and even before you sleep.

Manukah honey

Honey is an all-natural sweetener that will certainly replenish your glycogen levels, but Manukah honey has special anti-inflammatory benefits. It's been studied and believed to prevent gingivitis and also inflammation in the esophagus from radiation and chemotherapy for cancer. 

If a superfood is strong enough to fight inflammation there, it's probably pretty good at reducing inflammation after you throw some weights around or tackle a training run.  

Tart Cherry Juice

Cherries are powerful little nutrition bombs, full of antioxidants and vitamin C. Cherries can also promote sleep, protect against disabetes, and provide arthritis relief

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Tart cherries, in one study, decreased inflammation and pain in runners. 

"Long distance running causes acute muscle damage resulting in inflammation and decreased force production. Endurance athletes use NSAIDs during competition to prevent or reduce pain, which carries the risk of adverse effects. Tart cherries, rich in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, may have a protective effect to reduce muscle damage and pain during strenuous exercise."

So grab a bunch, make some juice, or throw some into a smoothie. However you consume your tart cherries, know that you're likely to reduce muscle soreness and improve workout recovery by doing so. 

Nuts and Seeds

"Check out the quads on that squirrel, dude!"

Ok, so maybe those furry little squirrels aren't the most jacked creatures in the animal kingdom, but they are onto something with their nut consumption.

Nuts and seeds are chock full of omega 3 fatty acids to reduce inflammation, protein for building muscles, electrolytes for hydration, and immune-boosting zinc. 

Chocolate Milk

You know the ads - Milk. It Does a Body Good.

Well guess what? When you add chocolate to it, it may be even better for your workout recovery efforts, according to this study.

"The results of this study suggest that chocolate milk is an effective recovery aid between two exhausting exercise bouts."

Turmeric

Curcumin - a compound found in turmeric root - has loads of anti-inflammatory and good-for-you properties.

Because inflammation is one of the factors in muscle repair and recovery, it makes sense to add this spice to your diet...especially if you're doing resistance training, trail running or compete in obstacle courses.

Researchers found that study participants who performed downhill running had reduced inflammation after consuming curcumin.

"These results support the hypothesis that curcumin can reduce inflammation and offset some of the performance deficits associated with eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage." 

Add turmeric to eggs, chicken, beef, or your post-workout smoothie to help stave off muscle soreness and improve recovery. 

Salmon

Bears know how to recover after their daily, grizzly workouts. They eat as much as they can and then hibernate for months at a time. Guess what else they do right? They eat tons of salmon!

Salmon is packed with inflammation fighting omega 3 fatty acids, and it has loads of muscle-building protein. Stay away from the farmed stuff and go wild - it's better for you, and the planet. 

I Say Potato, You Say...Sweet Potatoes!

Sweet potatoes are a staple for all sorts of athletes, from bodybuilders to endurance athletes, and for good reason. They're high in fiber, are full of complex carbs to replenish glycogen stores, and have beta carotene and vitamin C. Plus, they taste great.

Green Tea

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Become enlightened. Become wise. Become...less sore. 

That's right! Green tea is a super-food with loads of health benefits. The inflammation-fighting anti-oxidants in it make it great to include as part of your pre- or post-workout drinks. 

Cacao

Cacao isn't just delicious...it's great for you, too. These beans are the perfect addition to your post-workout smoothie, and is a great substitute for chocolate. Nutritionist Kristen Carlucci RD says it's a powerful food for improving workout recovery: 

“Cacao has high levels of antioxidants, magnesium, and B-vitamins to reduce stress in our bodies related to exercise, balance electrolytes, and boost energy levels,” Carlucci says. 

Spinach

Popeye was right. Spinach is great for your body for lots of reasons - it's got fiber, calcium, minerals and vitamins, and it can also aid in workout recovery.

“Spinach is one of the most popular superfoods out there, and for good reason: This antioxidant powerhouse fights free radicals in your body to not only prevent serious diseases like cancer and heart disease, but also quickly rebound from strenuous exercise,” Carlucci says. 

Meal Timing

According to Brian St. Pierre, RD, CSCS, CISSN, of Precision Nutrition, meal timing doesn't have to be complicated, unless you're an elite athlete.

"By eating a healthy, well-considered meal 1-2 hours before exercise, and another healthy, well-considered meal within 1-2 hours after exercise, most people can meet their workout nutrition needs without anything else.

In other words: If you’re a healthy person who exercises regularly, you probably don’t need special workout nutrition strategies."

"Contrary to popular belief, it’s unnecessary to stuff yourself with refined carbohydrates and sugars to “spike” insulin and theoretically restore muscle and liver glycogen as rapidly as possible after your workout."

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"For most of us, people without athletic competitions on the horizon, the best pre- and post-training meals will contain some combination of high quality protein, high quality carbohydrates, healthy fats, and some fruit and vegetables."

That said, if you're working out at a higher level and really need to dial in your post-workout recovery, here's some tips on post-workout nutrition. 

POST-WORKOUT NUTRITION: PROTEIN

Protein, protein, and more protein. You'll be hard pressed to find an Instagram influencer or fitness magazine who doesn't talk about protein..especially the liquid form in protein shakes.

There's a reason why - protein is the building blocks for muscle.

That said, when it comes to meal timing, slamming a protein shake with loads of simple sugars the instant you finish a workout may not be as critical as we previously thought.

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"Eating protein after exercise prevents protein breakdown and stimulates synthesis, leading to increased or maintained muscle tissue. So it’s a great strategy for better recovery, adaptation, and performance.

In the past, most fitness experts recommended fast acting proteins like whey or casein hydrolysate. This is because early research indicated that the more quickly amino acids get to your muscles, the better the result.

However, new research shows that hydrolyzed, fast-digesting proteins may get into our systems too fast. Because they’re in and out of the bloodstream so quickly, they might not maximize protein synthesis or maximally inhibit protein breakdown after all.

What’s more, hydrolyzed casein is preferentially taken up by the splanchnic bed (i.e. our internal organs). Which means it isn’t maximally effective for improving protein synthesis elsewhere.

And the protein you ate before training is still peaking in your bloodstream, so how quickly this protein gets there doesn’t really matter.

In other words, there’s no real evidence that protein powders, especially the fast-digesting kind, are any better for us than whole food protein after training.

They’re probably not worse either. Which means you can choose whichever type of protein you want for your post-workout meal.

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Want fast and convenient? Make an awesome post-workout protein shake.

Want real food? Then make an awesome high-protein meal.

Any high quality complete protein should do the job, as long as you eat enough. That means about 40-60 grams for men (or 2 palms) and 20-30 grams for women (1 palm)."

Protein Before You Sleep?

If you're a hard-gainer or are just looking to recover from intense strength training workouts, eating some protein before bedtime could be a good idea. 

In a study of 16 healthy males who strength trained in the evening, consuming protein before they went to sleep led to absorption by their muscle tissue.

So, if you train hard at nightime, and a late night snack won't interfere with your sleep, you may want to eat some slow-digesting protein like cottage cheese to feed your muscles as you rest. 


POST-WORKOUT NUTRITION: CARBS

The days of slamming sugary carbs to rapidly replenish glycogen levels are outdated...unless you're doing multiple intense training sessions within 8 hours of eachother, according to St. Pierre:

Contrary to popular belief, it’s unnecessary to stuff yourself with refined carbohydrates and sugars to “spike” insulin and theoretically restore muscle and liver glycogen as rapidly as possible after your workout.

In fact, a blend of minimally processed whole food carbohydrates, along with some fruit (to better restore or maintain liver glycogen) is actually a better choice, because it’s better tolerated; it restores glycogen equally over a 24-hour time period; and it might lead to better next-day performance.

Endurance athletes who perform two glycogen-depleting sessions within eight hours of one another might be an exception to this guideline, as speed of glycogen replenishment is critical in that situation. But for most healthy exercisers, whole food with some fruit is a better way to go.

The late, great Charles Poliquin - one of the world's best strength coaches - helped elite athletes achieve their peak performance. For these athletes, proper nutrition was a vital component in their success, and so restoring glycogen levels after workout was critical. 

If you're an elite athlete looking to replenish your glycogen stores as quickly as possible, you'll want to stick with these fruits, according to the strength sensei himself. 



POST-WORKOUT NUTRITION: FATS

What's the skinny on post-workout fats for recovery? It seems that consuming fats after your workout probably doesn't hurt, and may actually help your muscles recover. 

"Dogma has it that we should avoid fats after exercise because they slow the digestion and absorption of nutrients.

While this is true, in most cases, it’s also irrelevant. We’ve already seen that speed of digestion of protein and carbs is not necessarily as important as we once thought. The same with fats.

In fact, one study compared what happens when people drink skim milk rather than whole milk after training. Participants drank either 14 oz. of skim milk or 8 oz. of whole milk (that equalized the calories, for those of you who love calorie math).

The skim milk drinkers got the same number of calories — along with six extra grams of protein. So you’d think they’d have the advantage.

Yet the whole milk drinkers actually ended up with a higher net protein balance! And the researchers had no explanation other than the fat content of the whole milk.

Additional research shows that eating as much as 55 grams of fat post-training, and another 55 grams in the two subsequent meals did not get in the way of glycogen replenishment compared to lower fat meals with the same amount of carbohydrates."

Clearly, fat doesn’t reduce the benefits of protein and carbohydrate consumption around training. In fact, it actually might provide some benefits of its own!" 

Now that you know what to eat after you workout, how about a nice rubdown, too?  

Massage

We all know that getting a massage feels great, but did you know it can help you recover from your workouts? 

Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky, a researcher at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada conducted a study showing that massage reduces inflammation in muscle tissue after tough workouts. 

"Comparing tissues from each subject's massaged leg with tissues from his unmassaged leg, Tarnopolsky and his team found that massage therapy reduced exercise-related inflammation by dampening activity of a protein called NF-kB.

Massage also seemed to help cells recover by boosting amounts of another protein called PGC-1alpha, which spurs production of new mitochondria — tiny organelles inside cells that are crucial for muscle energy generation and adaptation to endurance exercise.

Other proteins with similar roles were influenced by massage as well. And the finding tossed cold water on one widely held belief that massage eases pain by helping the body clear away lactic acid buildup after exercise. The team saw no effect of massage on lactic acid concentrations." 

Trigger Point Therapy (It Works!)

David J. Alvarez, D.O. describes trigger points as discrete, focal, hyperirritable spots located in a taut band of skeletal muscle. They produce pain locally and in a referred pattern and often accompany chronic musculoskeletal disorders. Acute trauma or repetitive microtrauma may lead to the development of stress on muscle fibers and the formation of trigger points. 

Trigger point therapy can reduce tension in these trigger points through manual techniques, often using lacrosse balls or other tools to get into the trigger point itself.  

Dr. Ryan Godfrey PT of Change the Game Performance explains how trigger point therapy works, and why it's important for workout recovery.

"What we're looking for with Trigger Point Therapy - we're not breaking up muscle tissue or scar tissue - but in fact just by placing superficial stimulus to that area of the tensioned muscle, that sends feedback to our brain to get this tension to reduce off. And that's what goes a long way in recovery."

Drink Coffee Before Resistance Training

Coffee lovers, rejoice! There's lots of benefits to drinking coffee before your workouts, but here's another: it may help you reduce post-workout muscle soreness by up to 50%!

Two different research studies - one by the University of Georgia, and another by the University of Rhode Island, both found that caffeine consumption prior to resistance training reduced muscle soreness in the participants post-workout.

"This study demonstrates that caffeine ingestion immediately before an upper-body resistance training out enhances performance. A further beneficial effect of sustained caffeine ingestion in the days after the exercise bout is an attenuation of DOMS. This decreased perception of soreness in the days after a strenuous resistance training workout may allow individuals to increase the number of training sessions in a given time period."

So if you're looking to reduce soreness and improve your performance (coffee is great for that, too) then swing by your local Starbucks - or better yet, brew your own - before your next workout and let those magic beans do their work.

Mix Up Your Training

Cross training, or different types of workouts - for example cycling one day, weight lifting the next day, and doing yoga the next - is good for you in several ways. One of those is that it can improve your recovery time. 

"Your goal is to train hard enough to stimulate gains in your fitness level and to then back off and let your body adapt to the gains," says Shawn Talbott, PhD, a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine.

So don't just stick to one workout routine all the time. Variety is the spice of life, right? 

Be An Early Bird

Morning people may have an edge on workout recovery compared to night owls, according to Barry Sears, PhD, president of the Inflammation Research Foundation in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

"Exercising in the early morning will also have less of an inflammatory impact, as this is when certain hormones, such as testosterone and cortisol, are at their highest levels and will make for a faster recovery."

What NOT to do for Muscle Recovery

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Don't Drink Alcohol After Your Workouts 

You may want to drink a cold beer or a nice glass of wine to reward yourself after a tough workout, but know that doing so will slow down your recovery efforts.

Researchers studied men who strength trained their legs, and afterwards either gave them an alcoholic drink, or a non-alcoholic one. The guys who drank the booze were weaker than the non-alcoholic group when tested for strength a couple weeks later. 

"Therefore, consumption of moderate amounts of alcohol after damaging exercise magnifies the loss of force associated with strenuous eccentric exercise. This weakness appears to be due to an interaction between muscle damage and alcohol rather than the systemic effects of acute alcohol consumption."

A couple of drinks here or there aren't likely to hurt your performance, but drinking consistently, especially after your workouts, may hurt you in the long run.

Don't Under-Eat 

Let's face it - part of the lure of being fit is the physical attraction that comes with it. People who work out exude more energy and are healthier than people who don't. Part of the problem with optimizing for body composition, though, is that reducing calories to shed fat can mess with our workout recovery efforts. 

Mark Sisson explains why:

“Eat less, move more” is the popular, inevitable refrain from fitness “experts” giving weight loss advice. They claim that reducing your calorie intake and increasing your activity will always lead to simple, easy, inevitable fat loss. And yeah, that’s one way to lose body weight, but there’s one big problem with this equation: you need calories to recover from your workouts.

Not a problem if you just want to lose body mass at any cost. Disastrous, though, if you want to improve performance, get stronger, and get fitter, because you need those calories to refuel your muscles and restock your energy reserves.

Plus, inadequate calorie intake coupled with intense exercise sends a “starvation” signal to the body, causing a down-regulation of anabolic hormones. Instead of growing lean mass and burning body fat, starvation (whether real or simulated) promotes muscle atrophy and body fat retention. Either alone can be somewhat effective, but combining the two will only impair recovery.

Don't Be a Couch Potato

Lance C. Dalleck, Ph.D., and his team of researchers in the High Altitude Exercise Physiology Program at Western State Colorado University investigated the effects of recovery on performance, and they showed that active recovery (doing light cardio, going for an easy jog or swim, for example) was more effective than passive recovery (doing nothing) at maintaining both endurance and power output. 

"An active recovery will facilitate better blood flow, and concomitantly bring lactate to these various tissues," says Lance Dalleck, Ph.D., study author and assistant professor of exercise and sport science at WSCU.  

Put It To Use

Workout recovery can be complicated, but the best plans are found in their simplicity - so you'll want to stick with the fundamentals: Stay hydrated. Eat whole foods in the right amounts. Get some variety in your fitness regimen. Sleep and rest well. Listen to your body and adjust accordingly. Remember that fitness is a lifestyle, a journey, not a destination...and learning how to recover from a workout is just one stop along the way.