Ever woken up sore the day after a tough workout at the gym? Your muscles were in recovery mode. Whether you’re lifting weights, running, doing high-intensity interval training or engaging in another form of exercise, your muscles work hard during exercise.
After your workout, your muscles need time to relax, heal, and get stronger. Muscle recovery is your body’s ability to adapt to and overcome stress after a workout.
But what exactly is muscle recovery and how long does it take? Read on to learn more about how to maximize muscle recovery.
What Is Muscle Recovery?
Believe it or not, it’s not the actual working of your muscles during exercise that enables them to get stronger — it’s the muscle damage and subsequent recovery period between workouts that increase your muscle strength and function. This is known as muscle recovery. Muscle recovery (also sometimes referred to as workout recovery) involves the rebuilding of muscle tissue after a period of exertion.
During a strength training workout or high-intensity exercise, you stretch and work your muscles, which breaks down muscle tissue. After the workout, your body begins the repair and recovery process, which allows the muscles to rebuild themselves and become stronger.
Why Is Muscle Recovery Important?
If you want to build muscle and become stronger, it might seem counterintuitive to give yourself days off from exercising. However, recovery is one of the most important parts of any exercise or training program. When you allow your muscles time to rest and recover, you’re giving them time to rebuild muscle tissue, getting stronger and larger.
Recovery gives your body time to heal in preparation for your next workout and decreases your risk of injury. It gives your body a chance to rebuild muscle tissue, so you’re stronger, faster, and are able to do more with your body. While how much rest you’ll need depends on your fitness level and age, muscle recovery is necessary to some extent for everyone.
When you challenge your body with exercise, you must also build in rest days to give it enough time to recover and rebuild. If you don’t give yourself time to recover, this is known as overtraining. Overtraining can inhibit the healing process for your muscles, which means it will take even longer to build muscle. You’re also more susceptible to getting injured if you do not build rest days into your workout schedule.
Repeated demands on muscles and stress from exercise cause small tears in the muscle, called microtears. This can leave your muscles inflamed and feeling sore. If you work out while your muscles are sore and achy, this puts you at a higher risk of pulled and torn muscles, called muscle strains.
What Are the Factors That Influence Muscle Recovery?
Muscle recovery involves more than just giving your muscles adequate time to rest. There are a number of factors that influence recovery, including:
Sleep. Sleep gives your body time to recover. If you’re not getting enough sleep, your cortisol (i.e. the stress hormone) levels increase, and your human growth hormone levels decrease. Growth hormone is released when you’re in the deep sleep stage and stimulates muscle repair and tissue growth. Inadequate sleep also decreases your energy levels, makes you more susceptible to injury, and increases your risk of getting sick.
Stress. Mental fatigue and high-stress levels have been linked to decreased endurance and cognitive performance. One study found that the rate of injury and illness in Division 1 college athletes is nearly twice as high during times of high academic stress, such as exam week, compared to weeks of low academic stress. To optimize recovery and reduce the likelihood of injury, try to reduce your stress levels as much as possible, and consider engaging in lighter, low-intensity exercise when you are going through periods of stress in your life.
Nutrition. Eating a well-balanced diet can help improve your recovery. No matter what kind of diet you follow, limiting the amount of processed foods you eat and eating more whole, fresh foods is optimal. Ensure you eat plenty of protein, which is the building block of muscles. Studies show that eating adequate amounts of protein can prevent muscle loss and increase strength and muscle mass. Omega-3 fatty acids (found in salmon, nuts, and flaxseed) have an anti-inflammatory effect and may help speed up muscle recovery.
Hydration. The human body is made up of nearly 65% water. Getting adequate amounts of water each day is important for many body processes, including muscle building and recovery. Every type of exercise leads to a loss of water (through sweat), so it’s important to restore your body by drinking plenty of fluids each day. If you want to replace the electrolytes you’ve lost during your workout, try drinking a sports beverage like Gatorade in the hours following your workout.
Warm-up and cool-down. It’s tempting to skip these to save on time, but they’re important parts of your workout. Warming up can decrease delayed onset muscular soreness (DOMS), so by warming up your body through gentle exercise and dynamic stretching, you may help your muscles feel less sore post-workout. Cool-down after exercise is equally important, as it encourages blood flow into the muscles to help remove lactic acid and decrease your heart rate slowly and safely.
Age. As we get older, our bodies slow down and stress on our muscles and joints during exercise takes a bigger toll. You may have noticed this if you’re an older adult and your muscles are a bit sorer than you remember them being after a similar workout when you were younger. Respect your body and give it the time it needs to rest and recover, no matter your age.
How Long Does Muscle Recovery Take?
The duration of muscle recovery depends on a variety of different factors — the type of workout, the muscles that have been exercised, your nutrition, water intake, age, and sleep.
In regards to weight lifting, recovery time depends on the muscle groups and your weight-lifting schedule. Many people who lift weights alternate the muscle groups they work out each day in order to give their muscles the opportunity to rest.
For example, you may do legs one day and arms the following, giving your muscles the time they need to recover. Generally, you should try to give the muscle group you worked out approximately 48 hours to fully recover. If you’ve really pushed yourself hard, your muscles may need more time.
Recovery after running depends on how long you’ve run, the intensity of your run, and the topography of where you ran (e.g., flat-track or hilly surface). Running uphill and/or downhill generally puts more stress on your muscles and requires more recovery time than running on a flat surface.
Beginners should give themselves at least one day of rest before running again. More experienced runners can likely run every day.
Tips for Improving Muscle Recovery
Looking to maximize your muscle recovery? There are a few things you can add to your daily routine to ensure you give your muscles the time to rebuild and get stronger.
Stay hydrated. Your body needs adequate amounts of water to build the proteins that make up muscle tissue. Try to drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water each day (which is about two liters) to stay properly hydrated.
Eat a healthy, balanced diet. Ensure you’re eating whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and plenty of protein each day. Before and after a workout, try eating something with a lot of protein, such as eggs or a protein shake. Limit your carbohydrate intake. Too many carbs can lead to muscle cramping and a build-up of lactic acid, which will make your muscles feel sore.
Listen to your body. If your muscles are really sore, it’s a good indication that it’s time for a rest day. While muscle soreness can be expected after a good workout, don’t go back to working that same muscle group the day after. Instead, wait for the soreness to subside.
Active recovery exercises. Giving your muscles a chance to recover doesn’t mean you have to sit on the couch all day (though you can if you’re feeling like you should!). Active recovery exercises such as yoga, a walk, or stretching are great forms of exercise that don’t inhibit muscle recovery.
Massage. Whether from a professional massage therapist or using your own at-home equipment, rubbing your sore muscles gently can help with recovery. Try foam rollers to help soothe your muscles and the connective tissues that bind them together.
Sleep well. Aim to get 7-9 hours of sleep each night. This is essential for muscle recovery, as your body needs time to rest and repair. Not only does sleep help with muscle recovery, but it helps improve your overall physical and mental health.
Limit alcohol consumption. Though it may be tempting if you’re going out for a night on the town or plan to have a glass of wine (or two) at the end of a long day, try to limit your alcohol intake post-working. Over-indulging with alcohol can cause dehydration and delay muscle recovery.
Whether you’re a competitive athlete or simply working out to stay fit and healthy, muscle recovery is an important part of your training regimen. In fact, letting your muscles recover after exercise is just as important as exercising itself. If you don’t allow your body some time to rest, you’re more at risk of getting injured.
Generally, 1-2 days of rest time are enough for muscle recovery. But if you’ve hit a plateau in your fitness progression or your muscles always feel sore and inflamed, you may need more time to recover from your workouts. Rest, a healthy diet, staying hydrated and getting a good night’s sleep are all the best ways to maximize your recovery time.