Don’t let proper workout recovery be an afterthought. This complete guide teaches you the benefits of proper sleep, nutrition, supplementation, meditation and more!
- How to improve your muscle building results by maximizing every aspect of recovery.
- What steps you can take to get better quality sleep.
- About the 3 macronutrients, and how each can improve the recovery process.
- What the benefits of daily meditation are, and why you should consider it.
- How to bolster the recovery process through proper supplementation.
- Improving your sleep hygiene
- The crucial importance of nutrition
- Meditation: the forgotten recovery tool
- Supplementation and recovery
- Other miscellaneous recovery factors
In this day and age, stressors surround us; from the foods we eat, to the places we live in, to the lifestyles we lead. In a world where we’re constantly looking to accomplish more in less time it’s paramount that we examine how to maximize what little down-time we have in our daily lives; specifically when it comes to recovery.
Under-recovery can take on a variety of forms – whether it’s prolonged case of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), achy joints, excessive fatigue, restlessness, sleeplessness, oversleeping, negative mood, lack of motivation in the gym, or even a weakened immune system. Luckily, there’s something you can do – apply the following tips on sleep hygiene, nutrition, meditation, supplementation, and miscellaneous techniques, which are sure to improve your recovery in and out of the gym.
Proper sleep hygiene is paramount for muscular recovery, memory recall, and improving short-term alertness.
Although caffeine can increase short-term alertness, anaerobic running capacity, and power output in healthy individuals, it can also increase blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol (re: stress hormone) levels.  We all know the guy or gal that can drink a pot of coffee or pop 3 caffeine pills, workout, and then fall asleep an hour later. For us mere mortals, concentrate your caffeine intake prior to physical activity and preferably consume your last caffeinated product 6 hours prior to bedtime. This will help to maximize the performance enhancing benefits of caffeine and minimize the side effects such as increased tolerance and sleeplessness. I encourage you to start conservatively with caffeine quantity and timing, adjusting based on your individual response.
Abstain from looking at a digital screen 1-2 hours prior to bedtime. Artificial light interferes with your body’s natural circadian rhythm and melatonin release. If you must work on your computer in the evenings consider free software like f.lux (https://justgetflux.com/), which “makes the color of your computer’s display adapt to the time of day, warm at night and like sunlight during the day.”
Establish a pre-bed ritual. Far too often I speak with people who use their bed for reading, studying, working, and browsing the web on their smartphone and then wonder why they cannot fall asleep. By performing all of those activities in bed, you create a mental association with that location. I’ve found that using my bed exclusively for sleep and sex helps to establish a positive association with my sleep environment, which in turns helps me to relax and fall asleep faster. Now you might be wondering what constitutes an appropriate pre-bed ritual. I tend to employ the following steps:
- Reading a book, preferably a non-digital version but I’ve found reading on my black and white Kindle doesn’t interfere with my sleep the same way reading from an smartphone or computer screen does.
- Meditating for 5 to 30 minutes to clear the mind, slow down the heart rate, and decrease perceived stress levels.
- Taking a warm shower which activities the body’s cooling mechanism to decrease your core body temperature which helps most people to fall asleep faster and in to a deeper and more restful sleep.
- Taking note of bedroom temperature, darkness, noise, and mattress comfort. Most people sleep the soundest when the room temperature is between 54 and 75 F.  I find a room temperature of 68 to 70 F to be optimal for me.
- Turning off all possibly lighting, including nightlights to ensure natural melatonin release. If your bedroom still has light coming in, add black-out curtains to cover the windows and/or use a sleep mask.
- Utilizing ear plugs or a white noise machine. Ear plugs are an inexpensive and portable but they may fall out of your ears throughout the night. A white noise machine provides constant outside noise minimization but requires electricity to function and is significantly more expensive than earplugs.
- Lying in bed and taking note of optimal mattress firmness, which is relative to the individual but if your mattress has become overly soft and saggy, then I encourage you to invest in a new mattress as soon as possible – the benefits far outweigh the financial costs.
Aim for at least 7 to 9 hours of non-interrupted, quality sleep every night. If your schedule allows, nap 15-30 minutes midday. Most of us working the 9-to-5 desk job are unable to nap during the workweek so, at a bare minimum, nap 15 to 30 minutes on Saturdays and Sundays. These naps will improve muscular recovery, memory recall, and short-term alertness.  I don’t know about you, but with those benefits I’m looking for the nearest couch to take a nap!
Proper nutrition is crucial for recovery in and out of the gym. Sure, you can out train a lousy diet for a short period of time, but I encourage you to look at the bigger picture. If your routine and rest are in order but your nutrition is subpar, expect diminished recovery and progress in your fitness activity of choice.
Protein, at 4 calories per gram, is the most discussed macronutrient in the fitness community. I won’t beat a dead horse here, so I’ll keep it simple – protein is made of up amino acids, which are used for protein synthesis and muscle recovery. If you’re an athlete or highly active person, aim to eat 0.68-1 gram per pound or 1.5-2.2 grams per kilogram of bodyweight. 
Beyond 1 gram per pound of bodyweight, the law of diminishing returns kicks in with regards to body composition benefits, but there aren’t significant negatives effects from protein consumption in the 1-2g/lb of bodyweight range. The excess protein is typically converted to glucose which the body uses for energy and protein provides the highest satiety of all three macronutrients.
Adequate fat intake, at 9 calories per gram, is crucial for optimal hormonal production and prolonged low-fat diets can decrease serum testosterone and 4-androstendione levels, which can decrease libido, mood, and muscle recovery.  At first glance my female readers might misinterpret my previous sentence thinking that they should eat low fat diets because testosterone will make them big and bulky. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Even when testosterone levels are optimized, assuming my female readers are natural trainees, these levels will only reach a fraction of their male counterpart. Prolonged low-fat diets can also negatively impact female trainees’ menstrual cycles resulting in increased instances of irregular periods. Alan Aragon, a popular and well-respected voice in the fitness community, recommends a minimum of 0.4 to 0.5 grams per pound of bodyweight to ensure proper hormonal function.  Don’t be scared of fat; it’s crucial for recovery, mood, energy, and libido.
Carbohydrates, at 4 calories per gram, are an exceptional source of short-term energy and can help replenish glycogen stores after an intense workout. Carbohydrates can increase endurance capacity, restore endurance capacity, and improve net protein balance after resistance training.  There is no clear-cut formula for determining how many carbohydrates are optimal for YOU. Intake should vary based on your age, gender, training history, activity level, and goal(s). I encourage you to pick a reasonable carbohydrate intake and adjust based on how your body responds.
From the psychological standpoint, it’s much more enjoyable to start at a conservative intake and adjust upward rather than overshooting one’s own needs and having to cut carbohydrates. I personally find that eating the majority of my (starchy) carbohydrates pre/intra/post-workout optimizes my energy levels throughout the day, performance in the gym, and recovery from my weightlifting sessions. As I increase the volume in my routine, I typically increase my carbohydrate intake while holding my fat and protein intakes constant.
Alcohol, at 7 calories per gram, has been the focus of a large body of research and discussion in the fitness community regarding its role in a healthy diet. Alcohol, in its purest form, carries no macronutrients, vitamins, or minerals, which often has it labeled as a source of empty calories. One study suggests that “alcohol is not yet comprehensively shown to have a negative influence on performance.”  Based on my experiences, lifting hungover is NOT fun, but I’ve also set exceptional PRs after a night of revelry.
For example, acute ingestion of alcohol doesn’t seem to significantly impact exercise-induced muscular damage.  However, I’ve found that consuming 3+ drinks after a weight training session results in remarkably more DOMS than when normally weightlifting and obtaining sober sleep. This feeling may be due to the fact that acute alcohol ingestion decreases muscular protein synthesis by suppressing mTOR pathways. 
If you don’t want to give up your adult beverages and want to optimize recovery, I encourage you to minimize or eliminate binge drinking/excessive alcohol consumption, minimize alcohol intake pre-bed, and choose low or no-carb alcoholic beverages. Failure to adhere to those guidelines may diminish your recovery and gym performance through decreased REM sleep, decreased overall sleep quality, and added inches to the waistline.
Meditation is an excellent technique to improve physical and psychological recovery. Multiple studies show that meditation can help to reduce blood pressure, decrease cortisol levels, decrease perceived stress, and improve immune system function.  The goals of meditation sessions are to de-clutter your thoughts, clear your mind, and focus on the present.
The most common types of meditation include the following: guided meditation, mantra meditation, mindfulness meditation, Qi gong, Tai chi, transcendental meditation, and yoga.  I encourage you to try all variations at least once to find which works best for you.
In terms of meditation session duration, recommendations range from 5 to 60 minutes of meditation 1 to 2 times per day; I encourage you to start conservatively and increase the time when you feel comfortable doing so. I aim to meditate for 15 minutes every morning, before I check my phone or computer. I find that the sooner I mediate after waking, the more I feel like I can clear my mind, live in the present, and relax.
If you’re worried about losing track of time, set a 15 minute timer on your phone or computer and meditate in another room or the opposite corner of the room, that way you’re not tempted to get up and check the time. For many people the 15 minutes during the first few sessions will feel like hours, but once you get in to a routine the 15 minutes will fly by!
Without fail, the first question many trainees ask me regarding recovery is “which supplements do I need to take to increase recovery?” I can’t help but shake my head; supplementation is designed to complement a sound training, nutrition, and rest protocol.
Avoid prescription sleep medication unless you have a pre-existing condition such as insomnia, restless leg syndrome, etc… Reliance on sleep medication can cause not only a dependency, but also an addiction. Sleep medication is typically prescribed for short-term issues and if the sleep issue continues beyond that short-term timeframe, then it would be in your best interest to see a sleep specialist as there may be additional factors at-play. If you absolutely refuse to eliminate prescription sleep medication from your regimen, consider taking it as a last-ditch effort before those exceptionally stressful days with long hours, deadlines, meetings, and/or back-to-back scheduled activities
Instead of sleep medication, try natural sleep enhancers such as ZMA, melatonin, 5-HTP, valerian root, and/or L-Theanine. In this context, sleep enhancers are over-the-counter (OTC) supplements designed to help the user relax, cope with stress, fall asleep, and maintain normal circadian rhythms. The dosing of these supplements depends on the product in discussion but here are some recommendations:
- 1 Serving of ZMA (Magnesium – 200 to 400mg and Zinc – 5 to 45mg) 
- Melatonin – 0.3-5mg at bedtime 
- 5-HTP – 300-500mg (Consult with your physician if you intend to take 5-HTP buy currently take drugs prescribed for antidepressant or cognitive purposes) 
- Valerian Root – 450mg an hour before bed 
- L-Theanine – 100-200mg before bed 
I take 400mg magnesium citrate, 30mg zinc, and 200mg 5-HTP 30 minutes pre-bed which provides me with a calming effect and helps me to relax and drift off to sleep.
Examine.com, a popular website for aggregating peer-reviewed articles on supplements, also suggests the use of HMB, Citrulline, and L-Carnitine for aid in muscle recovery.  Supplementation use is optional but if your nutrition, rest, and routine is in-order, then they can provide that little extra “oomph” to help you progress past a training plateau. The dosing recommendations are as follows – 3g of free acid HMB taken 15 to 30 minutes prior to training; 8g of citrulline, preferably in malate form, taken pre or intra-workout; and 2-4g of L-Carnitine taken pre or intra-workout.  I haven’t tried this combination, but if you have please let me know in the comments section!
And last but not least we have the supplements with anti-inflammatory properties including fish oil, curcumin, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), just to name a few. With fish oil, aim for 6 grams spread over the course of the day.  With curcumin, aim to consumer 80 to 16,000 milligrams per day; consume lower doses if you’re using absorption enhancers such as black pepper and high doses if not.  For one of the most popular NSAIDs, Ibuprofen, consume 400mg every 4 to 6 hours as needed.  While I wouldn’t recommend NSAIDs as the first line of defense for improving recovery, this is a heavily researched and proven drug for decreasing aches and pains.
This section covers miscellaneous recovery techniques that didn’t fit in the aforementioned sections – contrast showers, ice baths, menthol-based analgesics, capsaicin-based analgesics, Epsom salt baths, and soft tissue massages.
In one contrast shower experiment, 1 minute of exposure to 38°C water followed by 1 minute of exposure to 15 °C water didn’t affect exercise-specific agility measurements or physical recovery but improved the psychological perception of physical recovery.  A third study indicates that contrast showers can diminish feelings of DOMS and improve recovery when compared to passive recovery techniques.  At the very least, psychological recovery will hopefully encourage trainees to perform high-intensity exercise more frequently.
Proponents of ice baths claim that 5 to 10 minute exposure to 12-15°C water can improve recovery through blood vessel constriction, a slowdown of physiological processes that cause DOMS, swelling and tissue breakdown reduction, and the shift of lactic acid.  However, the positive effects appear to be mostly anecdotal and popularized by elite athletes; I encourage you to try it a few times to determine if it helps you. Remember to set a timer to ensure you don’t stay in for too long. If you begin experiencing hypothermia-like symptoms with either contrast showers or ice baths, STOP immediately.
Two of the most popular menthol-based analgesics are Icy Hot®© and Tiger Balm®©. Menthol can help to decrease perceived discomfort, decrease DOMS, and improve muscular recovery compared to ice-only application.  Two of the most popular capsaicin-based analgesics are Capzasin-HP©® and Salonpas Hot Capsaicin Patch©®. Capsaicin can help to relieve perceived aches, pains, and DOMS when you apply the product to the sore area as-needed.  You can find menthol-based and capsaicin-based analgesics in cream, ointment, gel, lotion, stick, and patch-form at your local pharmacy.
Epsom salt baths use magnesium sulfate as its active ingredient to reduce DOMS and achy muscles. By dissolving 2 cups to warm bath water and soaking in this water for 20 minutes, your skin will absorb the magnesium which may help to decrease involuntary muscle contractions, cramps, and spasms.  While Epsom salt baths aren’t the most efficient way to combat a magnesium deficiency, soaking in Epsom salts 1 to 2 times per week has helped my muscles to recover during weeks of intense training, particularly after a race or weightlifting meet.
Soft tissue massages on and around tight, knotty, and stiff muscles can improve range of motion, decrease pain, and improve muscular function.  In addition to providing physical relief, soft tissues massages can also decrease anxiety, stress, and cortisol levels.  Schedule and finance-permitting, I recommend at least one 60-minute deep tissue massage per month. A deep tissue massage isn’t exactly relaxing but I’ve found it incredibly helpful for reducing knots and getting a trigger point to release. Sometimes I’m as sore after a deep tissue massage as I am after an intense workout! If you can afford two soft tissue massages per month, I recommend alternating deep tissue and relaxation-oriented massages every two weeks.
Self Myofascial Release through the use of foam rollers (soft, PVC, RumbleRoller) and small sports balls (tennis, lacrosse, field hockey) can increase joint range of motion, improve blood flow, decrease post-exercise fatigue, decrease pain sensitivity, decrease anxiety, and improve quality of sleep via decreased muscular discomfort.  Once again, foam rolling isn’t the most relaxing technique but I’ve found it extremely helpful for decreasing DOMS, pre-workout muscular stiffness, and rehabbing pulled muscle.
If you’ve never performed self myofascial release then I recommend you start with a soft foam roller and tennis ball as these implements have a bit more cushion flexibility to them. As you feel more comfortable using this recovery technique you can use more rigid implements like a PVC pipe or RumbleRoller as well as a lacrosse or field hockey ball. There are a variety of mobility-oriented programs that implement these devices available such as Joe DeFranco’s Agile 8/Limber 11 and MobilityWOD. If you can identify specific areas giving you issues, I would recommend performing 15-30 passes on the affected area at least once per day until you reach the desired flexibility and comfort level.