When you start a new fitness routine—whether you are training for a marathon, planning to walk a 5K or committing to swimming more laps—choosing a plan can help you get started and keep you on track. You can find a lot of information about the best way to recover after exercising. However, whether there is an optimal recipe for what to do post-workout is up for debate.
A new industry has popped up called the “recovery industry,” as people try to figure out the best way to recover quickly between bouts of training or fitness events. However, there is a surprising lack of agreement about the best approach and little scientific support for most of the common exercise recovery recommendations.
Some of the more common suggestions to help your muscles recover include cold water soaks, static stretching, massages and compression garments. Others that are increasingly popular with professional athletes include whole-body cooling and breathing pure oxygen.
You may think that a cold water bath reduces inflammation and helps reduce muscle fatigue and soreness. In fact, experts and athletes used to think that decreasing inflammation was good for the muscles, so cold water immersion made sense. Now, scientists and trainers realize that low levels of inflammation actually benefit the repair process that occurs after exercise. Reducing inflammation actually slows the body’s adaptations to exercise, which are necessary to get faster or stronger. So, cold therapy of any kind might actually slow the physiological recovery from exercise. This is also why recent research suggests that taking over-the-counter painkillers for exercise-related muscle soreness isn’t always a good idea.
One reason it’s so hard to tell if your recovery method is working is that there is no precise way to measure it. There is no physiological biomarker that measures fatigue or recovery. In fact, recovery is almost entirely subjective—it’s based on whether you are still feeling tired, sore or rested.
The one thing that everyone seems to agree on is that sleep is the most important part of any recovery plan. Listening to your body and learning how it responds to exercise and rest is also important to creating the right recovery plan for you. Outside of these, it’s safe to use your recovery tool of choice—ice, massage, eating carbs immediately after a strenuous workout, drinking a specific sports drink or even your favorite beer—as long as it helps you feel better.
John Chatham, DPhil, is a professor of pathology in the Division of Molecular and Cellular Pathology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.