Jonathan Valdez, RDN, CDE, CPT is a New York City-based telehealth registered dietitian nutritionist and nutrition communications expert.
Marley Hall is a writer and fact checker who is certified in clinical and translational research. Her work has been published in medical journals in the field of surgery, and she has received numerous awards for publication in education.
You may have heard of the RICE method. No, we’re not talking grains here, but rather Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. Following these steps can help mitigate aggravation when suffering from muscle strain. A health care provider may also advise taking anti-inflammatory medication or acetaminophen to reduce swelling. Stretching and light movement, depending on mobility, can increase blood flow to the area and aid recovery, but some research suggests protection and immobility of a ruptured muscle is best.
Active recovery involves performing a lower-intensity physical activity following more strenuous exercise. This can be performed either immediately after (for example, spending 10-15 minutes on a recumbent bicycle upon completion of a heavy squat session), or the next day (going for a swim or doing some gentle yoga the day after CrossFit).
Active recovery can encourage muscle rebuilding by increasing blood flow to heavily-taxed muscle groups, as opposed to passive recovery, which involves no movement at all. While arguably passive for the athlete, research suggests massage is an effective strategy for recovery and may result in decreased muscle soreness and inflammation.
Supplements, including those purported to promote muscle recovery, are not regulated by the FDA or approved for safety and efficacy before they are marketed to the public. For this reason, it is important to work with a knowledgeable health care provider prior to including a supplement in your routine.
That said, some evidence supports the use of products marketed to support muscle recovery, such as BCAAs.
While whole foods are preferable when possible, protein powder may be useful to hit protein requirements for athletes. For example, whey protein offers a complete amino acid profile to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Additionally, evidence shows that consumption of casein protein before bedtime can stimulate muscle protein synthesis.
While protein-rich foods (think lean meat, cottage cheese, eggs, and fish) promote muscle protein synthesis, restoring muscle glycogen with carbohydrates is key. The International Society of Sports recommends a post-workout feeding with a 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio. Antioxidant-rich foods may also be beneficial. Tart cherry juice, which is rich in a group of antioxidants called polyphenols, can aid in muscle recovery and decrease inflammation.
Research suggests that higher sleep quality is associated with greater muscle strength, and other data suggests that sleep hygiene is just as crucial to performance as physical training. Sleep deprivation can also result in a reduction of IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor), which helps regulate muscle protein synthesis. While 7-9 hours of sleep is generally sufficient, experts warn that a one-size-fits-all is ill-advised, as sleep recommendations for optimal muscle recovery may be sports-specific.
Post-workout snacks are often easily digestible forms of carbohydrates and protein, such as protein bars, smoothies, or fruit with nut butter. Adequate nutrition after a workout is as important as the workout itself. The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends following the guidelines of a 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio and limiting fiber and fat (too much of either will slow absorption of easily digestible carbs and protein) after an intense workout session. Meeting overall individual protein requirements is also crucial to recovery.
What you consume as a pre-workout snack depends on how much time you have. Eating immediately before a workout is generally not recommended. Pairing protein with carbohydrates approximately 1 to 4 hours before training will fuel your body while also giving it time to digest. Remember, digestion is “work” for your body, and you don’t want this process competing with the “work” of your training session.
While there are no hard and fast rules on how many days to rest between intense workouts (recovery varies based on the individual), it is generally recommended that muscles are given time to recover, whether it be 24-48 hours or less in some cases. Active rest days, such as participating in lower-intensity physical activity following strenuous training, may facilitate recovery by directing blood flow to muscle tissue.
Stretching is flexibility training that may increase range of motion and reduce muscle tension, but there is little evidence that it aids in actual recovery. Flexibility as part of an overall training regime has other benefits, including stress relief and relaxation. Some research suggests that stretching may improve sleep quality, which in turn can have a positive impact on muscle recovery.
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