How Muscle Recovery Helps Break Through a Plateau

When athletes hit a plateau, their mind wanders to one word: more. More sets, more reps, more two-a-days, more weight — more, more, more. They never stop to think they might see better results by doing less. Less overtraining (i.e. more rest) and muscle recovery are often missing in a successful workout program. 

Rest and recovery give your body time to heal post-workout. In order to understand how underrated muscle recovery is, you first need to understand how your muscles respond to exercise.

Every time you work out, muscle fibers in your body are torn apart on a microscopic level, causing fatigue and muscle soreness. To bounce back in your next workout, your muscles need to fuse back together, which requires adequate rest, nutrition, and loosening muscle knots (more on this later). 

Below, we share some of our favorite muscle recovery techniques to work into your fitness routine. 

6 Muscle Recovery Techniques to Help You Bounce Back

Muscle recovery: Man drinking post-workout shake

If you constantly feel tired, lethargic, sore, and simply beaten down, it's time to revise your recovery plan. Here are six proven post-workout recovery techniques that can help you recuperate from your most intense workouts:

1. Foam Rolling 

Foam rolling is one of the most effective (and therefore common) muscle recovery techniques. As every athlete knows, there is nothing more painful, yet strangely gratifying, than taking a foam roller to a sore muscle.

With foam rolling, you'll use your bodyweight to press into a foam roller, stick, or lacrosse ball (all produce similar effects). Here's how it works: Just as your muscle fibers tear apart during exercise, sometimes your muscle fascia will fuse back together in irregular patterns and cause knots. By running over the muscle tissue with a foam roller, you can break apart these knots, thereby decreasing muscle soreness.

Research shows that foam rolling both after and before exercise relieves fatigue and soreness and increases athletic performance [1]. Plus, using a foam roller as a self-myofascial release (self-massage) tool is an easy, affordable recovery option you can do at home. 

If you'd prefer, you can also get a professional massage. While certainly more enjoyable than foam rolling, it will be more expensive. With that being said, the benefits of foam rolling and massage are the same — they break up knotted muscles in order to reduce pain and swelling. 

2. Eat Protein 

In order to properly recover, you have to eat.

Protein helps build muscle tissue. After an intense workout, microtears in your muscles are repaired through a natural process known as muscle protein synthesis. Without protein, muscle hypertrophy (i.e. muscle growth) would not — and could not — take place [2].

By consuming high-quality protein immediately after a workout (ideally within 30 minutes), you help your muscles rebuild and replace essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) lost due to protein breakdown. 

Some athletes choose to drink chocolate milk, as it offers a healthy balance of fat, carbohydrates, and protein. Others choose to mix a protein shake of high-quality whey protein powder, which has been shown to maximize muscle protein synthesis after training [3]. 

3. Drink Water 

During a tough workout, you shouldn’t have to remind yourself to drink water. While you're gulping air and sweating through your shirt, it's easy to reach for your water bottle. But when you're taking a rest day, this is all-too-easy to forget.

Make hydration a priority and a daily habit. (Pro tip: You can now find water bottles that track your water intake.) Dehydration causes or worsens muscle soreness. Therefore, maintaining proper hydration can help alleviate the uncomfortable feelings following a rigorous training session.

4. Don't Fear Carbs

We know, we know — if you're in the midst of cutting (fat-burning) season, you may have just started the keto diet or another carb-cutting diet for weight loss. If that’s you, you may need to stop

If you severely restrict your carb intake and constantly suffer from muscle pain, you may need to rethink your macronutrients. Not every diet works for every athlete, and some people — particularly those following an intense workout routine — need more carbohydrates than others.

Carbohydrates are stored as glycogen in your body. Glycogen, in turn, creates energy to fuel your lifestyle and your workout routine. If you are undeniably exhausted to the point where it interferes with your training, you may need to eat more carbs

5. Implement an Active Recovery Day 

Big, glaring disclaimer: An active recovery day is not a workout. Read that sentence again. 

Research shows that implementing an active recovery day helps decrease the DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness). Active recovery can help increase blood flow to sore muscles, which can then help remove metabolic waste products [4]. This, in turn, can help repair muscle lesions (tears) and pain.

Active recovery should be a low-impact activity, such as swimming, aqua jogging, biking, or even walking. You want to elevate your heart rate slightly but not enough to cause fatigue. Avoid intense, high-impact forms of exercise such as resistance training, running, sprinting, or taking a HIIT (high-intensity interval training) class.

6. Ice Your Injuries 

"Throw some ice on it," is a common locker room phrase because it's a tried-and-true muscle recovery technique

If you have a chronic injury, such as an inflamed Achilles tendon or a strained hamstring, you should ice (or otherwise cool) the injury after every workout. Icing and cooling have been scientifically shown to repair soft tissue muscle damage, relieve pain and swelling, and have an anti-inflammatory effect [5]. 

There are numerous approaches to icing and cooling. Simply wrap an ice pack in a towel (to prevent burns on your skin) and apply it to the point of injury post-exercise. If you're brave enough, you can also take a dip in an ice bath, submerging half your body in icy water. Some individuals even take cold showers post-workout to help encourage muscle repair. Finally, you could try cryotherapy, where you expose your body to extremely cold temperatures for several minutes (although a single session can cost up to $100). 

The Best Muscle Recovery Techniques Are Also the Most Common

Woman doing foam rolling as part of muscle recovery

Eat right, grab a foam roller, rest, and take a dip in an ice bath — these are some of the most common and effective recovery techniques in sports medicine. 

You don't need to purchase a monthly massage membership or book a cryotherapy session to recover properly. Many of the best recovery techniques can be done at home. Use hot-cold therapy for chronic injuries, implement active recovery to increase blood flow, and foam roll over knotted muscle groups. Lastly, listen to your body for warning signs that you need to tweak your diet and/or training. 

One more tip: Every athlete should consume a high-quality protein source post-workout to begin the recovery process. In addition, if you find yourself constantly tired and fatigued, you may need to increase your carb intake between workouts. To help your muscles recover, consume a shake with 100% Grass-Fed Whey Protein Concentrate within 30 minutes following exercise.

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