Maximizing workout recovery: your ultimate guide
The gym, the track, the workout mat… No one can deny you put in the work. But are you putting in the work where it counts?
Behind every goal-smashing training regimen, there’s a killer recovery routine. And we’re here to help you set yours up for success.
From active recovery workout options to which recovery supplements are worth your money – this is your ultimate guide to creating a sustainable training and recovery routine that supports muscle repair, reduces the chance of burnout and powers your progress.
Think of yourself like the plant and your recovery routine like water. Without it, you won’t grow.
Why workout recovery matters: your training support system
Mastering recovery means building a sustainable routine that enhances your training and daily life.
When you train, you’re putting your body under a form of acute stress that causes damage, including tiny tears in your muscle tissue. Recovery allows your body to repair and rebuild after this damage.
It’s not something to only do when you’re feeling extra sore or you have some spare time, it’s an essential part of an active life. If you don’t develop a solid recovery routine, you’ll see a lot of your hard work go to waste.
Recovery is about more than stretching for after a workout, or taking a day off training. When we talk about recovery, we’re talking about setting up a solid system to support your training, so you can perform at your best, smash your goals and feel great – physically and mentally – while doing it.
Let’s take a look at the 6 key elements of a good recovery routine, then dive into some bonus activities that could give you the edge.
1. Take a day off: learn the signs you need a rest day
No more feeling guilty about taking a day off. You need downtime from your regular training – and this applies no matter what your primary training style is: weightlifting, HIIT, yoga, Pilates, functional movement…
Rest days not only relieve muscle soreness and prevent injury from overuse, they give your body a chance to replenish glycogen stores (the energy your body draws on during training) and repair and grow muscle tissue.
Not everyone will need the same amount of rest. How many rest days YOU need will vary depending on your:
amount and quality of sleep
So how do you know how many rest days you need? It’s important that you listen to your body and learn your own signals.
Need a hand in tuning into your body’s signals? Read our total guide to listening to your body.
Some signs that you need a rest day are:
feeling fatigued and low energy
decreased performance and strength
lingering muscle soreness or joint discomfort
irritability, mood swings or disrupted sleep
elevated resting heart rate and decreased appetite
lack of motivation or mental burnout
Tune into what works for you, adjust as needed, and give yourself permission to embrace those much-deserved rest days.
2. Use active recovery exercises on your rest days
Okay, so you’ve taken a day off. Now how do you make the most of it? That’s where active recovery comes in.
Active recovery is about engaging in gentle movement to help your body recover from higher-intensity exercise. Because you’ll actually feel better if you keep moving: as low-intensity exercise helps increase blood flow to muscles, it clears out waste and reduces soreness.
Some great active recovery exercise options are:
walking or light jogging
foam rolling or using a massage stick
You don’t necessarily need equipment for active recovery, but it can help – especially if your muscles are sore or tight.
Join Tahl for a feel-good rest day stretching session to open up your chest, loosen your muscles and calm your mind.
3. Breathe like an athlete
Your breath can be a lot more powerful than you might realize – for both your workouts and recovery.
During your workouts: Focusing on your breathing boosts athletic performance and improves focus and mental endurance.
After your workouts: Deep and controlled breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, slowing your heart rate, signaling your muscles to relax and kickstarting your post-workout recovery.
All day long: Breathing well helps to reduce stress, which can impact your recovery and performance. (More on that below.)
Different forms of breathwork can help you in different situations, but start by learning Basic Box Breathing with Tahl to calm your stress responses in high-pressure moments.
Controlled rhythmic breathing can stimulate the vagus nerve, which sends out neural messages to relax your muscles, mind and beyond.
4. Manage stress to maintain your gains
Did you know that chronic stress can stall muscle growth, disrupt hunger signals, cause your body to store fat and mess with sleep?
While some stress can be harnessed – for instance, hyping yourself up for a big challenge – chronic stress can kill your progress. So for your health and your fitness, it’s important that you take action.
If stress is a regular part of your days, we’ve got tips:
- Join Chris for a meditation to turn stress into positive action.
- Factor outdoor breaks into your day – and make them count with a Guided Walk meditation.
- Practice gratitude to increase dopamine and serotonin production.
- Get out of your head and into your body with Tahl.
- Try time travel to get some perspective. (No, we don’t mean Back to the Future style.) You can do this by asking yourself: “How much will it affect me in a week? A month? A year? A decade?” In the bigger picture, daily stressors can seem a lot less overwhelming.
Got 6 minutes to find calm with Chris? Try the beginner-friendly stress release meditation from the Learn to Meditate series.
5. Access deep sleep for muscle recovery
Whether you’re training to lose weight or maximize your muscle mass, getting plenty of quality sleep is essential.
Deep sleep (sometimes called slow-wave sleep or delta sleep) is muscle recovery prime time – when your body does some of its best muscle repair and growth work. If you’re not spending enough time sleeping, you’ll get less of this essential deep sleep overall, which can increase cortisol production and lead to muscle breakdown.
A lack of sleep can also impact your hunger hormones, leading to weight gain, upset your immune system and leave you more likely to get injured – all of which will throw your training off track.
If you’re having trouble sleeping well, we’ve got the science-backed fixes you’ve been searching for.
6. Fuel recovery with real food
At Centr, we take a real food first approach to fueling your body. Our dietitian Angie Asche’s ‘eating for recovery’ list includes:
Protein: “Make sure you’re consuming adequate protein to aid in the repair and building of muscle tissue,” Angie says. “You should also add fruits and vegetables into your post-workout meal, if you’re not already consuming them regularly.”
Polyphenols: As well as helping to restore your energy levels, research tells us that polyphenols found in fruits and vegetables like beets, pomegranates and cherries can help minimize post-workout soreness and improve recovery.
Collagen: “Collagen is an athlete’s best friend because it plays a crucial role in maintaining the integrity of joints and connective tissue,” Angie explains. “It provides strength and stability to our joints, reduces the risk of injury and joint pain, and provides structural support to bones.”
Foods that will help boost your body’s natural collagen production include citrus fruits, tomatoes, berries, chicken and egg whites.
Magnesium: “Consuming adequate amounts of magnesium can help promote faster recovery and reduce muscle soreness,” Angie says. You can up your magnesium intake by adding nuts, seeds, spinach, avocado and oats to your meals.
Not sure what you should be eating to fuel your recovery? These recipe collections will get you started with some quick and easy options.
Do you need recovery supplements?
Although the supplements industry is slapping the “recovery” label on more and more products, Angie suggests you stick with protein powder to support muscle recovery and growth, and possibly creatine, which can enhance strength and muscle mass.
As for the rest, save your money.
“Many companies will use a proprietary blend of different ingredients without any mention of how much they actually used, which could be miniscule amounts,” Angie says.
How does alcohol impact workout recovery?
While many of us equate alcohol with relaxation, it can actually hinder your recovery by reducing sleep quality and contributing to stress. You don’t have to give it up altogether, but you may want to weigh up your intake against the importance of your fitness goals.
“Basically, if your goal is to reduce body fat or increase muscle, cutting alcohol is a no-brainer,” Angie says.
Even if you’re not interested in removing alcohol from your diet entirely, Angie suggests avoiding it for at least a few hours after training.
“I’m not going to say you can never have a drink again (I’d be a hypocrite if I did) but there’s a time and a place for it – and it’s not post-workout!” Angie says.
Looking for an extra recovery edge?
So you’ve locked down the basics, and now you want to know what else is out there that could give you the edge. Here are some bonus recovery protocols you may want to try.
Regular sauna use is generally associated with lower inflammation. While inflammation does play a role in muscle repair after exercise, chronic inflammation (which can arise through overtraining or insufficient recovery) can lead to countless health issues.
Massage is a go-to for Centr HIIT HIRT Strength trainer Ingrid Clay. Why does massage feel so good after a period of intense training? A study on mice offered up a possibility: the compression of muscles squeezed inflammation-causing cells out of the tissue.
Cold therapy – think taking a dip in an ice bath or chilly ocean – is a favorite of Centr experts Luke Zocchi and Dan Churchill. While more research is needed to confirm how the cold interacts with our bodies, it’s possible it can also boost your immune system and help with inflammation.
Ice bath tip: Practice box breathing before and during your plunge – it will help you to tolerate the mental and physical stress of the cold.
Compression garments, such as the tights often worn by athletes during training, claim to increase blood flow to the muscles. There is little evidence that compression clothing can boost performance, but there are indications it can help to reduce soreness and improve recovery.
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