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The practical, science based guide to post exercise recovery
To become fitter, stronger and faster your need to push your body to create the microscopic damage that stimulates improvement. However, that damage means you are sore and down on performance while it is being repaired, so it is very desirable to speed that recovery.
The problem is that because of a lot of poor advice people receive this too often doesn’t happen and they suffer un-necessarily. From what we’ve seen most advice on recovery is usually just a list of things with a snippet of information about each. There’s rarely an overall strategy, and science tells us that while some suggestions are OK others are marginal or a waste of time. The trouble is you don’t know which is which.
We want you to recover fast and with the least pain possible so we’ve put together a strategy that starts by looking at what your muscles actually need, then looking at what science says is the best way to provide this. We’ll be looking at the absolute essentials, some therapies that are really helpful, then pointing out some things that, although popular, science has found to be next to useless.
Why you get sore and what your muscles need
The microscopic damage
Your get sore after exercise because strenuous exercise will damage some of the microscopic fibres that make up your muscles. In addition you will also get a build up of metabolic wastes and chemicals that result from the breakdown of damaged tissues, plus the muscles tend to tighten after exercise which puts pressure on blood vessels restricting blood flow.
DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness)
The damage and build up of waste products usually causes deep soreness in the muscles from about 24 to 72 hours. This is known as DOMS or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness.
Reduced muscular performance
Your muscles will also suffer reduced strength and endurance because of the microscopic damage, the build up of waste products and the restricted blood flow due to tightening.
What your muscles need to help recover
Knowing what causes the pain and reduced performance we understand that your muscles need the following to help recovery.
- helping the microscopic damage heal
- help remove the metabolic wastes and break down products
- help relieve the tension off the muscles
Matching recovery options to those needs
We now have two ways to evaluate each each post recovery option.
- How does this option help provide these needs (physiological benefits).
- What results have been achieved in scientific trials.
During recovery you you absolutely need:
- adequate sleep and rest
- adequate diet and hydration
Sleep and rest
You need to have adequate sleep and rest during recovery.
Diet and hydration
There are a lot of recommendations with regard to hydration and dietary supplements. We don’t claim expertise in relation to dietary supplementation, but these and hydration need to be considered from the principle of homeostasis. This is your body’s inbuilt mechanisms to maintain it’s internal environment. Lets look at how this works, then how it relates to your fluids and dietary needs.
Homeostasis example: fluid levels.
Your fluid levels are maintained using a number of mechanisms including your kidneys. If your fluid levels are too low your body will conserve fluids plus make you thirsty so you seek more. If your fluid levels are too high your body will expel the excess as urine. As this diagram shows your kidneys also play important roles in maintaining other levels such as blood pressure and acid-base balance.
To aid in recovery your body needs optimum fluid levels. This helps recovery by helping deliver fresh nutrients and flushing wastes from your healing muscles. If you have too little fluids and become dehydrated this will be impaired, but if you drink too much this will be harmlessly expelled. Therefore, the optimum re-hydration is to drink a bit more than your body actually needs. After exercise drink a bit more than you have lost, then drink a few extra glasses of water during the day.
How do you know how much fluids you have lost? You can get a good estimate by weighing yourself before and after. Most weight loss will be fluid, with a litre of water weighing one kilogram (one pint is approximately one pound).
Protein and other nutrients
Your body will need proteins and other nutrients to rebuild the damaged muscles, so adequate supplies are essential. Supplements are heavily advertised, but just like with excess fluids your body will regulate the levels. If your body is lacking it will most welcome the supplements. If levels are adequate they will be expelled. However, unlike water excesses may cause harm. As an example your body breaks down protein into building blocks called amino acids. If your body has too much of an amino acid it just breaks them down, salvaging the usable parts and expelling the rest.
- The usable part gets converted to energy, which can be used as fuel or stored as fat.
- The unusable part is a nitrogen compound which your body must expel, and is toxic in higher concentrations.
You need adequate nutrition so your body has the “building blocks” it needs to repair your muscles, but too much may not be a good thing. As we have seen in the case of proteins too much i) can cause a build up of fat, ii) can load your body with toxic wastes, iii) create stress on your body breaking down and expelling the excess, and ultimately iv) created expensive urine. What we recommend you do is discuss your needs with a qualified dietitian to ensure you have an adequate diet, and to only take supplements that are needed.
Therapies that will help
There are two therapies found to really help post exercise recovery and reduce DOMS.
- manual massage performed by a professional therapist
- vibration massage
Additional therapy useful with conditions
- active recovery
Manual massage performed by a professional therapist
Manual massage therapy will help healing by relaxing the muscles, plus the squeezing and mechanical pumping effects of the massage will increase blood flow, flushing wastes and bringing in fresh nutrients and oxygen. Because of this clinical trials of massage have produced good results in reducing post exercise soreness and speeding recovery (1–5).
Foam rollers are no where near as good
The use of foam rollers is seen as a substitute for professional massage. However, as discussed in our article on foam rollers, these are generally far less effective than professional massage therapy, and the results of using them in clinical trials is no where near as good.
Reasons why foam rolling is now here near as good
- professional massage therapy is performed by skilled knowledgeable therapists whereas foam rolling is usually done by people without this level of skill and knowledge
- With professional therapy the client is usually lying on a table relaxed, whereas with foam rolling muscles are often tightened in an attempt to adopt the correct position.
- It is much harder to control the pressure while foam rolling.
Like manual massage, vibration massage is also shown to give very worthwhile reductions in pain and to speed recovery (1,5–13) . Science shows that vibration massage relaxes muscles and increases blood flow, plus as discussed in our article on vibration assisted healing it has some quite remarkable additional effects.
- Speeding the growth of muscle fibres
- reducing the amount of scar tissue formed
- causes and increase in the body’s production of growth hormones
Multiple applications are better than one: the need for self massage
Both therapies will be more effective if applied regularly rather than once. As an example, in one clinical trial of vibration massage this therapy was applied after exercise then each day during recovery. Some professional sports people may be able to do this, but for most this will require self therapy. We have seen that the results of self massage using foam rollers is poor, but on the other hand vibration massage is ideal for self application.
Self massage using vibration massagers
Because there is no special skill needed vibration massage can easily be self applied. For detail on usage please see our usage guide for details and precautions, but whereas self applied manual massage (such as foam rollers) requires skill and knowledge, all one needs to do is to place the vibrating pad of a massager over the muscle and let the vibrations penetrate. Also, without needing the physical pressure and penetration vibration massage is much safer.
You will need a genuine vibration massager
A genuine vibration massager will do a fantastic job, but most consumer massagers, percussion massager and massage guns are not suitable. Please see our guide on how to choose a suitable machine.
Active recovery is the use of light or moderate exercise during the recovery phase. If we look at what it actually does for healing we see it can do both good and harm.
The positive effects of active recovery
- help stretch and relax muscles
- help stimulate blood flow
The harmful effects of active recovery
- can damage healing muscle fibres
What that means is that if you do active recovery it should be done enough to utilise the positive effects while avoiding the harmful effects. Of course this may not be judged correctly, which is why clinical trials have only shown inconsistent short term pain relief (3,4,14–16). We recommend that active recovery be used, but be done conservatively.
(Popular) therapies with marginal benefits
Next we will look at several therapies with little or no benefits. Although these are popular we could not see many worthwhile physiological benefits and clinical trial results were poor.
- Cold/Ice baths
- Contrast baths
- Compression garments
Cold/Ice therapy is cooling the body down after exercise, such as using an ice bath. It is said to reduce swelling and inflammation. This may be of some benefit for non-microscopic injuries where swelling is an issue, but inflammation associated with the microscopic damage is actually part of the healing process. Clinical trials of this therapy agree, showing that this therapy only gives a small and inconsistent reduction in post exercise soreness (2–4,15).
Contrast (hot/cold) baths
Contrast baths involve alternating between hot and cold baths. The principle is that changes in temperature produce some sort of pumping action in the fluids in the muscles. However, it is hard to imagine this effect to be anywhere near that of the increased blood flow caused by manual or vibration massage. The clinical trials agree, showing that this therapy only produces a small decrease in post exercise pain (3)
Compression garments are garments that exert pressure on the muscles. They are said to cause a reduction in swelling. However as with the ice baths, any swelling with microscopic damage is your body bringing in the things it needs for the repair. The clinical trials agree, showing that these garments can only give a small decrease in post exercise pain (3).
These are devices like TENS machines. We don’t know of any way these would help the muscles heal, and clinical clinical trials confirm that they don’t help (16)
Summary and recommendation
Warmup and preparation
Before sport or strenuous exercise is advisable to warm up properly using light exercises and stretching. This helps prepare your muscles for exertion and will reduce the risk of injury
Sleep, rest, hydration and diet
- Make sure you get adequate sleep and rest
- After exercise drink more than enough to replace fluids lost, and supplement with several glasses of water each day
- Make sure you have an adequate diet. Consider the principles of homeostasis and discuss your needs with a properly qualified dietition.
Massage or vibration massage
Both these therapies have proved to be beneficial. Multiple applications will be better than a single one, and as discussed vibration massage is the effective choice for self application. For further information please see:
As discussed above, active recovery has potential positive effects and detriment. We recommend that light exercise be done conservatively to minimise the risk of injuring healing muscle fibres.
Fitness and exercise professionals
There is a lot of well meaning but too often poor advice and marginal therapies (eg. foam rollers and massage guns) aimed at those who exercise or play sports. We’d like professionals in these fields to have the opportunity to instead try and use practitioner grade therapy using genuine professional grade vibration massagers with a long list of scientifically demonstrated benefits. Please check out our practitioner page to access our practitioner guides and most importantly the special practitioner rates we give qualifies practitioners such as Chiropractors, Osteopaths and Physiotherapists.
- Imtiyaz S, Veqar Z, Shareef MY. To compare the effect of vibration therapy and massage in prevention of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). J Clin Diagnostic Res. 2014;
- Naderi A, Aminian-Far A, Gholami F, Mousavi SH, Saghari M, Howatson G. Massage enhances recovery following exercise-induced muscle damage in older adults. Scand J Med Sci Sport. 2021;31(3):623–32.
- Dupuy O, Douzi W, Theurot D, Bosquet L, Dugué B. An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. Front Physiol. 2018;9(APR):1–15.
- Bishop PA, Jones E, Woods AK. Recovery from training: A brief review. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2008.
- Ntshangase S, Peters-Futre E. The efficacy of manual versus local vibratory massage in promoting recovery from post-exercise muscle damage – A systematic review. J Sci Med Sport. 2017;20(February):e42.
- Veqar Z, Imtiyaz S. Vibration therapy in management of delayed onset muscle soreness. J Clin Diagnostic Res. 2014;8(6):10–3.
- Lau WY, Nosaka K. Effect of vibration treatment on symptoms associated with eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage. Am J Phys Med Rehabil. 2011;
- Bakhtiary AH, Safavi-Farokhi Z, Aminian-Far A. Influence of vibration on delayed onset of muscle soreness following eccentric exercise. Br J Sports Med. 2007;
- von Stengel S, Teschler M, Weissenfels A, Willert S, Kemmler W. Effect of deep oscillation as a recovery method after fatiguing soccer training: A randomized cross-over study. J Exerc Sci Fit. 2018;16(3):112–7.
- Timon R. Effects of whole-body vibration after eccentric exercise on muscle soreness and muscle strength recovery. J Phys Ther Sci. 2016;28:1781–5.
- Kamandani R, Ghazalian F, Ebrahim K, Ghassembaglou N, Shiri Piraghaj M, Khorram A. The Effect of Acute Vibration Training on Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness in Young Non-Athlete Women. Heal Scope. 2015;2(3):119–24.
- Lu X, Wang Y, Lu J, You Y, Zhang L, Zhu D. Does vibration benefit delayed-onset muscle soreness ?: a meta-analysis and systematic review. 2019;
- Koeda T. A trial to evaluate experimentally induced delayed onset muscle soreness and its modulation by vibration. Environ Med. 2003;47:26–30.
- Kinugasa T, Kilding AE. A comparison of post-match recovery strategies in youth soccer players. J Strength Cond Res. 2009;23(5):1402–7.
- Toubekis AG, Smilios I, Bogdanis GC, Mavridis G, Tokmakidis SP. Effect of different intensities of active recovery on sprint swimming performance. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2006;31(6):709–16.
- Cortis C. Effects of post-exercise recovery interventions on physiological, psychological and performance parameters. Int J Sports Med. 2010;31:327–35.
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About Dr Graeme
Several years ago Dr Graeme, a Chiropractor practicing in Victoria, Australia was looking for a serious hand held massager his patients could use at home to get the extra quality massage they needed. The ones he found in the shops and on-line for home use looked nice but were not serious, and... read more
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