Tuesday 31st August, 2021

How to help your muscles recover faster after a workout or sport

Sports action
In this article we will show you the practical scientific way to help your muscles recover faster

If you work out hard or play sports you’ll likely suffer sore muscles and not be 100% for a few days, but most people suffer un-necessarily and take much longer than needed to recover. The problem is that most recovery advice is just a collection of hints based on fads, marketing, and then things of marginal benefits added to make up the numbers.

The good news is that if we approach things scientifically by analysing what recovering muscles actually need we come up with a very simple effective strategy. Better still, it shows that a lot of the things you are encouraged to spend money on and things that are unpleasant are un-necessary.

Lets share this by:

Why you get sore after sports or a workout

The microscopic structure of muscles
With strenuous exercise these fine fibres are damaged, plus you get a build up of metabolites and other chemicals from the breakdown

As this diagram shows your muscles are made of microscopic fibres. You get sore after sports or a workout because strenuous exercise will damage some of these fibres. Apart from the damage the breakdown of these fibres leaves a build up of wastes products and chemicals, plus the muscles tend to tighten which puts pressure on blood vessels restricting blood flow. As a result:

  1. You get deep muscle soreness from about 24 to 72 hours after exercise. This is called DOMS or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness.
  2. Until the muscle has healed and recovered the maximum strength and endurance of your muscles will be limited.

What your muscles need to help recover faster

Your muscles have microscopic damage, a build up of waste products and reduced blood flow due to tightness, so the goal of any recovery method should include:

  • helping the microscopic damage heal
  • help remove the break down products and chemicals
  • help relieve the tension off the muscles
Our recommendations are based on scientifically proven needs rather than fads or marketing

Choosing what you need to recover

There are a lot of recovery fads and marketers trying to push their products, so to choose which will actually help recovery we ask two questions.

  1. Will it do any of the things we know the muscles need?
  2. Have clinical trials shown this to help?

We’ve done this and come up with the following.

The things your muscles absolutely need to help recover

There are two basic things that your muscles absolutely need to recover. These are:

  1. adequate sleep and rest
  2. adequate diet and hydration

Adequate sleep and rest

You need to have adequate sleep and rest for your muscles to recover.

Diet and hydration


Fluids help carry fresh nutrients to your healing muscles and flush the waste products. If you do not replace lost fluids and become de-hydrated your recovery will be slowed. On the other hand, if you drink more than you need your body expels the excess as urine so you get no extra benefit. 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).


Selling supplements is big business so much information is pushed by marketing. Even editorial content such as magazines and websites are influenced by the desire for advertising revenue and affiliate commissions. We would much rather that you chose your diet based on the needs of your muscles rather than the needs of the marketers.

The best way to choose what you actually need

These nutrients are the “building blocks” to rebuild your healing muscles so it is very important to have adequate levels. Just like with fluids your body has inbuilt mechanisms to control the level of these. However, while drinking extra water is usually safe as extra excess fluids are harmlessly expelled, excess nutrients can be harmful. Because protein supplements are so widely advertised we will use protein as an example.

The protein example

Your body breaks down protein into building blocks called amino acids. If you do not have enough of the amino acid it will be detrimental to healing so getting more is a very good thing. On the other hand if your body already has enough it will break the amino acid down, salvaging the usable part and expelling the rest. The usable part gets converted to energy which can be used as fuel, but if you already have enough it will stored as fat. The unusable part is a nitrogen compound that is toxic in higher concentrations so your body has to break it down and expel it. Therefore:

  • If you don’t have adequate amino acids the appropriate supplementation will help your muscles heal.
  • If you already have adequate amino acids the protein supplements will be converted to fat, toxic nitrogen compounds and expensive urine.

Because of this we recommend that you ignore the marketing biased editorials and consult a properly qualified professional such as a dietitian regarding your needs.

The therapies that will help your muscles recover faster

Based on what your muscles need and clinical trial results the following therapies will help muscle recovery

Very useful therapies

  1. manual massage performed by a professional therapist
  2. vibration massage

Useful therapy, but with conditions

  • active recovery
Sports massage
Massage by professional therapist is effective at reducing post exercise soreness and speeding recovery

Manual massage performed by a professional therapist

When performed by professional therapists massage is an excellent therapy for helping muscles recover. Massage helps relax the muscles, plus the squeezing and mechanical pumping effects will increase blood flow, flushing wastes and bringing in fresh nutrients and oxygen. This is exactly what your muscles need. This is confirmed by clinical trials which have shown very good results (1–5)⁠.

Massage ball (roller)
Self massage using balls and rollers is no where near as effective and safe as professional massage

Foam rollers are no where near as good

Foam rollers are marketed as a substitute for professional massage to help muscles recover. However, they are generally far less effective than professional massage therapy, and the results of using them in clinical trials is no where near as good. Lets look at the reasons why.

Reasons why foam rolling is no where near as effective as professional therapy
  • 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.

Vibration massage

Vibration massage is an excellent therapy for helping reduce post exercise soreness and speed recovery. Like manual (conventional) massage 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

This is confirmed by clinical trials where vibration massage gave excellent results (1,5–13)

Multiple applications of therapy are better than one

We have seen that both manual (conventional) and vibration massage are excellent therapies to help reduce post exercise soreness and speed the recovery of your muscles. We also know that both therapies will be more effective if applied regularly rather than just 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 have this therapy provided, but for most this will require self therapy. This is the idea behind the use of foam rollers, but as we’ve seen these are no where near as effective and the proven results are poor. On the other hand vibration massage is ideal for self application.

Self massage with a vibration massager
Vibration massage can easily be self applied with no special skills

Vibration massage: easy and effective for home use

Unlike manual (conventional) massage vibration massage: 1) needs no special skills to apply, and 2) gives excellent results whether used by a professional or used at home. This means that you can easily apply the repeated therapy needed to help your muscles recover faster.

The reason no special skills are required and home use gives excellent results is that with vibration massagers it is the head of the massager that does the work. All one needs to do is to place the vibrating pad of a massager over the muscle and let the vibrations penetrate. As a bonus, because physical pressure and penetration are not needed vibration massage usually doesn’t hurt and is much safer.

Warning about poor advice and ineffective massagers

However, a lot of usage advice is poor and massagers unsuitable. Because of this most people do not get the benefit and often do harm. We want you to get the proper effects and the maximum benefit for your muscles so we have details in our articles How to choose a hand held massager and How to use a hand held massager. Lets summarise the main issues though.

Manual massage vs vibration massage
Effective vibration massager usage

The basic principle of using vibration massage is simple: you place the vibrating head of the massager over the part to be massaged and let the vibrations penetrate. What we see though is people attempting to use vibration massage using the techniques of conventional massage. This includes pressing the head in, rubbing and moving the head around. You will see this a lot, even in videos of people showing how to use or evaluating this equipment. As shown in this picture it is like a lumberjack swinging a chainsaw like an axe. Put bluntly, these people are showing extreme ignorance and their advice should not be followed.

You will need effective equipment

The other issue you will face is ineffective equipment, with two major issues.

  1. With massagers becoming a fad there are thousands of factories with no interest in making serious therapeutic devices flooding the market with massagers that look the part but are not very effective.
  2. Percussion massagers (massage guns) are a marketing gimmick that are far less effective and less safe.

Therefore, you definitely need to check out our guide How to choose a massager

(Popular) muscle recovery therapies with marginal or no benefits

Next we will look at several therapies that although popular or heavily marketed have little or no benefits.

  • Cold/Ice baths
  • Contrast baths
  • Compression garments
  • Electrotherapies

Cold/Ice therapy

Cold/Ice therapy is cooling the body down after exercise, such as using an ice bath. It is said to reduce swelling and inflammation. With non-microscopic injuries this may help stop bleeding and unwanted swelling. However, the inflammation associated with the microscopic damage is actually part of the healing process so we see no physiological benefits, and if anything this therapy would slow recovery. The clinical trials agree, showing that ice/cold 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 would increase the blood and fluid flow anywhere the amount manual or vibration massage does.  The clinical trials agree, showing that this therapy only produces a small decrease in post exercise pain (3)⁠

Compression garments

Compression garments are garments that exert pressure on the muscles. They are said to cause a reduction in swelling. This may be of some benefit for non-microscopic damage where internal bleeding and swelling was an issue. However as discussed with the ice baths, any swelling with microscopic damage is your body bringing in the things it needs to repair your muscles, so stopping this would actually slow recovery. 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, and possibly massage or vibration massage. This helps prepare your muscles for exertion and will reduce the risk of injury

Sleep, rest, hydration and diet

During recovery:

  • 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 and consider discussing your needs s 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:

Active recovery

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 professional giving advice
To help fitness professionals experience the benefits of quality therapy we'll provide practitioner guides plus the practitioner rates we give practitioners such as Chiros, Osteos and Physios

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.


  1. 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;
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Bishop PA, Jones E, Woods AK. Recovery from training: A brief review. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2008.
  5. 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.
  6. Veqar Z, Imtiyaz S. Vibration therapy in management of delayed onset muscle soreness. J Clin Diagnostic Res. 2014;8(6):10–3.
  7. Lau WY, Nosaka K. Effect of vibration treatment on symptoms associated with eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage. Am J Phys Med Rehabil. 2011;
  8. 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;
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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;
  13. Koeda T. A trial to evaluate experimentally induced delayed onset muscle soreness and its modulation by vibration. Environ Med. 2003;47:26–30.
  14. Kinugasa T, Kilding AE. A comparison of post-match recovery strategies in youth soccer players. J Strength Cond Res. 2009;23(5):1402–7.
  15. 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.
  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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Dr Graeme

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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