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How to recover more quickly from your workouts - for faster results

quick workout recovery

If you read my article on periodization and overtraining, you will know that too much exercise without enough time for recuperation will put you in an overtrained state, affecting your training efforts very negatively, perhaps even causing you to regress.  

Ultimately, the body will recover from any training session, no matter how hard it was – if you give it enough time. The problem is that our bodies often take a long time to do this.

Being the impatient, greedy creatures we are, hungry for results – we are inclined to train again before we have fully recovered.

Ideally, we would like to recover very quickly, so that we can train again sooner and get results quicker. That is one of the reasons why anabolic steroids are so effective – they allow you to recover very quickly.

I am however, not an advocate of that approach and have always gone the natural route. Luckily, there are many safe techniques you can employ to help speed up recovery quite dramatically.

Soviet researchers recommend cycling your recuperation efforts, employing more techniques and giving more attention to them, the harder your training gets.

The complete, integrated recovery process they recommend is a 3-phase approach, consisting of techniques you employ before your workout, during your workout and after your workout.

Phase 1: Pre-workout techniques.

By applying these techniques prior to your workout, you not only promote better post-workout recovery, but also better performance during your workout. Better performance means greater long-term gains.

Salicylic acid (Aspirin):

Note: Always obtain medical clearance from your physician before taking any medication. Also, see my disclaimer page.

Aspirin helps improve recovery by improving blood flow. It does this by reducing the body’s output of thromboxane – a chemical which helps platelets stick together. Even a fraction of a normal sized tablet before training can help thin the blood to the point where muscle tissue becomes exposed to greater amounts of nutrient-rich blood. This dramatically assists in speeding up recovery between sets. 

This increased blood flow to the muscles also assists in more rapid removal of lactic acid and other waste products.

Another benefit of taking aspirin prior to workouts is that it helps reduce swelling. Proper recovery cannot begin until muscle swelling has subsided.

Research has shown that lower doses of aspirin can be just as effective as higher doses, so seek to find that smallest dose possible that assists your recuperative efforts.

Aspirin can irritate your stomach lining, so it’s advisable you take your dose with milk, preferably crushing the tablets into it. Your body will also build a tolerance, so do not use it with every workout, save it for the most difficult ones.

Leg Elevation.

Due to the fact that most of us spend the majority of our days sitting, our legs often develop some swelling. Going into a leg workout with swollen legs will affect your performance during and your recovery afterwards.

Prior to strenuous leg workouts, try lying down with your legs elevated against the wall for about 20 minutes. This will aid in reducing swelling and help restore optimum circulation.

Phase 2: recovery during your workout.

Recovery begins as soon as you stop doing work. So, essentially the recovery process begins every time you finish a set, not just at the end of your workout.

Move around between sets.

Most people sit down and do nothing as they rest between sets, however a much quicker recovery between sets can be obtained by moving around. This aids circulation and the subsequent removal of waste products from muscle tissues, as well as reducing muscle swelling.

Peripheral Heart Action Training.

This is where you organize your workouts in such a manner so that lower and upper-body exercises are alternated. 

This might not always be practical or necessarily fit in with your training objectives at the time, but where possible it should be done. It assists in moving blood between all the major areas of the body, which accelerates the removal of waste products, re-oxygenation and recovery of each body part.

“Light days” to remove muscle soreness.

A properly periodized training program should have many ‘light days’ scheduled. As mentioned in the article on periodization, you cannot train with all-out intensity, all of the time. 

For every third session for a given body part, drop the weight to about 55% of 1RM (to learn how to calculate 1RM and what it is, read this article.)

A workout at this lower intensity will give sore muscles plenty of fresh blood and help flush waste products from the affected muscle tissues, without taxing them too much.

Aside from this, occasional light days are also important for psychologically giving yourself a break. Mentally, it is very difficult to push yourself to the limit all of the time.

Phase 3: Recovery after your workout.

This is perhaps the most important phase of the recovery process. Whilst some of these techniques might not be all that pleasant to employ, they are the most effective at speeding up your recovery. If you were only to make use of some of the techniques, these are the ones you want to use.

Contrast Showers.

This should be done immediately after training. Expose your lumbar region to alternating bursts of hot and cold water. Make the water as hot as you can tolerate and also as cold as you can tolerate. Try for 2 minutes of hot water and 2 minutes of cold water. Repeat 5 times.

Alternating extremes of hot and cold in this manner, cause your body’s blood vessels to constrict and dilate – massively improving circulation and the subsequent removal of waste products.

Cryokinetics.

This involves lying down with your legs elevated after your shower and with an icepack under your lower back. While lying in this position you gently stretch your spine by pulling your knees to your chest, one at a time, holding them there for about 10 seconds, before doing it with the other leg.

Spend 15-20 minutes on the ice doing this.

Ice baths.

Probably one of the less pleasant recovery techniques, but also one of the most effective.

Many elite athletes take ice baths after intense workouts as a way to speed up recovery. It is believed to constrict blood vessels and help flush waste products such as lactic acid out of muscle tissues. It is also thought to reduce swelling and slow down tissue breakdown. 

When one re-warms after the ice bath, blood flow is greatly improved.

To correctly benefit from ice baths, the water should be around 15 degrees Celsius. You should only be immersed for about 10 minutes in order to gain maximum benefit, without exposing yourself to the risks associated with cold exposure. 

Being very cold can make your muscles tense, so it’s a good idea to take a hot shower 30-60 minutes after the ice bath too.

Adequate Sleep.

I know it’s not always possible in this current day and age, but try to get 8 hours, or as close to 8 hours as possible per night. This will go a long way in helping you adequately recover from your workouts, keeping your progress smooth and steady.

Although it’s not really part of Western culture, and not everyone’s schedule will allow for it - where possible, try to schedule a 20-30 minute mid-afternoon nap. It will make your sharper, more alert, help you focus better and aid in faster recovery from intense exercise.

Final thoughts.

While most people will not be able to, or necessarily even willing to use all of the recovery techniques listed, at least give a couple of them a try, preferably one from each phase. The quicker you are able to recover, the more effective your next workout will be and the faster your results will come. 

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Article by: Bryan Hamann.

Bryan is a personal trainer, certified bootcamp instructor, Ironman Triathlete and author of THE PRISON WORKOUT.

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