12 Ways to Improve Recovery

Last week I submitted my next piece for T-Nation . The jist of it was simple:

It’s not how often or how hard you can train. The real question is, how well can you recover between sessions?

While many are focused on training harder or more frequently, they’re only looking at half the equation.

If you want to crank up your training, the first thing you need to consider are ways to crank up your recovery.

Luckily for you, I have a few ideas that can help!

Here are just a few quick-hit ideas that you can use to either improve how quickly you recover, or at the very least, the quality of your recovery/regeneration between training sessions.

Sleep

Let’s start with the basics first. How many hours of sleep are you getting every night?

If you’re training intensely, you need to shoot for 7-9 hours of sleep nightly (and yes, I can feel some of you rolling your eyes as you read this).

Another thing to consider is the quality of your sleep. How quickly do you actually fall asleep? Do you lay there with your eyes peeled open thinking about everything you need to do the next day?

Once you are asleep, how deep and restful is it?

These are all things to consider. If you haven’t checked it out before, I would highly recommend reviewing my Sleep 101 blog post that I wrote last year. It’s chock-full of tips and tricks to improve your sleep.

One other note: Let’s say you simply can’t get a ton of sleep in consecutive stretches at night. Instead, maybe you can score some naps throughout the day. I’m often shocked at how much better I feel even if I get a 20-30 minute power nap at some point during the day.

Give it a shot!

Diet and Supplementation

I’m not going to harp on this one too much, because it’s not necessarily my forte.

I can tell you this, though – far too often we get so caught up in calorie counts, macronutrient splits, etc., that we forget about something really important:

Make a conscious effort to eat more nutrient-dense foods that provide your body with quality nutrition. Vitamins, minerals, etc.

Sitting with Cassandra Forsythe this past weekend for lunch reminded me of this. While people are quick to swing back and forth between what they propose to be “ideal” nutrition (high fat, low fat, high carb, low carb, high protein, etc.) one of the simplest rules we can follow is to simply eat more high-quality real food!

Supplementation is another hotly debated topic, and again, I’ll leave the specific recommendations to the experts. I think most of us reading this would probably do well with a protein shake, fish oils, a multi-vitamin, and perhaps some joint support if they are into lifting the heavy stuff (glucosamine, chondroitin, etc.).

Ice

Before we get into some of the sexier options, let’s look and one more staple in our recovery and regeneration routine.

One of the simplest things you can do post-workout is to ice down the specific joints you trained that day.

Now obviously, icing down your hips can be a challenge. But the extremities (shoulders, knees, elbows, wrists, ankles, etc.) are pretty easy to get at.

Self-Myofascial Release/Foam Rolling

How easy is this one?

You already know that foam rolling is great for decreasing stiffness pre-workout. Doesn’t it only make sense to try it out and different times in an effort to get loose and prepared for your next workout?

I’ll often foam roll the night AFTER a heavy workout, or even the day before to get nice and loose. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it definitely works.

Massage, ART and Hands-On Soft-Tissue Therapies

As great as SMR/foam rolling is, they definitely aren’t a replacement for quality, hands-on manual therapy.

I’ve been getting manual therapy performed on myself since 2003. Did I have a ton of expendable income at that point in time?

Nope.

Was it worth it?

Absolutely.

Not only can hands-on therapies address tissues and restrictions that you simply can’t touch with a foam roller or lacrosse ball, but the quality of your movement will improve drastically as well.

Static stretching

Static stretching is another fantastic tool that you can implement with absolutely zero cost outside of your time.

I’ve talked about this pretty extensively in the past, so if you’re looking for a quick and dirty routine to implement, check this out:

Hardcore Stretching, Part II

Keep in mind this was written a long time ago, so I wouldn’t recommend the thoracic or low back stretches any more. It’s not ideal in the fact that it’s not 100% customized to you, but it’s better than nothing and I’m sure you’ll find some areas that are tight and/or restricted.

Traction

Traction is another tool that’s great, especially if you’re pushing the heavy iron on a day-to-day basis. The video below depicts some of the positions we use for the upper body:

Epsom salt baths

This is one of those tools that I used to implement all the time, but I’ve kind of forgotten about. As well, I’m not sure I even remember the science behind them, so hopefully someone will comment below.

All I know is this: When I was squatting heavy for multiple sets of 5, there were times when the DOMS was ridiculous. A good epsom salt bath a night or two after the workout always seemed to expedite recovery and get me ready for my next training session.

Low-intensity cardio

“Cardio” seems to be getting a bad rap these days. Unfortunately, I think that’s due more to a lack of understanding and/or poor application than anything else.

Low intensity cardio such as walking, rowing, riding a stationary bike, or even pushing a Prowler/dragging a sled are fantastic for flushing metabolic waste from the muscles and providing nutrition to the joints.

The key words here are LOW INTENSITY. Keep it light and remember this is for recovery purposes – nothing more, nothing less.

Dynamic Mobility

If you’re big, stiff, or beat-up, simply going through your warm-up on your off-days is a great way to groove better movement and restore lost function.

This is where products like Magnificent Mobility, Inside-Out, and especially Assess and Correct can be huge. If you haven’t checked out any of these, be sure to do so via my Products page.

Activation series

Just like we get stiff and immobile from sitting around all day, we also reinforce poor posture and sub-optimal recruitment patterns. This can lead to poor structural balance around muscles and joints, which leads to poor movement.

Bottom line? You’re more likely to get injured, and you’re not as strong or powerful as you’d like to be in the gym or on the field.

One of the things I like to have my clients and athletes do is combine this tactic with the above. Go through a quick mobility circuit throughout the day (Bill Hartman calls them “mini-mobility” circuits) and perhaps pair them with some activation exercises.

The possibilities really are limitless, but here are just a few thoughts:

  • Static stretch and/or mobilize the hip flexors, pair with some glute activation drills
  • Static stretch and/or mobilize the pecs, pair with activation/motor control drills for the upper/mid-back (like Prone I’s, T’s and Y’s)

Pool workout

This may be the least accessible option on the list, but pool workouts are kick-ass if you have the resources.

Often when you’re stiff and beat-up after a big session, even low-intensity cardio doesn’t sound fun. The last thing you want to do is go and move around!

The pool is a fantastic option. You move around, and the buoyancy feels fantastic on your joints. Not to mention the fact that there’s a very therapeutic feel to hanging out in the water.

Summary

So there you have it – 12 ways to improve recovery and make every workout more productive.

But those are just my ideas – what have I forgotten?

What have you used with success, either now or in the past?

I look forward to your comments below!

Stay strong

MR

19 Comments

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  1. Hey Mike,

    Is there any literature behind the general sleep recommendation? I’ve been hearing 7-9 or 6-8 hours my entire life, but I’ve always wondered where that number came from. Aren’t some people just wired differently? My grandfather, for example, has slept 4-5 hours his entire life and is still doing well in his 90s.

    Personally, I do well with ~8-9 hours of sleep per night. Just wondering if there can be a lot of variation between individuals.

    Thanks!

    -Mike L.

    • Mike –

      I’m not really sure about the general recommendations, but I like how you’re thinking.

      The only thing I would say is this – while I’m not ready to trash general recommendations, you’re grandfather could be a great example of N=1. That might work great for him, but kill the average person.

      It’s like sit-ups: One guy may be able to do 1000 sit-ups a day and never have back pain or a back issue, but for the “average” person, well, they wouldn’t fare so well.

  2. Great stuff, Mike! As for the epsom salt baths – I don’t know the science either, but they WORK. I take one after strongman event days every Saturday. They definitely minimize DOMS.

  3. Any recommendations for a pool workout routine other then swimming. I have a friend who is recovering from a broken foot and the doctor said she can start putting her bodyweight on it. I’m thinking that a pool workout would be perfect for her but no sure where to start.

    Thanks!

  4. Great article Mike. Low intensity jogging or airdyne rides are one thing we encourage all of or athletes to do on recovery days after their mobility circuits.

    I just go done with one myself and I am always amazed at how much better and awake I feel thereafter.

  5. My most effective tools have been dynamic mobility on off days, foam roll, and active isolated stretching. Oh yeah, contrast showers have been good to me as well. Great post Mike.

  6. Hey Mike,

    I’d like to echo the question on sleep.

    I’ve seen people recommend biphasic sleep as a way to sleep less and yet improve the quality of your sleep.

    Although you touch on napping being a tool you can use if you’re sleep-deprived, you didn’t talk about the biphasic structure itself.

    Do you know anyone who has been on such a sleep pattern and his experiences? Have you tried it out before?

    • Clement –

      I’ve read a bit about biphasic sleep, but not enough to really comment without sounding like an idiot 🙂

      I, personally, haven’t tried it either as it just wouldn’t work within my schedule. When I was doing 5 and 6 ams regularly I would sleep ~ 6 hours at night, then come home and try to get another 1-2 after my morning clients. I’m not sure if that really counts, though!

  7. re. the epsom salts – I think it is to do with the magnesium being an anti-inflammatory. Epsom salt baths are also great for helping you sleep. You need to soak for at least 20 mins.

  8. Epsom salts are filled with magnesium, the magnesium is absorbed through the skin. Calcium is used for muscle contraction and Magnesium is used for muscle relaxation, they work together, but as you work out your lose Magnesium, but not Calcium. Muscle spasms can be a result of Magnesium depletion, so if the body is in a very tense state and relaxation is impossible, add some Magnesium Citrate to your diet and it will quickly help restore balance. It also helps with that sleep 101, but don’t take it at night, Magnesium also works with ATP so it helps with energy production, but also helps with relaxation.

  9. I agree with the massage. My massage therapist is great. She has worked the US Olympic teams and knows what she’s doing. I go to her when I’m hurting and stiff and the next day I’m ready for more. I really wish my wife was one!

  10. Great stuff Mike. Your ebook on myofascial release has been a great tool for me.

    …and I’d like to add one of my favorite recovery strategies to the list: Sauna!

    Saunaing has been a great recovery and relaxation tool for me.

  11. These are some helpful tips. I used to live in an apartment complex in Phoenix, Arizona and they didn’t heat the pool during the winter months. So especially during those colder months (I know, cold is relative in Phoenix) I’d get in the cold pool after my workout and just stay there for about 10 minutes. That was a great recovery therapy – I felt fantastic afterward.

  12. Thanks for the resources Mike.

    You really nailed it with the opening sentence…I remember reading something similar in Lee Parore’s Power Posture many years ago. It is funny that a lot of people still haven’t grasped that basic concept.

    People get so caught up in the lifting part of their programs, they don’t realize that without the recovery the results just won’t come.

    I am starting to specifically write in recovery protocols into my programs, and giving recovery just as much emphasis as all of the other elements of the program.

    Recovery is not just a good idea…it is essential.

    Travis

  13. Hey Mike,
    Good list. I think yoga is a must. I’ve been feeling so much better since I started doing it regularly again.

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