How Much Recovery Time Do You Actually Need?

man leaning against a floral background resting

Have you ever woken up with jelly legs following an intense lower body training session? If you answered yes then you’ve experienced the aching tender joys of muscle soreness. This sensation means that you’ve broken down muscle fibers in a successful workout. 

For your muscles to then grow larger and stronger, they have to be able to repair themselves. That's what makes rest days and recovery so important.  

What Is Recovery?

Recovery is the process of allowing your body to adapt to the workload it’s taken on through a period of rest. During this time, the body returns to a state of equilibrium necessary for muscle growth, metabolism, and endurance. For this reason, recovery serves as an integral part of every fitness journey, regardless of the end goal. 

Active Recovery vs. Passive Recover

Active recovery is when your rest day consists of light activity or muscle stimulation. The common consensus in the scientific community is to opt for active recovery whenever you can. This type of recovery promotes continued functionality, decreased muscle soreness, toxin release, and increased blood flow. 

Passive recovery is when you allow your body to rest entirely by doing nothing. This type of recovery constitutes a true rest day, where the body has a chance to regulate hormone production and restore itself to a standard state. This type of recovery is often used following the end of a training week, competitive events, illness, or injury. 

Both types of recovery have a place in your fitness journey. Determining which type of recovery to use and when should correlate with the intensity of your training schedule, life outside the gym, age, diet - and above all else - the way you’re feeling. 

Why Is Recovery Important?

Recovery is a necessary part of any fitness journey, regardless of the end goal. Giving your body time to rest and regenerate heightens mood, increases motivation, improves mobility, regulates hormones, restores metabolism, and facilitates better overall wellbeing. 

The Science of Muscle Recovery

Muscles are made up of small fibers. These fibers either adapt to the stresses applied as a result of exercise or experience microtrauma. This damage triggers a chemical response in the body to repair the muscle fibers by creating new proteins. The preparation process begins during muscle recovery when the body is given a chance to rest. If muscle fibers undergo consistent trauma without the ability to regenerate, injury occurs. 

Signs of Overtraining

Stalled Progress

Physically, a broken muscle cannot adapt to external stressors in the proper way. Meaning that you won’t be capable of the same endurance or load that you previously were. 

Mentally, you may notice a lack of drive or ambition in yourself when exercising without recovery periods. Exhaustion and fatigue negatively impact hormone production which can cause a lack of motivation. 

Constant Fatigue

Your body has a set amount of energy reserves derived from nutritional intake. When those stores are consistently depleted, the body enters a state of physical exhaustion. 

Injury

When muscles are constantly broken down without time to adequately repair themselves, injury can occur. The severity of muscular injuries correlates with the amount of external stressors applied consistently during exercise. 

Sleep Issues

Stress from working out increases the production of hormones such as cortisol. At night, cortisol is supposed to naturally decrease to allow the body to rest and relaxation. When overtraining, the adrenal glands constantly kick out this steroid hormone. Because of the excess levels of hormones that remain in your system at night, you may have trouble falling or staying asleep. In turn, your body becomes more stressed and produces large quantities of cortisol resulting in a cyclical disruptive sleep pattern. 

Implementing Recovery Into Your Training

Knowing what recovery is and why it’s important is only half the work. Now, you need to know how to apply this to your existing training routine. Doing so will maximize progress and performance. 

Muscle Recovery Methods and Tips

Consume Adequate Amounts of Protein

Protein plays a vital role in muscular regeneration. The Recommended Dietary Allowance of protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. Remember that the RDA outlines the bare minimum of each macronutrient that you need daily. In reality, Protein should make up 10-35% of your daily caloric intake depending on your health goals and underlying conditions. Ensure that you're meeting these standards to get the most out of recovery. 

Sleep and Hydration

Water plays a critical role in nearly every bodily function, including muscle recovery. It facilitates nutrient transportation, decreases muscle stiffness, and improves circulation among other things. According to the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the recommended daily water intake is 2.7 liters for women and 3.7 liters for men. 

Studies show that sleep is vital to cellular function. This includes the process of protein synthesis which is the foundation of muscular recovery. It’s recommended for adults to sleep between 7 and 9 hours per night. 

Light Activity

Walking and stretching are great low-intensity activities to promote blood circulation. Light exercise during recovery can decrease muscle soreness, improve mood, regulates heart rate, and releases the buildup of lactic acid. 

Hydrotherapy and Cryotherapy

Hydrotherapy is when light exercise is performed in a body of water. This is said to reduce fatigue, regulate heart rate, reduce inflammation, and ease the stress on the joints. 

Cryotherapy is any treatment in which the body is exposed to extremely cold temperatures. This may help reduce inflammation, relieve pain, and progress muscle healing. 

It’s important to note that many of the studies on these subjects are anecdotal, meaning that there is not enough evidence to support a definitive statement of therapeutic properties. However, this doesn’t mean that these treatments are without benefits. 

Massage 

Massage therapy has been scientifically shown to be effective in reducing delayed onset muscle soreness. In addition, targeted massage treatments can ease muscle tension, improve posture, and increase mobility. 

Compression

A meta-analysis on the effects of compression in muscular regeneration showed that it led to faster recovery times. Compression is effective at minimizing soreness by stimulating blood flow in the extremities. 

Timing Your Recovery

There are several types of recovery, each with its own duration and training applications. 

  • Immediate: Rest between reps. 

    • Typically no more than 3-5 seconds.

  • Short-Term: Rest between sets. 

    • For endurance, 30 seconds. 

    • For hypertrophy, 30-90 seconds. 

    • For strength, 60-300 seconds. 

  • Training: Rest between workouts. 

    • 24 hours between vigorous workouts. 

    • 24-72 hours after competitive events.

Sample Training Week

  • Monday: High-Intensity Upper Body

  • Tuesday: Recovery

  • Wednesday: High-Intensity Lower Body

  • Thursday: Recovery

  • Friday: Moderate Full Body Circuit

  • Saturday: Moderate Cardio

  • Sunday: Recovery



 

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