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Recover like a Pro

Muscle soreness, sometimes accompanied by a fever, is the reason many newbies give up fitness. At the other extreme are the masochists of the sports world who love the pain. For these people, a workout is not good if it’s not followed by pain. It is possible to exercise without pain and inflammation, but expect to advance in strength and endurance or lose weight at a slow rate. This is much better than no progress at all, but if you are able, push yourself to work harder at the gym, and manage recovery like a pro to experience less pain.

Delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS is the pain you feel the day after a workout. It may last overnight, a day, or a few days. DOMS is caused by lactic acid which builds in the muscles during exercise. Lactic acid build-up causes tiny muscle tears, which the body wants to repair as quickly as possible. The muscles are flooded with white blood cells, fluids and nutrients to repair micro muscle damage. This stimulates the creation of new muscles, which makes you stronger. DOMS is different from actual damage to the body, like torn ligaments, pulled muscles, and pain in the joints. DOMS are micro tears that are naturally healed in a short amount of time. For a serious injury, you will need to consult a doctor. 

The obvious remedy for DOMS is over the counter painkiller and anti-inflammatory, like ibuprofen. Maybe you already have a tube of liniment by the bedside to rub out that muscle ache. These remedies are fine for minor aches, but there are a few strategies many pro athletes and their trainers use to reduce recovery time, while gaining the most benefits from a workout which you can follow yourself.  

Build Strength and Endurance Slowly

This is counter intuitive to the “no pain, no gain” slogan, but the best thing a beginner can do for themselves is to aim for consistency rather than intensity. The worst DOMS and injuries happen to beginners who rush to lose weight or build muscle to sculpt an ideal physique. The best way to avoid the worst injuries, some of which can be permanent, is to learn to be patient and to listen to your body. For instance, if an exercise is killing your knees, don’t push through the pain. Instead, look for a program that is low impact. You will eventually reach your goals with patience and persistence, but not if you are unable to recover properly.

Design and Schedule Workouts for Balance

A proper workout program is strategic with intensity and recoveries. The easiest way to get a good workout program would be to just follow one created by an expert. Don’t depend on gyms pushing to fill their classes, you’ll end up doing the same intense workouts, day in and day out, building more DOMS over your existing DOMS, and never fully recovering.

For instance, a balanced weekly program for intermediate runners would have only one day for an interval speed run, one day for a long, slow run, and a few more days for slow runs under 30 minutes to recover. Even the most advanced athletes have one or two days off. A bodybuilder’s program will start with compound exercises that utilize the largest muscle groups at the beginning of the week. They’ll have rest days in between heavy workouts and leave isolation exercises for smaller muscles like arms and abs towards the end of the week.

Following an exercise program vetted by an expert will save you from so much pain, and help you advance so much faster. A good program will avoid overtraining, with lots of recoveries, depending on your fitness level.

Eat Properly

Proper nutrition is the cornerstone of weight loss, muscle gains, endurance and avoiding pain during recovery. Some people count calories, others count macros, and there are those who take supplements. The entire point to doing all of this is to feed your body food to match your activity. The body needs the right food for exercise and recovery, and if you are missing a key ingredient in your nutrition, you won’t perform well or have the reserves to recover well.

There are different food recommendations for faster recovery, but one thing fitness experts agree on is getting enough protein to sustain muscle growth. The body needs protein to build new muscle and recover from DOMS. If you find yourself unable to recover fully from a hard workout, you may have depleted your protein reserves and need to add more to your diet. Ideally, you want to get your protein from whole foods, rather protein drinks and supplements. The amount of protein depends on your body type and activity.


However, the safest recommendation would have protein consist of one third of your daily calories. It is also important to eat a balanced amount of carbohydrates, fat and fibre to help protein digest and get absorbed into the body. Protein is the most difficult food to digest, it lingers the longest in the digestive tract and keeps you feeling full.

Drink Enough Water

This tip is generic, but often overlooked. The reason you are always exhausted and always hungry may be because you are not drinking enough water. Even a slight 5% dehydration can make you feel fatigued for no reason. Drinking enough water also helps you recover after a workout, since the body needs fluids to carry toxins out of the muscles and heal torn muscle fibre. Drinking water within half an hour after a workout jumpstarts your recovery.  

The recommended amount of water for people who exercise regularly is 2 litres a day. But there are several factors that can change this standard, such as hot weather, your activity, your weight, and some people just retain more water than others. A better indicator for hydration is to monitor your urine. Aim to urinate 3 to 5 times a day, producing clear to light yellow urine.

There are a few other things you can do to help with recovery from DOMS, such as stretching, using a foam roller, getting a deep tissue massage, and even getting into an ice bath. Improving your mobility with stretching after a workout reduces soreness and pain in tight joints. Stretching becomes increasingly important for those who are older and experience poor mobility. Using a foam roller, getting a massage and ice baths sound like cheap gimmicks. Admittedly, they make little difference to the casual active person. But if you’re an extreme athlete, train every day and several hours a day, these remedies can make a huge difference in your comfort.

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