Workout Tips

The New Rules of Recovery

Maximize your post-workout downtime with these suggested methods.


Man sleeping on white sheets with black eye mask

Marius Bugge

The recovery methods you absolutely should use

1) Hit the bike for a light ride right after doing anything

Any trainer worth his or her salt will tell you that light cardio is the best form of active recovery for pretty much any workout. Whether you’re coming off strength training, a HIIT session, or a soul-crushing bike ride, a bit of easy cardio will help loosen your muscles and limit lactic acid buildup.

“Spinning for 10, 15 minutes on a bike is a really good tool,” Kingsbury says. “Especially after heavy legs sessions, I always try to get my clients to spin with very low resistance.” Whether it’s on a spin bike at the gym or on a real bike outdoors, the trick is just to make sure the resistance is low. This isn’t a workout; it’s a way to get motion into your body and your heart rate up. And if a bike isn’t accessible, walking is a perfectly acceptable alternative. Just make sure to move at a decent speed. You should be able to hold a conversation while walking.

Kingsbury also recommends lower-volume, high-frequency workouts between your normal lifting days. “Things like muscle soreness will be reduced because the volume is reduced, but you’re still getting a great training stimulus.”

2) Splay out on a massage table (if you can afford it)

One of the most effective active-recovery methods for professional athletes is massage. The reasons have never been fully understood, but new research is shedding light on the matter.

“There’s a lot written about massage and how it may work, like by reducing inflammation and swelling,” says Thomas Best, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of orthopedics and sports medicine at University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and one of the leading experts on massage. “What we’ve been doing with our research is trying to prove or disprove that.”  

What have they found?

“Turns out that most of the time, what’s purported to be occurring, is,” Best says. “Our studies support the idea that post-exercise massage reduces inflammation and improves the ability of the muscle to contract and rotate in the joint. We also showed that massage looks to be able to provide some stimulus for muscle regeneration.”

One point of interest that Best stresses is that while massage appears to be effective any time after a workout, its greatest benefits come immediately post-workout. “Our study showed across the board that when massage was done immediately after the exercise, the results were even better,” he says.

The amount of massage performed turns out to be important, too. In Best’s study, he found that a 15-minute massage was just as effective as a 30-minute massage.

3) Hit the perfect balance of protein and carbs exactly one hour after exercising

Just as an engine needs fuel to run, muscles need fuel to grow. But what type of food? And when do you eat it? The simplest answer to the first question is: protein, resistance training increased muscle gains versus consuming it after. Protein consumption is still the key to muscle regeneration, but carbs shouldn’t be ignored.

“Carbohydrates are really useful,” Kingsbury says. “They’re anti-catabolic, and they reduce cortisol [a stress-triggered hormone] levels and things like that. Having carbs as part of your recovery is really important.”

4) Turn off your phone, booze less, and hit the freaking sack

You’ve probably heard that old weightlifter’s maxim: Lift, eat, sleep, repeat. Well, those dudes are on to something.

“Sleep is important for almost all biological functions, and given the increased physical recovery needs of athletes, it’s likely even more important for them,” says Shona Halson, the head of recovery at the Australian Institute of Sport.

According to Halson, sleep deprivation likely has the greatest effect on medium- to high-intensity prolonged activity, particularly the kinds that involve a high cognitive function, like hitting a 90 mph fastball or sinking a three-pointer. Which means that for weightlifting, which requires slightly less brain power, it might be possible to get away  with a day or two of sleep deprivation, but over the long term your body will begin to break down and open you to injury as you lose focus.

“Accidents in the gym from tiredness are really common,” says Kingsbury, who often has to tailor his Hollywood megastars’ workouts to demanding schedules. “Often they’re on very little sleep, and we have to manage that. Some days we won’t train because they haven’t slept enough.”

For the record: You should get at least seven hours of sleep a night and eight or even nine if you’re in the middle of a hardcore training cycle.