How to optimise your muscle recovery from exercise or sport

You know that feeling when you’ve completed a big training session or competition and your body is feeling a little worse for wear, or you’re feeling physically and mentally exhausted after a period of increased training load?

Whether you’re a competitive athlete, occasional runner or gym fanatic, rest and recovery is an essential component of your health and performance. Recovery is an important aspect of an exercise program as it allows our body to respond and adapt to the stress of activity and prepare for the next training day or competition. What we do know is that optimal adaptation requires time, and without sufficient recovery, the body will not be able to adapt to the stress of training and performance will not improve.

Although fatigue is the most common cause of injury, recovery is not just a part of injury prevention, it is also part of peak performance. The main aim of recovery is to keep you training for longer so you can reach that exercise goal or reach peak performance by the time Melbourne Marathon comes around.

The key objectives in the recovery process are;

  • Restoration of function
  • Neuromuscular recovery
  • Tissue repair
  • Resolution of muscle soreness
  • Psychological recovery

So how can you optimise recovery?

There are a number of ways to optimise recovery, but it is important to remember that recovery is multifactorial – there is no one way.

Several methods have been shown to help speed up the recovery process. Some of these include:

  • Lifestyle factors such as sleep and alcohol consumption
  • Nutrition

Lifestyle factors

Sleep is an integral part of recovery due to its restorative effects. Many studies have shown sleep to have direct effects on cognitive function, metabolic control of energy balance and tissue repair. These key physiological processes are critical in training capacity, recovery and performance.

Sleep length, sleep quality and sleep phase are the three key components when assessing the overall outcome of sleep.

The national sleep foundation states that adults between the ages of 18-64 require 7-9 hours of sleep per night. If you are an athlete in training, you may need closer to 10. Daytime naps can count towards the total sleep time but are not recommended for longer than 30 minutes.

The circadian system regulates the feeling of sleepiness and wakefulness throughout the day, which directly affects athletic performance. Going to sleep and waking up at the same time each day is helpful in regulating your circadian rhythm. Travel can also affect sleep, so scheduling sleep while travelling is crucial for athletes that travel to compete.

Excessive sleepiness occurs as a result of non-restorative sleep and may be associated with a sleeping disorder. If you’re having trouble sleeping or you’re finding that you aren’t refreshed upon wakening, be sure to get some advice from your medical professional.

Not only will sleep improve athletic performance, reduce the risk of injury and improve recovery from injury, it also helps to maximise energy, mood and decision making.

Alcohol can have a significant effect on recovery, particularly if its following training or competition. The effect of alcohol on recovery is largely in relation to hindering the body’s capacity to replenish glycogen (our bodies major energy source for activity), which can have a negative impact on performance and risk of injury.

Nutrition for recovery (including hydration)

The Australian dietary guidelines suggest that each of us should consume a variety of nutritious foods from each of the five food groups (vegetables, fruit, grains/cereals, meats/alternatives and dairy/alternatives) every day. It is recommended that foods containing saturated fat, added salt, added sugars and alcohol are limited.

Nutrition for recovery is dependent on the type and duration of exercise you are completing. If you are training multiple times a week or training morning and night, recovery nutrition is particularly important. If you are more of the occasional runner, nutritional goals may still be met from your usual meals and snacks.

The goals of nutrition for recovery are to:

  • Refuel and rehydrate
  • Muscle repair and growth
  • Boost adaptation from training session
  • Support immune function

If you are not fuelling your body post exercise you may experience increased fatigue while training or at work/school, decreased performance at the next training session, suboptimal gains from sessions, increased muscle soreness.

Some of the ways we can combat this is to:

  • ensure we are rehydrating immediately post exercise with water and/or electrolytes. A 65kg person should be drinking 2.1 litres per day (divide body weight by 30), and any fluid lost during exercise should be replenished.
  • consume quality carbohydrates post exercise to replenish muscle fuel stores
  • consume some lean protein to promote muscle repair

Other recovery techniques that have been widely used by athletes include:

Active Recovery

Active recovery is generally referred to as low intensity exercise after a competition or exercise session. Active recovery can be performed in a number of ways including steady state run, walking, cycling, swimming, yoga.

Soft tissue massage

To combat the adverse effects of delayed onset muscle soreness, a short bout foam roller, massage ball or massage gun use post exercise may reduce the likelihood of muscle tenderness and improve joint range of motion. Focus mainly on big muscle groups such as gluteals, quadriceps, hamstrings, calves and thoracic spine for a little extra range of motion.

Hands on treatment is another beneficial way to promote recovery, particularly for those muscles which cannot be released with a roller or a ball/gun, or those stubborn joints that need some extra help to move.

Cold water immersion (CWI), contrast water therapy (CWT)

Contrast water therapy, alternating cold and warm water immersions and cold water therapy have been shown to be an effective recovery method in altering tissue temperature, blood flow, decrease inflammation and improve range of motion, although the exact mechanisms are yet to be established. Cold water therapy and contrast water therapy alike, have significant effects on our body’s nervous system. Our daily stressors keep us in a heightened state of stress, resulting in poor quality sleep and poor healing capacity. CWT and CWI both help to decrease this natural “fight and flight” response.

Infrared sauna

Infrared heat has been shown to penetrate deeply into your muscles, joints and tissues, increasing blood circulation, reduce joint stiffness and assist muscle repair all in a comfortable and relaxing environment.

Recovery pumps

Recovery pumps have been shown to accelerate recovery time by:

  • reduce muscle tenderness and pain sensitivity obtained from pressure using dynamic compression
  • enhance acute range of motion and flexibility with less discomfort
  • increase blood flow to the lower extremity
  • decrease muscle fatigue
  • improve oxygen rich blood to muscles

Recovery strategies should be based on individual training schedules, preferences, facilities/resources and equipment. Importance should be placed on post exercise nutrition, sleep and various combinations of other methods to maximise recovery, reduce fatigue and enhance performance.

Here are Nicola’s Top Tips for recovery!

  1. Do what works for you!
  2. Sleep is gold!
  3. Keep moving – active recovery, hands on treatment, foam roll or even try swimming or yoga.
  4. Listen to what your body is telling you- you may need to just slow down for a short while.


Brukner, P., Khan, K., Clarsen, B., Cook, J., Cools, A., & Crossley, K. et al. (2009). Brukner & Khan’s Clinical Sports Medicine (3rd ed.) McGraw Hill, Australia.

Haun, C., Roberts, M., Romero, M., Osburn, S., Mobley, C., & Anderson, R. et al. (2017). Does external pneumatic compression treatment between bouts of overreaching resistance training sessions exert differential effects on molecular signaling and performance-related variables compared to passive recovery? An exploratory study. PLOS ONE, 12(6), e0180429. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0180429

Kölling, S., Duffield, R., Erlacher, D., Venter, R., & Halson, S. (2019). Sleep-Related Issues for Recovery and Performance in Athletes. International Journal Of Sports Physiology And Performance14(2), 144-148. doi: 10.1123/ijspp.2017-0746

Mero, A., Tornberg, J., Mäntykoski, M., & Puurtinen, R. (2015). Effects of far-infrared sauna bathing on recovery from strength and endurance training sessions in men. Springerplus, 4(1). doi: 10.1186/s40064-015-1093-5

National Sleep Foundation. (2019). Retrieved 15 October 2019, from

Recovery Nutrition – Sports Dietitians Australia (SDA). (2019). Retrieved 15 October 2019, from

Samuels, C., & James, L. (2019). Aspetar Sports Medicine Journal – Sleep as a recovery tool for elite athletes. Retrieved 15 October 2019, from

Sands, W., McNeal, J., Murray, S., & Stone, M. (2015). Dynamic Compression Enhances Pressure-to-Pain Threshold in Elite Athlete Recovery. Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research, 29(5), 1263-1272. doi: 10.1519/jsc.0000000000000412

Sands, W., Murray, M., Murray, S., McNeal, J., Mizuguchi, S., Sato, K., & Stone, M. (2014). Peristaltic Pulse Dynamic Compression of the Lower Extremity Enhances Flexibility. Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research, 28(4), 1058-1064. doi: 10.1519/jsc.0000000000000244

The Australian Dietary Guidelines – Dietitians Association of Australia. (2019). Retrieved 15 October 2019, from

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