Try recovery sessions between workouts to feel better and fast-track your fitness goals.

Danielle Kosecki
July 21, 2020
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High-intensity interval training still ranks as the it workout, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. If reading this makes your quads quake, take heart. Recovery studios are catching on, with CrossFitters and Spinners as well as elliptical lovers and barre enthusiasts getting on board. “People assumed that it was the workout that yielded the benefit, but it’s really how well you recuperate between sessions that gets results,” says Aaron Drogoszewski, CPT, co-founder of Recover, a NYC-based recovery studio. 

Any exercise that challenges you generates microtears in your muscle fibers—and when they repair themselves, you get stronger. Recovery techniques are intended to help speed you through this process. Check out these four to try and one to skip.

Recovery Techniques to Try

Sauna

Traditional saunas use high heat (around 185°F) to help increase circulation in your body, expediting the delivery of oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to muscles. Infrared saunas emit light that can get deeper into your body than warmed air can, producing the same effects at a slightly more comfortable 140°. And some promising— though preliminary—research suggests that either may have benefits for decreasing post-workout pain or boosting performance at your next workout. Just remember your water bottle; dehydration can make soreness worse.

Massage

French researchers analyzed 99 studies comparing recovery strategies and found that massage reduced muscle soreness and fatigue better than other techniques. How’s it work? One possibility: “Direct pressure activates pain receptors in muscles that send pain signals to the brain—which then sends down morphine-like compounds that decrease that pain,” says exercise physiologist David Behm, Ph.D. Massage may also improve range of motion, reduce tightness and promote blood flow to muscles to speed recovery. Or, DIY with a foam roller or percussive massager, like the Theragun.

Active Recovery

Watch the Tour de France and you’ll notice that riders will finish a leg of the race and immediately get on a stationary bike for a light spin. That’s active recovery. Cooling down with light exercise can help you feel more rested and less sore for your next sweat session, according to a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Active recovery keeps circulation elevated, which speeds up the removal of lactate, a byproduct of exercise that can interfere with muscle repair processes, says Behm. Doing 6 to 10 minutes of low-intensity cycling, rowing or jogging at the tail end of your workout is ideal.

Stretching

Important for fitness? Yes. For recovery? Less so. In a Cochrane review, post-exercise stretching only alleviated soreness by 1 to 4%. (And a pre-workout stretch impacts how you’ll feel during your workout, not after.) But don’t scrap the practice. It may help you feel less tight. “Stretching is important for your functional range of motion,” says Malachy McHugh, Ph.D., director of research at the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma in New York City. “It makes the muscle more compliant and stronger in a stretched position”—all important factors for your workout.

Recovery Technique to Skip

Ice Bath

Athletes have long been plunging their legs into ice water as a way to slow down the immune system’s inflammatory response to exercise. Research does support that it can reduce how sore and tired your muscles feel, but it’s possible the tried-and-true technique works too well. Studies show that muscles can’t repair without some inflammation (it kick-starts the healing process). So when you cut it short, you may be delaying the recovery process and stunting strength gains.