Recovery Strategies: What to do after training has finished.

It is a well known, but well forgotten fact that our bodies don’t improve during exercise/training.  Instead, they improve after exercise/training.  Put simply, during training, our bodies are damaged/broken/busted up.  And in the hours/days following, our bodies repair/improve/upgrade themselves, and make them just that little bit better than before.

Everyone out there is hunting for the newest/bestest way to exercise/train, but very few care, or even think about, their recovery.  So here are some basics about recovery.  These basics are applicable to everyone who exercises.  But it is obviously much more important for those who train hard numerous times a week, compared to those who might go for a gentle walk once a week/fortnight. So what do I mean when I am talking about recovery?  Well, I define it as follows:

“Returning the whole body to a pre-training state”.

Jam Sandwich - High GI carbohydrates and calories.

Jam Sandwich – High GI carbohydrates and calories.

And to keep it simple, I am going to split it into 3 sections:

  • Nutrition.
  • Physical.
  • Mental/emotional.

Nutritional recovery.

When we train hard for a prolonged duration, our bodies use up a lot of resources.  The easiest ones to deal with are fluids, carbohydrates (energy) and proteins (muscle).

  • To replace lost fluids, you want to be drinking (no, that does not mean alcohol!).
  • To replace energy, you want to be consuming high Glycemic Index (click here) carbohydrates, such as sweets, ice cream, chocolate, cakes, sugary drinks etc.  In fact, as long as you are training hard, the half hour after training is the best time to eat all those things we should otherwise be avoiding/limiting!  (If, however, your goal is to lose bodyfat, ignore this bit.  It will not help you!)
  • To repair/preserve muscle, you want to be consuming food containing protein.
Milk - fluids and protein.

Milk – fluids and protein.

And ideally, we want to have a quick “shot” of all these within the first half an hour after training. So how do we do this?  You can get sports recovery drinks that contain all the above in a single bottle.  These tend to be convenient and practical and easy to consume within the initial half hour after training.  Alternatively, you can simply:

  • Drink your bottle of water or glass of milk (fluids and protein).
  • Eat your jam sandwich on white bread and a handful of raisins (high GI carbohydrates).
  • Eat your meat/dairy/egg sandwich on white bread (protein and high GI carbohydrates).

This initial quick “shot” get the recovery process going as soon as possible.  But within a couple of hours after training, we should be aiming to sit down and have a good meal of proper food with an emphasis on plenty of complex carbohydrates and protein.  This gives the body the tools it needs to replace all the resources it used during training, so it will be ready to train hard again next time.

Physical recovery.

When we train, our muscles burn up a lot of energy and dump out a lot of waste products.  These wastes are then literally flushed away by the blood flowing round our body and through the muscles.  But when we train hard, the wastes products can’t be flushed away fast enough, and they hang around in the muscles, causing aches/stiffness/soreness etc. The best ways to aid our physical recovery is to help our body flush away these waste products, and bring in fresh resources.  And probably the best method of all, starts before the training session has even finished…

Active recovery, or a good cool down.

Active Recovery - an easy jog.

Active Recovery – an easy jog.

This is probably the most important method of physical recovery. Depending on the duration and intensity of the training, this can be 5-10 minutes or more of gentle, easy aerobic activity, eg an easy bike ride, gentle jog, nice swim etc.  You can interspersed this with your static stretches to improve your flexibility if you like.  But contrary to popular belief, these stretches have little to do with reducing aches and soreness in the following days. The idea behind active recover, is to simply keep the heart rate ticking over and the muscles gently pumping away, to help flush out more waste products and get fresh resources in quicker. And Active Recovery does not end there.  You can, and should, use it later on in the day, or even on the following few days.  When you are feeling sore and stiff, there is nothing like a gentle, easy (ie not hard/intense/difficult) walk, jog, bike ride, swim etc to mobilise your body and help get rid of your aches and pains.

Passive recovery.

Passive Recovery - relaxing.

Passive Recovery – relaxing.

This is probably what most people think about when they talk about recovering from training…sitting or laying down, not moving and basically chilling out.  And it works.  Because the body is not working hard any more, it has the chance to get on with the business of repairing/improving itself. But many studies have shown time and again that people do not recover as well, or as quickly, compared to Active Recovery.  This is possibly because the blood is not flowing as quickly/well as in a moving body.  So bad stuff is not circulated out, and good stuff is not circulated in as well. So after a hard training session, even though you may want to collapse in a pile…it is usually not the best thing to do if you want to feel better.

Contrast baths.

Contrast bath - the cold bit.

Contrast bath – the cold bit.

This is a simple method to again, help the blood flush out the muscles.  You alternate between 3-4 minutes in a hot bath (37-43 degrees C), and 1 minute in a cold bath (12-15 degrees C), and repeat 3-5 times.  When you are in the hot bath, your blood vessels expand and more blood is shunted into your muscles.  And when you get in the cold bath, these blood vessels contract and all the blood is flushed out of the muscles.  This is the same principle as Active Recovery, except you end up nice and clean at the end. If you don’t have access to 2 baths, do the same thing in your shower (1-2 minutes hot, 10-30 seconds cold).


I have no personal experience with massage, but understand that it can increase blood circulation in the area being massaged.  This can help flush out waste products in a similar way to the previous 2 methods.  But the few studies I have read about massage have shown that they are not as effective as Active Recovery. If you have a deeper knowledge than me, leave a comment below.

Mental/emotional recovery.

Emotional Recovery - a good nights sleep.

Emotional Recovery – a good nights sleep.

This aspect of recovery is very often overlooked by people.  And while it is much more of a consideration for high level athletes, or people who train hard/compete several times a week, it can and does effect your regular exerciser.  Usually when they have been doing the same routine for a long time without change. Constantly putting yourself under pressure by training hard, or competing every week can take a mental toll on anyone.  Or constantly going through the same motions of the same workout, for months on end, can make the most enthusiastic exerciser grimace. So a very effective way of recovering emotionally/mentally, is change.  These changes can include any or all of the following:

  • A change in training intensity.  Alternate between easy/hard training sessions, so you don’t get stuck in a rut.
  • A change in training duration.  Spice things up by sometimes having a longer/shorter session than usual.
  • A change in training type.  Do something completely different.  Make it a totally different activity.  eg, if you are a cyclist, go off and spend a week hang gliding or something.
  • A change in the company you keep.  If you are always training with the same people/team mates, spend some time away from them thinking/talking about something other than your last/next training session.
  • A change in your training environment.  This can simply mean try out a different gym, or train outside instead of inside (or vice versa).

The above are all good tactical (short term) ways of recovering emotionally/mentally.  But we should all try a more strategic (long term) approach.  This involves having as stress free lifestyle outside of training as possible.  This is usually much harder to achieve, but can include the following:

  • Spending quality time with friends/family who you can relax around.  But pick them carefully.  Being in the middle of an arguing family/group of friends is not stress free.
  • Try to avoid clashes between training schedules and school exams/work assessments etc.  Coming from a competitive training session straight to a competitive school/work environment is not stress free.
  • Develop a network of “helpers” who can assist you in your training logistics.  Eg, mechanics to take the stress of equipment from you, or drivers to take the stress of getting to/from training/competition from you.
  • Ensure you get a good nights sleep every night.  Sleep is the bodies natural way of mentally and physically recovering.  You ask any insomniac how important a good nights sleep is.  Don’t skimp on it!

As you can see, the above are much more long term strategies that may or may not be practical for everyone or every situation.  But they do help! But if you remember only one thing from this article, remember this…

“We improve in the time that we are NOT training”.