Regeneration after exercise: how to optimise recovery and build muscle
The ultimate guide to making the most of your workouts by focusing on recovery and rest, while at the same time building muscle.
When it comes to exercise, it's important to give your body rest periods. By incorporating time into your training plans and routines to rest and recover, you will get the most out of your movements, enhancing your overall performance and ensuring progress on your fitness journey.
We’ve done our research and put together this ultimate guide on regeneration after exercise. We’ve looked into the importance of recovery and provided tips on how to optimise your recovery periods, with factors including sleep, diet, massage, as well as active rest time.
Read on and follow our top recommendations to support your body after exercise and prevent it from overtraining, overexertion, and consequently injuries.
Why is regeneration so important after exercise?
After a workout, your body requires a period of rest. This is crucial for replenishing energy stores which have been depleted during exercise, repairing damaged muscle tissues that have been broken down, relieving any tightness, and preventing your body from fatigue.
By allowing adequate recovery time, your body will become stronger, your performance will be improved, and it will help with relaxation. If this rest is insufficient or too short, your muscles can become overloaded, preventing their fibres from growing and ultimately hindering muscle growth.
How can you improve recovery?
There are certain steps you can take to facilitate better and faster muscle recovery. Here are some helpful tips:
Rest and recover with a massage
Invest in a personal massager, for example, a massage gun, and use it to reduce muscle aches, improve circulation and promote regeneration in recovery. The Hyperice Hypervolt 2 Pro Percussive Therapy Massager is one of our favourites, designed with five intensity levels to offer powerful relief to muscles and lasting up to three hours once fully charged. For more top options with expert recommendations, check out our guide on the best massage guns.
Alternatively, you could treat yourself to a professional massage. Sports massages are specifically designed for individuals who engage in regular workouts and will help boost muscle performance and relaxation.
Embrace the foam roller
Foam rollers are great for use after and in between workouts to aid muscle building and recovery. Available in various surface textures, they can help roll out tensions across the body, providing a deep massage and loosening muscles. Core Balance’s Foam Roller is suitable for all kinds of stretches to help relieve tightness in the muscles and speed up recovery time. For more of our favourites, head to our guide on the best foam rollers recommended by top physiotherapists.
Quality sleep, and enough of it, is highly important for recovery - it's recommended that adults get six to eight hours of sleep per night. While you sleep, your muscles have the opportunity to repair and regenerate. For more on the importance of sleep, check out our page on sleep, including top tips for better sleep.
Nourish your body with a balanced diet
Ensure you maintain a well-balanced diet to support muscle regeneration. Foods rich in vitamins and minerals can help speed up recovery - try including nutrient-dense foods such as nuts, berries, whole grain products, and fish. Amino acids are also paramount to muscle recovery and can be found in protein-rich sources such as meat, dairy products, nuts and legumes. Supplements can also be used for extra nutrients, such as BCCAs, which contain amino acids to aid muscle growth and performance.
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Saunas, thanks to the heat, can relieve tension and reduce muscle soreness, providing pain relief. They can promote blood circulation, allowing oxygen-rich blood to flow into the muscles. Try out one at a local gym or swimming pool.
One for the brave! If you're up for the challenge, ice baths can help revive your muscles after a demanding workout. Plunge into water and brave the cold to soothe the muscles and reduce any inflammation.
Which supplements aid in regeneration?
A well-balanced diet should ideally provide all the necessary nutrients and vitamins you need for optimal muscle regeneration. However, it’s understandable that daily stress can sometimes disrupt dietary habits, and in such cases, supplements can help fulfil nutritional needs.
Some of the most popular supplements to aid regeneration include:
- Vitamin D, 25ug, 240 tablets, £10.99 from Holland & Barrett: Vitamin D is effective in post-activity muscle recovery, reducing exercise-associated inflammation and alleviating soreness.
- Omega-3 Fish Oils, 1000mg, 360 capsules, £31.99 from Holland & Barrett: Omega-3 has anti-inflammatory properties, helping to reduce any muscle swelling or soreness, and improving strength and mobility post-exercise.
- Vitamin K2, 50ug, 30 capsules, £13.99 from Holland & Barrett: Vitamin K2 has been proven to improve muscle regeneration, regulation and performance.
- Magnesium, 375mg, 60 tablets from Boots: Magnesium has a positive effect on muscle functioning, increasing strength and aiding regeneration.
- Zinc, 15mg 240 Tablets, £11.99 from Holland & Barrett: Zinc has been proven to play a critical part in cell membrane repair, cell proliferation, growth and immune system function.
How long do muscles need to recover after exercise?
The duration of muscle recovery after physical exertion varies from person to person and depends on several factors, including the intensity and duration of the workout, individual fitness levels, age, and overall health. Here are some general guidelines depending on the different types of exercise. Remember to listen to your body - if you are feeling overly fatigued or sore after a workout, it might be a signal that you need more time to recover.
- Light to moderate aerobic exercise (e.g. walking, jogging, cycling): For low-intensity movement, your muscles may only require 24 to 48 hours to recover fully.
- Resistance and HIIT training: When targeting specific muscle groups in training, it’s recommended to allow at least 48 hours of recovery for adequate muscle repair and growth.
- Endurance exercise (e.g. long-distance running and cycling): Longer, more enduring sessions of exercise will require longer rest periods, for example, up to 72 hours.
What does active regeneration mean?
Rather than remaining completely inactive for several days after an intense training session, consider engaging in gentle activities that can help promote active recovery. According to Medical News Today, active regeneration, which refers to engaging in low-intensity activity to promote circulation, flexibility and relaxation, can help prevent long-lasting muscle fatigue and lead to overall performance improvement.
Walking, practising gentle yoga, light stretches and dynamic cardio movements following an enduring training session are excellent options for active regeneration. These will all help to reduce lactic acid buildup in the muscles, increase blood flow to muscle tissue, remove metabolic waste from the muscles and reduce muscle tears and pain. Other activities such as foam rolling and massage can also help with alleviating muscle stiffness and tightness, conducive to a speedy post-workout recovery and muscle-building process.
Want more guidance and expert tips on fitness? Check out our fitness section, with guides including the 5 best ab exercises for a flat stomach, the best hula hooping workout tips, and how to use resistance bands with tips from fitness experts.
Cordelia Aspinall is a Digital Writer for Immediate Media, working across brands including The Recommended, RadioTimes.com, MadeForMums and BBC Gardeners’ World. She has previously worked and written for digital publications including Condé Nast Traveller, The Evening Standard, Cosmopolitan, and several other lifestyle brands.