Rest and recovery are a crucial parts of any exercise program. After putting your body through a significant amount of stress during a grueling workout, you have to give it time to recover, repair, and ultimately, come back stronger.
I, for one, am admittedly bad at properly recovering. I’m known to go on a long run (like, 12 to 20 miles long) and replenish with a plate of eggs—they’re fast to make—followed by going directly to the couch, foregoing any foam rolling, and not thinking twice about if I’m rehydrating properly. After a long workout, the last thing I want to do is think about doing any additional “work” to recover, even though I know it’s probably not in my best interest.
In an effort to break my own bad habits, I decided to reach out to a handful of different athletes to see what their go-to rest and recovery routines are.
To be clear, athletes are known for having, at times, really specific recovery rituals and routines that they swear by. But the truth is that while some of these methods have been researched and shown to potentially make a difference in soothing sore muscles and improving recovery, it’s hard to say what will or will not make a significant difference from person to person. Plus, the positive results people notice from some recovery methods may be simply due to placebo effect (which, if it makes you feel better, is worth something).
The bottom line is that everyone has their own methods that work for them, and it will probably come down to trial and error to figure out what helps you feel the most rested and renewed after a hard workout. Hopefully these different recovery tactics will inspire you to think about yours more seriously, and find what works best for you. They certainly did for me.
1. Yoga inversions and a dog walk
Tassana Landy is a long-time cyclist who recently fell in love with rowing. A hard workout on water is a 20-plus-mile row, which can amount to over four hours of moving. For her, recovery is centered around food and dogs (two of my favorite things). “After a long row, I have a protein bar and drink a lot of water, followed by a hot bath and more food. This week it’s egg and cheese sandwiches every day, but other times it’s avocado, beets, berries, or yogurt. Then I do corpse pose [Savasana] upside-down in a comfy chair. I usually fall asleep for a quick nap, then take my dog on a leisurely walk.”
2. A healthy meal and lots of water
“A hard ride for me is anything over 30 miles that has lots of elevation gain, at least 3,000 feet,” says mountain biker Alfredo Saracho. Surprisingly, he explains that his body doesn’t actually crave grease and salt after climbing the unforgiving ascents in Boulder, Colorado. “I like to eat something healthy, like a salad with tofu or chicken. And then I hydrate. I actually have a 64-ounce growler that I typically only fill with water. I’ll chug one of those after a hard ride.”
3. Functional bodyweight exercises and foam rolling
Aika Yoshida is an adaptive climber. For her, a hard workout includes carrying most of her rock climbing gear, plus food and water, in her pack to the climbing area, using two hiking sticks and a leg brace made out of carbon fiber. Then she climbs six to eight routes, which are about 70 to 80 feet each. After that workout, Yoshida fixes a meal of whole foods—mostly veggies and meat—with plenty of sweet potatoes and butter (even though she otherwise eats a pretty low-carb diet). Yoshida also enjoys mobility workouts like yoga, uses “the stick” and foam roller for soft tissue work, and does specific functional bodyweight movements (like squats and broad jumps) to help her stay loose and keep her pain under control.
4. A green smoothie and hot bath
Amanda Brooks is an avid runner who lives in Denver, Colorado. For her, any run over 12 miles comes with a very specific recovery routine that she’s developed over the years. After she finishes a run, she heads straight to the kitchen. “I fix a green smoothie filled with apple, spinach, broccoli, carrots, protein powder, and water, which I take with me to sip while I soak in a hot Epsom salt bath.” Brooks says this regimen helps relax and loosen her tired muscles. (There isn’t any scientific evidence that Epsom salts enhance muscle recovery, but a warm bath can help soothe muscles and relax you.) After this, she stretches out her hips in Pigeon pose and then foam rolls head to toe.
5. Pasta, beer, a protein shake, and a massage
Amateur Cyclist Jano Bachleda has the opportunity to ride long and often; he tours with a professional cycling team all around the world. A hard ride for him is anything over 70 miles on the road, nearing 10,000 feet in elevation gain. (Ouch.) Luckily for Bachleda, he is able to receive some cool amenities given he tours with other cyclists. “[The crew will] usually make us pasta with tomato sauce and olive oil. Always olive oil. They add it to everything.” After refueling, he’ll sometimes get a massage a few hours later, and then enjoys a protein shake with protein powder and almond milk. Bachleda jokes he’ll also recover with “10 beers.” (Though I get the impression he might be kind of serious.)
6. A protein shake and something sugary
David Tao used to be a competitive weightlifter. Now, he lifts as a hobby and also does CrossFit four to five times a week. For David, recovery is all about eating the right foods to alleviate fatigue: “If I have a tough workout, especially if it’s a lot of heavy strength, I need to eat more protein and carbs. If I don’t, I will notice it. I’ll feel fatigued and weak, and I won’t sleep well.” Right after a workout, Tao refuels with a protein shake and some simple carbs from sugary foods like chocolate milk or juice. If it’s a really heavy day, he’ll enjoy a milkshake or some chocolate. “Carbs make me feel better,” Tao says.
7. A day of complete rest, a warm bath, and Icy Hot
When Sophia Sunwoo had a multi-day backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon ahead of her, she knew she had to train. To prepare, she hiked up to 7 miles a week with a 20-pound backpack to train to carry the weight and get used to the elevation change. For Sunwoo, recovery happened before the workout. “I had weak ankles that would hurt while hiking, and generally have terrible endurance, so I focused on improving these two weaknesses in preparation for the Grand Canyon.” For post-workout recovery, she likes to have a complete rest day, takes warm Epsom salt baths with lavender (she says her muscles “don’t feel as rigid” after), and uses Icy Hot.
8. A bubble bath and a book
Kate Hale is an ultra trail runner who typically hits double-digit mileage on a weekly basis. “Somewhere between 10 to 20 miles takes as long as three to five hours, depending on terrain. Upwards of 4,000 to 5,000 feet is a solid amount of gain for me, still allowing for continuous running over a longer distance.” For Hale’s recovery, she focuses on resting both her body and her mind, so she can recover from the mental toll that long (and often uncomfortable) training runs can have. She does this by unwinding and getting some alone time with a bubble bath and book. “Coming back home, I usually snack on pickles or chips to tide me over before a big meal,” she says. After her bath, it’s “sweatpants, homemade pizza, and lots of sparkling water. Post food coma, I stretch and foam roll for 10 to 20 minutes.”
9. Protein and potassium
Jess Sporte is an adaptive climber in Boulder, Colorado. To help with climbing strength and endurance, she is currently working on cardio endurance workouts, doing a rotation of the SkiErg, row machine, and stationary bike. After cardio, she does climbing-specific workouts such as the system board (a bouldering wall with adjustable holds) or pull-ups. For recovery, Sporte focuses on eating protein and potassium to help rebuild her muscles and replenish any electrolytes she’s lost in her sweat. “I eat foods like sweet potatoes and meat,” she says. “I also do about 10 minutes of static stretching.”
10. Water, stretching, refueling
When Zoe Knight was training for a half-marathon in Yellowstone National park, she found herself face-to-face with weekend long runs. “A hard training run would be an 8-plus-mile run at a 10:45/11:00-mile pace.” After, she makes an effort to immediately rehydrate and stretch. “I usually get back to my apartment and try to drink a bunch of water and stretch before I shower or get something to eat. I usually try to do 10 to 15 minutes of stretching, although that doesn't always happen based on how tired I am or how much time I have available.” Then, she likes to have a protein smoothie ”with berries, bananas, almond milk, and Vega protein powder, and eat whatever leftovers I have.”
11. Sweatpants, tacos, and a margarita
“A tough bike ride is over 10 miles and 1K to 1.5K in elevation gain. I also swim, so anything over 75 minutes is what I would consider hard,” says Meg Costello, an all-around athlete who has recently gotten into mountain biking. For her, recovery is all about food, sweatpants, and a fire pit. “After a long bike ride, I shower and rehydrate, then hopefully cook or grab a satisfying meal. This is almost always tacos with a margarita, wine, or a good gluten-free beer. If life allows, I love nothing more after a full day of activity than just hanging in sweatpants outside by a fire pit and going to bed early.”
12. Pho and a hot shower or bubble bath
Esha Mehta is an adaptive climber who has been scrambling up rocks since 2009. A hard workout for her is cardio on a treadmill and laps afterward in a climbing gym. “Typically, I’d do about 45 minutes to one hour on the treadmill and do about four laps on a climbing route, take a few minutes to rest, and then do another four laps on the same route. Another hard workout would be hiking with my gear. It is a great way to practice footwork and an even better way to learn to trust your feet!” To recover, Mehta loves to eat Pho or chicken and vegetables. Then it’s a hot shower or bubble bath to soothe her sore muscles. “After all of that is said and done, I like to relax with my feet up and watch some Friends!”
13. Self-massage and at least eight hours of sleep
As a former personal trainer and competitive obstacle course athlete, TJ Wynn is a big believer in functional fitness. “I start with 20 minutes of mobility work, then I complete a resistance-exercise circuit. After that, I’ll move to my strength phase where I pick a compound barbell lift and do about five sets of low reps, heavy weight. My final circuit focuses on high heart rate, core, or competition-specific movements. Often I’ll do these circuits wearing a weighted vest.” (I’m tired just reading this.) To recover, Wynn eats a balanced snack or meal immediately after the workout. He tracks his macros with apps to make sure he’s fueling correctly, and is a religious foam roller, too. “I have pretty much all of the self-torture rolling devices—balls, sticks, rollers, and hooks.” Last comes sleep, where he aims for eight to nine hours each night.