Learn how to recover properly, heal your body, and continue training hard.
Take it from me, if there’s anything I know, it’s about workout recovery. I know so much because for years…I didn’t do it. Any of it. No cool downs, warm ups, prep work, rolling, icing, nada. I’ve seen physicians, chiropractors, physical therapists and specialists. I’ve been told to stop running, that I have bone spurs, that I will always have runner’s knee, that my left leg is half as strong as my right, that my shoulders are internally rotated, that my left ankle is locked, that I have super tight pecs, that my knotted calves feel like blocks of wood, and the latest–that I have a SLAP tear in my shoulder.
In order for me to even work out anymore, I have to spend a minimum of 20 minutes warming up specifically for MY body. All because I spent several years “just lifting” instead of paying attention to some of the most important parts of “just lifting.”
My message in this post is to help you with one thing: proper recovery so that you can continue training hard without getting hurt. I am seeing so many people these days (not just in my gym but all over) who are pushing and pushing and pushing and NOT listening to their bodies. This.Must.End.Now. Seriously, take it from me.
There are a TON of things that you can do to keep from getting hurt and/or fix yourself sooner than later if you’re already struggling.
But if you aren’t actually “hurt” — meaning that you don’t need to see some sort of doctor to help you with a major injury/tear/sprain/imbalance/pain/etc., then here are my top 5 suggestions for proper recovery.
After each workout–no matter what kind of workout you do–complete the following:
1. Foam roll and stretch. If you can, have a friend use a barbell to roll over your calves or use one yourself to roll out your quads. If you have a muscle that needs deep tissue massaging, grab a lacrosse ball and get on the floor or the wall. I keep a foam roller, lacrosse ball, the “stick,” a softer ball, a massage ball, bands, and a golf ball in my gym bag/car/home.
2. Ice and ibuprofen—IF NEEDED. Not every workout is going to leave you feeling like you need to ice or down a few milligrams of anti-inflammatories, but if you have chronic issues in your bicep or shoulder or lower back or ANY such place, always ice it post workout to keep from getting sore. If it’s sore before you leave the gym, take some ibuprofen and get the inflammation out ASAP. My chiropractor actually hooked me up with some all natural anti-inflammatory pills that are amazing. You can actually take these every day and they help reduce chronic inflammation and repair soft tissue.
And speaking of inflammation, I’m not sure that this is a proven method of reducing it, but I make a drink out of water, lemon juice, cayenne pepper and ginger. I saw it on Dr. Oz. It’s supposed to reduce inflammation in the muscles. Who knows if it works, but it helps me get down my daily water requirement and what am I to lose? I started drinking it the same time I started taking a new recovery protein and I do feel a lot better. So is it one or both? Like I said, it can’t hurt, right?
3. Soak in an Epsom salt bath and if you really want the benefits of magnesium–a pain reducer–slather some Epsom salt lotion on the muscles that need it most. Even on rest days I soak in Epsom salt. I’m not a chemist–I don’t get all sciency on you–but the magnesium of the salt pulls out the toxins in your muscles and helps you heal faster and reduce soreness. Seriously, soak it out. It’s so freakin’ nice.
4. Hydrate. If you’re foam/bar/stick rolling, and then soaking out those muscles, you’ve GOT to get the left over toxins out of your system. Hydrating not only pushes the toxins out of your system but it helps with muscle repair. Not to mention that it aids everything else in the body from proper digestion to nice skin tone. But you can’t fix your muscles if they aren’t hydrated. You’ll just feel worse. Drink at LEAST half your body weight in ounces. If you weigh 150 lbs, you better be drinking 75 oz. of water a day. Need extra electrolytes? Grab a coconut water. Hate the taste? Put it in the blender with ice, vanilla whey, some fruit, and think about tropical vacations.
5. Rest. For God’s sake, the world won’t stop turning if you take a day to rest. You aren’t going to lose progress on your lifts and in fact, you’ll probably gain strength and hit new PRs. I don’t care if Joe Schmo–that guy you idolize–does two-a-days, YOU aren’t Joe Schmo and if your body needs a break, LISTEN TO IT. And while we’re on rest, don’t forget to SLEEP! Your body can’t repair itself and you won’t lean up either if you aren’t getting enough sleep.
So what happens when you’re beyond the help of the five steps listed above? What if simple soaking, rolling, and ice isn’t cutting the pain anymore?
1. Don’t be afraid of the doctor. For the most part, not enough people actually stop to get things checked out when something feels “off.” To be able to see most Physical Therapists–which I definitely recommend–you’ll need some sort of doctor referral. If you have a good family doctor or someone you trust who will listen to your concerns, start there. (I actually had a doctor tell me once that my knee pain was because I wore high heels to work. I’ve never been back to that guy.)
2. Try several doctors if you can. When I was running a lot (yeah I said that), I saw two different physical therapists and even saw the “the running doctor” out of UVA in Charlottesville. I learned that I not only have a bone spur on my hip (that causes no real issues), but I also learned that I have mild Spina Bifida. WTF?! Through my X-ray, the results showed that my spine didn’t form properly at the very base of the spinal cord. The doc wasn’t concerned because the case was so mild that it hadn’t–nor would it–cause any issues for me. But what a freaky thing to find out! My sister found out a couple years later that she also has the same mild case and apparently Spina Bifida is genetic. And a health-conscious kicker: babies born from obese mothers or mothers with diabetes are more likely to have the disorder. Chalk that up to one more reason to stay fit, huh? But my point–I’d have never even known this had I not taken my health–my athletic performance into my own hands. On the lighter side of my visit, I was also told that I had horrible running form–unless running uphill (go figure?)–and I was even told, “go back to lifting–you’re built for that.” I didn’t have to be told twice!
And after my running phase, I got into CrossFit and I developed pretty bad bicep tendonitis. Luckily, a good friend of mine is a Physical Therapist and I saw him for a few weeks to get the tendonitis taken care of. And don’t get all “CrossFit injures people!” on me. Erik has bicep tendonitis that he is seeing a PT for right now and it is not CrossFit related at all. And tendonitis is NOT something to fu*k with–excuse my language. If you don’t treat it–meaning rest–it will never, ever, ever go away. I was just told a story about a guy–bodybuilder–who ignored, no actually worked through, his bicep tendonitis. Guess what happened? His bicep ripped. Or maybe it was his tendon that snapped. Whatever it was, it put him in emergency surgery. I’ve talked to five people in the past month who either have tendonitis or are on the verge of it. Those who are on the verge want to keep lifting and just “deal with it.” I wish they would listen. A few days of rest will most likely take care of the issue. But no one wants to rest! Full blown tendonitis will require several MONTHS of time off from the gym to heal. You tell me–which option sounds better to you?
Remember above where I also said I have leg strength imbalances, a locked up ankle, and ridiculously knotted calves? Well I just finished up about four weeks in PT for those injuries as well as the torn shoulder and bicep tendonitis. And not all my injuries are CrossFit related either. My ankle–we realized–had been locked up since I sprained it falling off a rock wall YEARS ago.
And my calves have been tight since I was born–not even kidding.
I’ve been dealing with shoulder issues for three years,
and who knows where the leg imbalances came from.
And because I wasn’t properly warming up before working out, I wasn’t making the progress I needed to heal. In fact, I was making everything worse–especially my shoulders.
I just didn’t know what to do!
It seemed to take FOREVER to get my shoulders warm enough for half of what I wanted to do each day and since I never really knew what all I should do (I tend to get overwhelmed by too much info and then can’t make decisions), and then never did anything. And that’s why I absolutely LOVE the physical therapist’s office. Maybe I just love training and I love seeing what I’m good at and what needs work, but I actually felt SAD when I had my last session a couple weeks ago. I learned so much about my body and what I need to do to get better. I even learned what exercises to stay away from so that I don’t tear my shoulder further, and I even learned that I can continue doing what I love without risk for more injury. I developed a warm up and cool down routine, I built up my back strength to help with my shoulder rotation, and the hands on massages coupled with ice and stem work seriously worked out some major knots. I feel like a new person now.
And when reading an article on squats recently, I ran across this quote:
“You don’t need to have an injury to see a PT. If you’re interested in really increasing your strength in a safe way, and especially if you’re having difficulty making progress, find a physical therapist with a good background in movement quality. They’ll look at your body through a different lens and properly assess the best way to move forward.” –Nick English
So get out there and see someone!
I also mentioned seeing a chiropractor. I saw a chiropractor over about a four month period. It never hurts to get evaluated by more than one source! Look at all I’ve learned! My chiropractor–who also is a crossfitter, and so is my physical therapist btw–was able to show me that my overhead pressing wasn’t being performed with optimal technique. Both he and my PT were able to give me so many stretching exercises, and I have not only been able to use them on myself, but I’ve been using them on my athletes at the gym during warm up time. You should have SEEN the faces of my crew the day I had them use a barbell to roll out their quads! Or the faces of relief when I had everyone on the wall stretching their ankles in ways never stretched before. Docs rock, and don’t be scared to pick their brains and get full evaluations done! If I could afford both it and the time, I think I’d make PT and chiropractor visits a weekly part of my schedule.
3. Develop a proper routine for warming up and cooling down–and STICK TO IT. If you need thirty minutes to warm up, get to the gym 30 minutes early. If you need to ice when done lifting, have ice packs ready in a cooler or at home in your freezer. Erik fills little dixie cups with water and freezes them so that he can apply direct ice to his bicep after a heavy lift session. He also keeps a velcro wrap that I bought at CVS in the freezer that he often puts on his back or hamstrings. But most importantly, personalize your warm up, your cool down, and always, always do it.
4. Buy this book. I know not everyone has the time and money to invest into a whole slew of doctor visits. But this is a book written by a Physical Therapist who has been working with athletes for YEARS and it’s FULL of injury prevention techniques, things you can do for warmups, cooldowns, and it’s even got the “how-to’s” of all the basic exercise movements and chapter after chapter on how to move, breathe, lift, correctly.
Improve your athletic performance, extend your athletic career, treat body stiffness and achy joints, and rehabilitate injuries—all without having to seek out a coach, doctor, chiropractor, physical therapist, or masseur. In Becoming a Supple Leopard, Kelly Starrett—founder of mobilitywod.com—shares his revolutionary approach to mobility and maintenance of the human body and teaches you how to become your own performance doctor, allowing you to live a healthy, happier, more fulfilling life.
5. Vary your routine. Ok, I know that sounds uber CrossFit, but if you’re injured, you’ve got to find something else you can do while you heal. Work other parts of the body, try out yoga, mountain biking, trail running, hiking, swimming, anything!
Last, there are some definite supplements that will help with the recovery process.
I already mentioned ice and ibuprofen, but as far as overall health and muscle repair is concerned, there are a couple must have’s that you are probably already doing. If you’re not, this part is for you.
1. You MUST be taking a fish oil supplement. Aside from reducing muscle inflammation and soreness within the body, here’s a list of 20 proven health benefits of fish oil. I actually have switched my fish oil capsules over to krill oil. Krill oil is the most potent and bioavailable source of omega 3s on the planet. It’s superior to fish oil because the omega 3s in krill oil are more readily available and absorbable by your body, whereas fish oil omega 3 fatty acids must pass through your small intestine to be emulsified and digested before any cellular absorption can occur. (That’s why you burp up fish oil.) My favorite brand of krill oil is Progenex’s Omega+ because it’s specifially designed to reduce inflammation, accelerate recovery, and boost athletic performance. It is even supposed to increase energy. Read more about it here.
2. If you are lifting and not supplementing with a good protein powder, you are simply a damn fool. Protein powder is the only source of protein that will get into your muscles FAST–and when you’re tearing up your muscles–you need protein to help recover and build back up, just as fast. I think that many people who don’t use protein simply don’t buy it because there are SO many options and like me, it can get overwhelming and is sometimes easier to just do nothing. I’ve tried somewhere around 10-15 different types of protiens–Muscle Milk, Optimum Gold Standard, Progenex Recovery and More Muscle, Dymatize Iso 100, eggwhite powder proteins, the list is endless. My favorites are Dymatize Iso 100 and Progenex Recovery because of the highest quality of hydrolyzed whey and the least amount of added fillers. And whey protein in itself has a ridiculous amount of antioxidants in each serving. Just one scoop brings in more antioxidants to your body than most servings of fruits and vegetables. Trust me, I’d rather have one scoop of whey than ten different servings of berries and veggies in hopes that I was getting enough free-radical eliminating power. It’s much easier, faster, and way more affordable than tons of fresh, organic produce ten times daily.
And I like Progenex because of its high concentration of fast absorbing bioavailable amino acids. Progenex proteins are absorbable in the body within minutes whereas most others can take up to a couple of hours which can cause you to miss your peak anabolic window. One serving can help restore performance and overcome fatique. Read more about it here.
I’m not trying to push Progenex…trust me. I actually resisted trying it myself because I was for sure it was just a CrossFit-money-making-scheme. Protein is protein, right? I was wrong. I honest-to-God feel like I recover quicker when taking my recovery within 30 minutes of my workout. And I’m not the only one–at least a third of my gym uses it and they go into panick mode when we’re running low.
If protein and fish oil is all you can afford to better yourself, start there. If you can add more, here are some of my must-have favorites:
1. Animo Acids. Simply, they help build muscle. My favorite brand is by USP Labs because the 8:1:1 ratio of the key aminos is one of the best I’ve seen–not to mention that the blue raspberry tastes phenomenal. Aminos are metabolized in the muscles and are integral for protein synthesis and for preserving lean muscle tissue. Scivation Xtend is another brand I’ve used, but it contains a few too many added unecessary ingredients that may actually compromise some of my overall goals. Nonetheless, I know a LOT of people who love it, I used it for years before making the switch, and it tastes GREAT. Want more info? This is a great article that highlights the benefits of BCAAs.
2. Progenex Cocoon. A lot of lifters I know take a nighttime protein supplement or shake. When I first got into lifting I used to take this God-awful tasting casein protein every night before bed. That didn’t last long–I can’t stand stuff that doesn’t taste good. But not only is Cocoon a recovery casein protein, but you heat it up and drink it like hot chocolate!! I even take it on non-lift days because I just love it so much. It also has triptophan to help you get a more restful/deeper night’s sleep. Erik and some other friends of mine take it for this reason–it just helps them sleep!
3. Amazing Grass Supergreens. This supplement is the one that I will be taking for the rest of my life. Along with whey protein powder and fish/krill oil, Amazing Grass Super Greens is one of my top picks. This organic, gluten free, and yes, vegan supplement packs your entire daily servings of vegetables, vitamins, and minerals into one 5 gram scoop. AND it’s CHOCOLATE flavored! I usually mix it with coconut or almond milk, sometimes chococlate protein powder, and I’ve got an amazing mid-day chocolatty pick-me-up that hits every major dietary need. It even contains pro-biotics for a healthy digestive tract! Seriously, I LOVE this product and I have no idea how any person serious about his or her health could refuse to at least try it.
4. Caffeine Pills and/or Coffee. Caffeine pills sound sort of scary to those who aren’t used to them but really, they’re about the best pre-workout boost I’ve had since the FDA took Jack3d off the market. (I guess you could say that my favorite pre-workout supplement is an illegal one. Ooh I feel like a rebel!) I usually take two 200-mg pills about 30 minutes before my workout–which gives me about the same boost as downing a couple cups of coffee. But drinking two cups of coffee before an intense workout isn’t exactly ideal. So the pills are excellent for a quick boost and in my opinon they work faster. Word of advice: if you’re new to caffeine, start with one pill. Some people get jittery off the pills (even if used to coffee) so start out small!
Speaking of coffee, I don’t know why it gets such a bad rap all the time! It’s a great metabolism booster, it curbs your appetite, and it serves as an antioxidant! I usually drink anywhere between 12-18 oz of black coffee each day. If I add anything at all, it’s coconut oil, and vanilla whey. No sugars–real or fake.
What about natural replenishers? FOOD?!
I could get into a whole new topic when it comes to fueling for recovery, in fact, I could build a whole new website. Is that a tease? 😉 But seriously, this post is about what I think is best and if you’re looking to nutrition to combat muscle recovery, check out coconut water, bananas, and sweet potatoes. Coconut water has twice the potassium as a banana and I think I remember reading that it has 15 times the electrolytes as Gatorade. Gatorade has high fructose corn syrup in some of its products whereas coconut water is completely natural with under 15 grams of sugar. Sugar that is natural and not processed. Get where I’m going with this? A lot of people though don’t like the taste of coconut water but to me it’s a no-brainer: blend it up with whey protein and a banana. Extra potassium, carbs to refuel, protein for the muscles, and a tropical, fruity smoothie. That’s a little bit of heaven in my world.
And I love sweet potatoes just simply for the fact that they’re filling, taste amazing with cinnamon and coconut oil, and full of good-for-you vitamins and fiber. My favorite post workout “heatlhy” food is a sweet potato.
Really want to dive deep into the supplement/recovery world? Here’s a short list of other products I’ll proudly stand behind.
1. Glucosamine. Combined with choindroiten, Glucosamine repairs the joints. It’s great for arthritis, aches, pains, stiffnes, etc. The only downfall is that you have to really take it religiously before it even starts to work–it must be in the system–and you can’t forget to take it either. I always forget. Erik takes it every night.
2. Calcium with Vitamin D3. Vitamin D promotes healthy bones, especailly when absorbed with calcium. I remember reading that it also helps women who are trying to lose fat. But more importantly, there is “recent and mounting evidence that links low levels of the vitamin to an increased risk of type 1 diabetes, muscle and bone pain, and, perhaps more serious, cancers of the breast, colon, prostate, ovaries, esophagus, and lymphatic system” (Web MD). My dad was prescribed 5000 mg of Vitamin D three times a day when fighting stage four liver cancer just because of its ability to help stop cancer cells from reproducing. I’m sold.
3. Green Tea Extract. Green tea, and green tea extract helps promote fat loss, stops growing cancer cells, relieves stress, etc. Read more here! I think most people are aware of the green tea benefits because it’s been a health and fitness focus for a few years now. But green tea, for the weirdest reasons that I don’t understand, makes me nauseaus. If I don’t eat when drinking green tea or taking the pills, I get really sick. Anyone want to clue me in on why I can drink a pot of coffee–black–on an empty stomach and be fine, but can’t have 8 ounces of green tea?
4. ZMA. ZMA is a combination of Zinc and MAganesium, both of which are essential diatary minerals. ZMA supplements are natural testosterone boosters, aimed at raising testosterone levels to promote more lean tissue growth. Other benefits include,
- Increase strength
- Prevents growth hormone levels from dropping during sleep
- Increased sexual drive
- Longer and deeper sleeping patterns (experienced in almost all cases)
- Reduces muscle cramps
- The cost (it’s a quite cheap supplement) (realweighttraining.com)
5. Flax Seeds/Flax Oils. From added fiber and magnesium to cancer, diabetes, and heart disease fighting, um, why not? I like to buy whole flax seeds in bulk, grind them in my coffee grinder, and then sprinkle them into almost anything. Smoothies, baked goods, cottage cheese, oatmeal…I love it. In my opinion, it can’t hurt! And some people will get the oil which is supposed to contain higher levels of Omega 3s, and use it over salads and in other cooking. Read more on the benefits here.
6. Chia Seeds. I’m not sure I consider chia seeds a “supplement,” but they do have a lot of health benefits and they help keep big eaters and “dieters” feeling full! These seeds are also full of omega 3s, they help balance blood sugar, and they help curb food cravings. Read more about the top ten benefits of chia here.
So that’s it, folks. I’ve given you just about everything I know on proper recovery and even healthy supplementation. Do you have questions? Ask in the comment section below. Do you have a fave supplement or recovery tool that isn’t listed here? Please, let us know below!
Want to buy any of these products? You can get the majority of them from our Amazon store and our Progenex Affiliation. Strong Figure is dedicated to bringing you the best in fitness and health–delivering what you need. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, contact us so we can research it for you!