With the demands of busy modern life, it can sometimes feel like fitting exercise and muscle recovery into your everyday routine is impossible. Our muscles decline with age, running the risk of conditions like sarcopenia and frailty. Prioritising exercise and recovery is therefore a long-term investment into your health, longevity, and enjoyment of life. There are several strategies you can use to take control of muscle recovery.
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What is muscle recovery?
Exercise affects our body’s natural equilibrium, known as homeostasis, in several ways. We can feel some of these changes immediately, for example our breathing and heart rate accelerate during exercise in order to provide the body with enough oxygen. Exercise also requires a lot of energy, which the body provides through adenosine triphosphate (ATP), used to power our muscles. ATP is produced by the mitochondria, known from biology class as the powerhouse of the cell. If there’s not enough oxygen available, ATP is instead produced using a different process, the by-product of which is lactic acid.
Changes also happen in our muscles. During exercise, especially strength-based training, muscle fibres are forced to contract and stretch repeatedly. This causes tiny tears in the muscle fabric. While this process is necessary to building muscle, these tears, as well as lactic acid, can cause muscle soreness after exercise. While this may be uncomfortable in the short term, the stress exercise exposes your muscles to actually leads to larger gains in the long term.
This is where muscle recovery comes in. As exercise stops and we enter the cool down period, your body will return to normal homeostasis. This gives your body a chance to repair muscle damage and clear any residual lactic acid from exercise. So-called satellite cells swarm to the site of the microscopic muscle tears. Here, they form a new muscle protein strand to help prepare the muscle for future exercise. The rest period is therefore as important as exercise itself, as this is when muscles are rebuilt bigger and stronger.
We all know the distinct feeling of muscle fatigue the day after a workout. Taking a rest day to recover your muscles is integral to building and strengthening our muscles. But what if there was a way to accelerate this process?
How long does it take for your muscles to recover?
How long it takes for your muscles to recover depends on the intensity, type and duration of exercise as well as your individual fitness level. In general though, muscle repair after particularly intense exercise can take between 24 and 48 hours. There is much debate around which type of muscle recovery is more effective, active or passive. Active recovery involves doing low-impact exercise to recover from a more intense work out, for example by walking or cycling. While passive recovery requires no movement at all. Active recovery appears to clear lactic acid from your muscles more quickly than passive recovery as it keeps your heart rate up .
How to improve muscle recovery
While the pain we go through during exercise makes us stronger, many people seek to speed up the recovery process. There are several different methods to do this, but how effective are they?
Foods that improve muscle recovery
Eating a healthy, balanced diet is always beneficial to health and longevity. In fact, nutrition is thought to be the easiest and more effective lifestyle change we can make to lose weight, protect health and improve longevity. Building muscle is as much to do with diet as it is with exercise, so can the benefits of a balanced diet be extended to improving muscle recovery?
- Our muscles are made of protein, so it makes sense that eating more protein before and after workouts would boost muscle recovery. Indeed, one study showed that eating 20-40 grams of high-quality protein pre- and post-workout can boost muscle protein synthesis after exercise . In practice, this could look like one serving of grilled chicken, Greek yogurt or a tin of tuna.
- Carbohydrates are stored as glycogen and used as fuel for ATP during exercise. Therefore, eating more carbohydrates before exercise will give us more energy, see the pre-marathon tradition of eating carb-high meals like pasta. This can also be done post-workout to restore the glycogen used up during exercise.
- Eating a balanced diet. As well as boosting health and longevity, getting enough nutrients through a balanced diet full of colourful fruit and vegetables can help your muscles’ ability to recover.
Read more about the ‘longevity diet’ for improving health and lifespan HERE.
Drinks for faster muscle recovery
What we drink can also have an impact on how well our muscles recover after exercise. We need water to survive, especially during exercise when we lose water through sweat and respiration in a hot and sweaty gym hall. Replenishing water during and after exercise is integral to making you as well as your muscles feel better, as dehydration can impair muscle recovery.
Less conventional libations include tart cherry juice, which consumed before and after exercise can reduce inflammation, muscle damage and soreness after exercise . This makes a natural alternative to so-called sports drinks laced with glucose designed to replenish energy after exercise. However, considering their high concentrations of sugar, additives, and citric acid, they are more suited to marathon runners than casual gym-goers.
The best supplements for muscle recovery
Many people are supplementing their diet with protein powders to top up their protein intake and build and improve muscles. A variety of options are available on the market using protein from plants, eggs or milk. However, some protein powders contain other ingredients like added sugars, flavourings and thickeners. While considerably safer than using anabolic steroids, it may be healthier to get your protein from high-quality sources in your diet than in powdered form.
A more effective way of improving muscle strength and recovery is by using urolithin A, the powerful postbiotic that is produced in the gut after eating certain foods like pomegranate. A simpler way to get enough urolithin A is by taking Timeline supplements that contain 500mg of Mitopure’s purified urolithin A. Our muscles are powered by the ATP produced by mitochondria, which are most concentrated in muscle cells. With age, our mitochondria can wear out, hastening muscle fatigue. Luckily, urolithin A can trigger mitophagy, the process by which old and dysfunctional mitochondria and cleared. It has also been shown to maximise muscle endurance in human clinical trials. Regularly taking Mitopure supplements could therefore help maintain mitochondria and muscle health as we age.
Healthy habits to help muscle recovery
Our general health is determined by a complex interplay of our genetics, lifestyle choices, and a combination of both known as epigenetics. Therefore, there are other lifestyle habits that can impact muscle recovery along with what we consume.
- Tailor your exercise routine. The type, duration and intensity of your chosen exercise greatly impacts muscle recovery. For example, a marathon runner stresses very different muscles than a weightlifter does. It is therefore important to tailor your recovery to your workout. Endurance training like cycling or running works out multiple groups of muscles and has holistic health benefits. It therefore also requires full-body recovery. Whereas strength training, working out specific muscle groups through repetitive reps using weights, resistance bands or your own bodyweight requires more localised recovery. Some exercise, like swimming, combines these two types of exercise and require their own type of recovery.
Varying your workouts so you’re exercising different muscle groups can help hasten muscle recovery. Follow a day of running with weightlifting so you’re resting one part of your body while training another. As you build your fitness, your recovery time should also improve. It is a good idea to scale up your training, to push your fitness as well as your recovery capacity.
- Take rest days. As well as alternating muscle groups, it is important to leave gaps for rest days in your weekly exercise schedule. While it may be tempting to do as much exercise as possible to maximise your gains, you’re actually doing your muscles a disservice – as well as increasing the chance of muscle strain and injuries. As well as active and passive recovery periods during exercise, it is important to leave days blank for full recovery. If you’re not allowing your muscles the chance to recover fully, you could accumulate minute muscle tears that could lead to muscle strains. As well as being painful, these can also impair your athletic performance.
- Get more sleep. There’s nothing like a good night’s sleep following exercise. Working out tires out your body, so you may need extra sleep to compensate. Sleep allows your heart to recover, promotes cellular growth and muscle repair. Research into sleep agrees that seven hours a night is the optimal amount of sleep for better health and longevity. If you’ve been working out, your body may require even more. However, it is important not to indulge in too many long lies, as chronic oversleeping as well as under-sleeping has been implicated in the development of chronic diseases. Sleep should therefore be as big a priority in your fitness routine as nutrition and exercise itself.
Things to avoid for better muscle recovery
We all need to occasionally indulge in things branded as ‘bad’ for us to fully enjoy our lives. However, we all know that vices such as smoking, unhealthy foods and excessive alcohol consumption are bad to health and longevity and should be kept to a minimum. They can also impair exercise performance and muscle recovery.
A glass of red wine may be a staple of longevity-boosting Mediterranean diets, excessive alcohol consumption is unfortunately perilous to health and lifespan. Many team sports promote the culture of hard drinking after training sessions. One study investigated the effect of this on athletes’ muscle recovery and found that alcohol consumption impairs protein synthesis after exercise . Try to keep alcohol consumption to a minimum for holistic health benefits, and especially after training to avoid impairing muscle recovery.
The negative health impacts of smoking tobacco have been in public knowledge since the 1960s. As well as severely impacting your fitness and lung capacity, smoking can also affect your musculoskeletal system, hindering muscle recovery . Studies have linked smoking with increased risk of muscle injury, joint disease and broken bones. It therefore should be avoided to boost your general fitness as well as your muscle recovery.