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September 19, 2016

Exercise Recovery Time: How to Improve Yours

recovery timeExercise Recovery Time

Your exercise recovery time is an excellent barometer of your fitness level. The better shape you are in the quicker you recover from exercise. In a sense that is what most training is about – conditioning your body to recover quickly from some type of physical exertion or stress while improving your athletic performance.

Did you know that there are different types of exercise recovery times?

For instance, when walking or running one leg is recovering for a brief moment as the other leg propels you forward. This is called immediate recovery. There is also the recovery between sets of weight lifting, between bouts of interval training, between plays in a football game, or during time outs in a basketball game.

We call this short-term recovery. Then there is the recovery time between events, games, and competitions such as between running marathons or between strength training workouts or between soccer matches. This is called training recovery.

Regardless of the situation, the quicker you recover the better will be your performance. Recovery is dependent on the training. Recovering from a session of heavy load of weight lifting is different from recovering from a five kilometer road race.

The goal of recovering from exercise is the same regardless of the training stimulus – to help the body heal, restore physiology to normal or optimal levels, and replenish energy stores. More specifically here is what happens during exercise recovery.

What is Exercise Recovery?

Before we go to much further what do we mean by exercise or training recovery? First, it’s important to recognize that the health and fitness benefits of exercise do not occur during exercise and training. They occur during rest and recovery from the exercise training. Therefore, recovery is every bit as important, if not more important, than the actual exercise or training session.

Training provides the stimulus for physiologic changes to occur (improved muscle strength and endurance and improved aerobic capacity). The improvement and recovery are the actual response to that training stimulus.

So with that as a background recovery can be defined according to Bishop in  the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research “as the ability to meet or exceed performance in a particular activity.” We tend to think of exercise recovery as a purely passive event, but there are steps an individual can take to improve and speed recovery time which we will get into later in this post.

The Body Recovering From Exercise

Have you ever wondered how the body recovers from exercise? Four major events occur as the body recovers from exercise.

  • There is normalization of physiological functions like heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, cardiac output, body temperature, and more.
  • Normal cellular homeostasis is restored including removal of cellular waste products, normalization of cellular pH, and restoration of electrolytes.
  • Energy stores are replenished (muscle glycogen and blood glucose levels).
  • Cellular energy enzymes like phosphofructokinase are replenished.

What Affects Recovery Time?

Several factors affect how fast and how well the body recovers from exercise or training. Here are some of the key factors that affect our ability to recover from exercise.

  • Age
  • Intensity of the workout
  • Quality and duration of sleep
  • Nutritional status
  • Pre-existing illness

The older we are the longer it takes to recover from strenuous workout. Declining hormones are part and parcel of aging of the aging process. Anabolic hormones like testosterone, DHEA, and growth hormone facilitate post workout recovery. The more intense the workout and the greater the training volume the longer it takes the body to recover.

Sleep is really fascinating when you think about it. We spend about a third of our life in sleep and take it for granted and still do not fully understand all that happens during sleep. But, sleep is when the body rejuvenates and heals itself and processes the day’s events. Though we are mentally at rest the body is physiologically active repairing itself during sleep. The better the quality of sleep the faster and more complete one recovers from training.

Our nutritional status affects recovery time. Carbohydrates and fats are needed to replenish energy stores in the blood, muscle, and fatty tissues. Protein is needed to repair muscles that have been stressed during a workout or competition. Micronutrients are needed to facilitate production of enzymes that catalyze cellular and biochemical processes. The post workout meal may be the most important of the day to facilitate all of this.

Pre-existing illness whether it be an acute upper respiratory infection or chronic disease like diabetes hinders exercise recovery placing even more stress and demands on the body that has already been taxed by a workout or competition.

How Much Recovery Time Is Needed?

How much time it takes to recover between training sessions varies from activity to activity. Below are guidelines for recover between sets for lifting weights. If you are trying to develop:

  • muscular endurance then you should rest 60 to 90 seconds between sets.
  • muscle hypertrophy (size like a bodybuilder) then you should rest 1 to 2 minutes between sets.
  • muscle power then you should rest for 3 minutes between sets.

As we move from muscle endurance to hypertrophy to power the load lifted increases necessitating the need for more rest between sets. How much rest is needed between strength training sessions? That can vary from three to seven days on average as there can be much variability in ability to recover from person to person. It is also dependent on training goals, age, and fitness level.  Larger muscle groups require longer recovery periods than smaller muscle groups.

Consider two days of rest between workouts involving the same muscle group.

Improving Exercise Recovery Time

Here are simple steps you can can take to improve your recovery time.


As we already discussed it is vital to get adequate sleep. Most of us need 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep. Growth hormone is largely secreted during sleep and is the repair and rejuvenation hormone.


Increase your protein intake throughout the day especially if engaging in strength training as opposed to training for cardiovascular endurance. This includes some protein intake before bed so that there is a readily available protein source to take advantage of the surge in growth hormone that occurs while we asleep.

Stay Hydrated

It’s important to stay hydrated throughout the day but especially during workouts. Hydration improves blood flow and blood carries oxygen and nutrients needed to respond to a training stimulus. Hydrated muscle are more resilient and less likely to be injured.


Stretch after a workout. It is easier to improve flexibility when muscle are warm. Stretching exercises helps to remove lactic acid from the muscles that has accumulated during workouts. Foam rollers isolate tight and knotted parts of muscles and are great to soften tight muscles. Along these same lines massage will accomplish much the same.


There is some evidence that very small amounts of aspirin before a workout can improve blood flow and enhance post exercise recovery. And, we say small we mean small – as little as 30 mg or one tenth of a full size aspirin tablet.  A baby aspirin contains 81 mg. Aspirin helps remove lactic acid and tissue swelling and inflammation that comes with a workout. Do not take any aspirin without consulting with your physician if you have any bleeding problems or gastrointestinal or kidney issues.


While working out move between sets rather than sit down. Moving keeps the blood flowing and muscles warm.

Ice and Contrast Bathing

Applying ice to sore areas after workout will improve recovery time. Contrast showers after workout will improve circulation. This is done by showering with hot water for 2 minutes then switching to progressively cold water for 2 minutes and repeat four to six times. This causes fluctuating vasodilation (hot water) followed by vasoconstriction (cold water) and improves overall circulation to the body.

More and more professional sport and major college teams are using whole body cryotherapy (WBC) to improve recovery time in their athletes. This is accomplished by sitting in a cryo-sauna for two to four minutes where temperatures reached -240°F bringing skin temperature down to 50° and even lower.

This reduces workout inflammation, aid in pain relief, remove toxins, and accelerate recovery. While whole body cryotherapy users swear by it, the research on it has not been conclusive, but that may be more a problem of research design. For a long time athletes said anabolic steroids worked while the research said they did not. We now know who was right.




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Dr. Joe Jacko

Dr. Joe is board certified in internal medicine and sports medicine with additional training in hormone replacement therapy and regenerative medicine. He has trained or practiced at leading institutions including the Hughston Clinic, Cooper Clinic, Steadman-Hawkins Clinic of the Carolinas, and Cenegenics. He currently practices in Columbus, Ohio at Grandview Primary Care. Read more about Dr. Joe Jacko

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