Anyone who has ever engaged in fitness activities will be familiar with the sensations of sore and aching muscles in the days following a hard session. Making sure you have a quick and efficient recovery can mean the difference between hobbling around in agony for days and being able to get back to training pain-free. From foam rolling to cold exposure, let’s explore the latest scientific recovery research so you can choose how to nurture your body while training hard.
What’s the latest in muscle recovery research?
There’s no doubt that we are in the age of the influencer. Millions of people look to their favorite fitness personalities to offer advice on the best ways to get healthy, choose exercise types, and suggest the best recovery methods.
However, many influencers take on brand partnerships and are paid to promote certain products and recovery methods, so it’s hard to know if they really work. Staying updated on the latest science is the best way to discover tried and tested recovery methods offering the best research-backed outcomes.
1. Foam rollers
Foam rolling is a type of self-massage performed using a cylindrical foam roller. Many advocates of the practice report that it helps alleviate muscle soreness after exercise and increases flexibility and range of motion.
One recent study conducted on 37 physically healthy men demonstrated that the use of foam rolling after exercise reduced pain and improved muscle agility and strength. Furthermore, an analysis that included 21 studies on this topic: 14 of which used pre-rolling as an exercise warm-up routine, while 7 used post-rolling to enhance recovery mechanisms revealed that:
- Pre-rolling resulted in a small improvement in sprint performance and flexibility.
- Post-rolling attenuated exercise-induced decreases in sprint and strength performance. It also reduced muscle pain perception.
Another recent systematic review of 11 studies found that improvements to a range of motion from using foam rollers are effective after 4 weeks of continuous use. They also noted that more research is to find the best ways to use foam rolling for specific muscle groups and range of motion improvement.
2. Massage guns
Massage guns are an increasingly popular way to administer self-massage. Made trendy by influencers, they are battery or mains powered devices that have various different attachments used to target sore areas and get deeper into certain muscle groups.
A 2023 systematic review of the current research found that the use of massage guns could be beneficial for short-term recovery If you choose to use a massage gun, make sure you don’t overuse it as you could be at risk for bruising or muscle strains if you target problem areas too much.
From remote Scandinavian forests to the most hi-tech gyms, saunas are well and truly on the global health and fitness map. Evidence of sauna use dates back thousands of years, and during ancient times in Russia, they were used to banish ‘evil spirits.’ In this modern era, saunas are used liberally for relaxation, community connection, and recovery.
A scientific review of recent sauna and heat therapy research showed that lifelong sauna exposure reduces the risk for cardiovascular disease. The improvements to both vascular function and blood pressure have excellent implications when applied to exercise recovery on a physiological level. Many other studies note that the use of saunas may help to improve muscle soreness after exercise as well as enhance mood and physical performance.
|❗Disclaimer: For people with existing cardiovascular conditions, it's recommended to consult with your healthcare provider before taking hot or cold therapies.
4. Cold exposure
Popularized by a Dutch extreme athlete, Wim Hof, cold exposure has continued to pique the interest of fitness fans and scientists alike. The premise is that you expose yourself to cold, and even freezing, temperatures for short bursts of time while controlling your breath. Forms of cold exposure include:
- Ice baths
- Cold plunges
- Cold showers
- Snow bathing
Recent research highly favors cold immersion as one of the most effective recovery modalities. One meta-analysis conducted in 2023 revealed that cold water immersion was superior to other recovery methods for muscle strength and power recovery after strenuous exercise.
A bad night’s sleep can often lead to a day that is plagued by tiredness, irritability, and poor judgment. Sleep is one of those things that we just cannot do without, and it’s even more important when it comes to exercise recovery.
When we exercise, we use significantly more energy than in simple day-to-day activities, which means that we may need more time to rest and restore our body during the night. Recent research reviews support this, suggesting that sleep is essential for various physiological processes required for muscle recovery.
6. Relaxation techniques
Meditation, mindfulness, and other relaxation techniques have been reported by practitioners to help stay calm and improve our moods. And, according to some recent studies, using relaxation as a method for exercise recovery might also help to speed up the process.
One review of relaxation techniques, such as breathwork and envisioning, showed that we can fine-tune the ability to self-regulate our physical and psychological states. Being able to bring the body out of a state of stress and into a calm and regulated state may help improve recovery time while also elevating our moods.
The best science-backed recovery method
For those of us who are physically active and want to stay on top of our recovery process, there are two research-backed methods that are proven to be most beneficial: cold and heat therapy. Many local gyms will have saunas and cold showers so you can partake in an effective recovery session directly after a workout.
If you don’t have access to a facility that has everything under one roof, then have a look for local saunas and try having a couple of sessions a week to measure your progress. You can do cold water immersion therapy from home, either by braving a cold shower or investing in a cold plunge, available to purchase from many online retailers.
Many recovery methods are promoted by fitness influencers who are paid to endorse particular brands and techniques.
It’s always best to follow the scientific research in the latest and most effective recovery methods.
Recent research shows that a combination of hot and cold therapy has been shown to be the most effective exercise recovery method.
- Frontiers in Sports and Active Living. Post exercise recovery: cooling and heating, a periodized approach.
- Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies. Effect of foam rolling recovery on pain and physical capacity after resitance exercises: a randomized crossover trial.
- Sports Medicine. Foam rolling training effects on range of motion: a systematic review and meta-analysis.
- The Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology. The effect of massage guns on performance and recovery: a systematic review.
- Experimental Physiology. The effect of heat therapy on blood pressure and peripheral vascular function: a systematic review and meta-analysis.
- Sports Medicine. Effects of cold water immersion compared with other recovery modalities on athletic performance following acute strenuous exercise in physically active participants: a systematic review.
- Physical Therapy in Sport. Heat and cold therapy reduce pain in patients with delayed onset muscle soreness: a systematic review and meta-analysis of 32 randomized controlled trials.
- Sports Medicine. Effects of acute sleep loss on physical performance: a systematic and meta-analytical review.
- Science and Sports. Science of sleep and sports performance – a scoping review.