What can we do to improve recovery from training?

Recovery can be defined as the restoration of the body’s physiological and psychological processes to a state before an exercise bout / pre-fatigue state. However, not only do we want to recover our body back to baseline, we also want our body to adapt to increase further than our baseline levels (aka make gainz). As such, us gym rats are always looking for something to improve our recovery to maximise gains. 

I was asked on the IG stories: How to improve recovery? 

I dug into the literature on cold water immersion, foam rolling and massage and found the following – 

Cold water immersion (CWI)

A review by Machado et al. (4) found DOMS was reduced by at best 5% using CWI compared to passive recovery (sitting and doing nothing). A 5% reduction in DOMS is probably not practically meaningful. Gains in strength and muscle size were found to be either the same or worse using CWI.

Malta et al. (5) reviewed 8 papers which found that CWI compared to no CWI reduced 1RM strength, maximum isometric strength and strength endurance gains but had no effect on aerobic (cardio exercise) performance.

Lastly, Broatch et al. showed CWI resulted in strength and muscle gains to be either the same or worse compared to not using CWI.

CWI appears to either maintain or reduce strength and muscle gains and is probably not worth the time and effort. 

Foam rolling

Hendricks et al. (3) found foam rolling can improve flexibility without decreasing performance. However, the gains in flexibility lasted approx. 10-20min then returned to baseline. Foam rolling was also found to reduce DOMS slightly. It was recommended to not foam roll between sets as this was found to decrease performance in subsequent sets. 

An analysis by Wiewelhove et al. (8) showed foam rolling did not improve strength but did provide a small improvement in reducing pain perception. 

The previous two studies looked at foam rolling on short-term changes (eg 24-48hours). A review paper by Pagaduan et al. (6) looked at the chronic effects of foam rolling on flexibility and performance. Their results found that 5/8 studies showed improvements in flexibility. There were no improvements or decreases in performances compared to control groups. No studies measured the long-term outcomes of foam rolling on recovery.
 
Foam rolling may be used to increase flexibility without decreasing performance. It may also be used to reduce the effects of DOMS after exercise for those with intense training schedules or athletes participating in multi-day events. For the regular gym goer/powerlifter, etc., the reduction in DOMS from foam rolling may not be relevant as there is typically a significant break between training sessions. 

Massage

It is sometimes suggested that massage increases blood flow to the muscles, which may help promote recovery and improve healing from injury. However, there is a lack of quality research to suggest that massage does indeed increase blood flow (2). Likewise, it is difficult even to measure localised increases in blood flow within a muscle. Gasibat & Suwehli concluded that there is no clear evidence that massage can improve overall performance, enhance recovery, or stop muscular injury (2). 

Davis et al. (1) looked at the effects of massage following exercise. Massage did not improve muscle fatigue. Massage showed a slight improvement in flexibility, but the increases in ROM appear to be short-lived and are not long-term effects. As such, you’re probably better off foam rolling or static stretching to save time and money. Massage did show to reduce DOMS slightly. There was no evidence showing massage improves performance. The authors concluded to be cautious about claims that massage will benefit performance and recovery as there is little to no evidence that it does. 

Lastly, Poppendieck et al. (7) found massage did not improve strength performance. There were some improvements in endurance performance, but the improvements tend to be short-lived and decrease by 75% after 24 hours from the massage. Any performance enhancements from massage appear to be short-lived (within hours). The authors suggest that if someone is to improve performance post-massage, it is probably due to doing a pre-event massage and/or psychological as opposed to actually speeding up recovery. 

There is a lack of evidence to suggest massage increases blood flow. Massage may improve flexibility and reduce DOMS, but you can likely achieve the same benefits from foam rolling which is much cheaper. There does not seem to be much benefit from massage for improving strength gains.

What I’m getting from the literature is there isn’t much we can ‘add’ to improve recovery. To optimise recovery, the boring but important things are – 

  • Getting enough sleep
  • Managing stress
  • Consuming enough calories and protein and minimise time being in a calorie deficit
  • Training consistently and not having long breaks (e.g. weeks) between sessions
  • Being at a healthy body fat percentage 

Another critical factor is what is your training program like? If you’re doing too much volume or training too close to failure, this can significantly impact recovery.  

If you’re constantly feeling fatigued and under recovered from your training sessions, adding some extrinsic tasks such as CWI or massage isn’t going to fix the issue. Look at the main factors previously mentioned to see where improvements can be made. Feeling consistently under-recovered is typically a sign that there are issues which need fixing (and are likely fixable) unless a medical condition is present. Yes, there are going to be times in your program/training block where fatigue does accumulate over weeks, and you may just need a deload. But if you’re constantly feeling fatigued every week, something needs addressing.

If you feel like you’re doing everything right in the list mentioned, you’re getting enough sleep, food, etc, then there might be an issue with your training program. If you’re constantly fatigued from training and under-recovering, feel free to get in touch for a free consultation so we can assess your current training and nutrition and see where improvements can be made. 

References

  • 1. Davis HL, Alabed S, and Chico TJA. Effect of sports massage on performance and recovery: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine 6: e000614, 2020.
  • 2. Gasibat Q and Suwehli W. Determining the Benefits of Massage Mechanisms: A Review of Literature. Journal of Rehabilitation Sciences 2: 58-67, 2017.
  • 3. Hendricks S, Hill H, Hollander SD, Lombard W, and Parker R. Effects of foam rolling on performance and recovery: A systematic review of the literature to guide practitioners on the use of foam rolling. J Bodyw Mov Ther 24: 151-174, 2020.
  • 4. Machado AF, Ferreira PH, Micheletti JK, de Almeida AC, Lemes Í R, Vanderlei FM, Netto Junior J, and Pastre CM. Can Water Temperature and Immersion Time Influence the Effect of Cold Water Immersion on Muscle Soreness? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med 46: 503-514, 2016.
  • 5. Nilo dos Santos WD, Gentil P, Lima de Araújo Ribeiro A, Vieira CA, and Martins WR. Effects of Variable Resistance Training on Maximal Strength: A Meta-analysis. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 32: e52-e55, 2018.
  • 6. Pagaduan JC, Chang S-Y, and Chang N-J. Chronic Effects of Foam Rolling on Flexibility and Performance: A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 19: 4315, 2022.
  • 7. Poppendieck W, Wegmann M, Ferrauti A, Kellmann M, Pfeiffer M, and Meyer T. Massage and Performance Recovery: A Meta-Analytical Review. Sports Med 46: 183-204, 2016.
  • 8. Wiewelhove T, Döweling A, Schneider C, Hottenrott L, Meyer T, Kellmann M, Pfeiffer M, and Ferrauti A. A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Foam Rolling on Performance and Recovery. Front Physiol 10: 376, 2019.