I vividly remember the days when I shared an office (for three years) with a sports medicine physician. All day long, marathoners, triathletes, cyclists, and weekend warriors would come through the medical clinic door complaining of chronic aches, pains, and injuries that they'd been fighting for weeks, months, and even years.
Little did they know that with just a few simple recovery tips, they could have easily saved themselves expensive doctor's office visits, surgeries, missed workouts, canceled races, pain, and frustration.
So I would be remiss not to equip you with everything I've discovered through years of research and trial and error that work like gangbusters to keep your body in pristine shape—especially if you're laying down some serious damage by going above and beyond the status of “weekend warrior.”
In today's article, you'll discover 23 of my top techniques, gear, and nutrition advice for rapid recovery from your workouts. Sure, I've mentioned some of these gear, food, supplementation, and underground recovery techniques before, but never aggregated all of them into one mighty blog post that will have you bouncing back from workouts, races, events, and injuries faster than ever.
Techniques For Rapid Recovery
I'll admit that it may seem inconvenient, odd, and a bit excessive to include acupuncture as a convenient or do-able recovery method. As one of the oldest healing practices in the world though, acupuncture has been proven to help in recovery from muscular fatigue, recovery from overtraining, management of muscle pain, and many of the common issues faced by physically active or overtrained people.
For over 5,000 years, Eastern medicine practitioners have used acupuncture to correct the body’s flow of boundless energy (often referred to as Ki, Chi or Qi) to improve health and eliminate disease. While Western medicine practitioners may not agree with traditional explanations of acupuncture’s mechanism of action, they finally recognize that acupuncture does indeed work for not only chronic pain, but also conditions like depression, allergies, and headaches.
As a coach and athlete, I've found the occasional acupuncture session to be an incredibly useful method for everything from nagging aches and pains to IT band friction syndrome to nagging hip pain to full-blown HPA Axis Dysregulation.
A relatively painless and simple procedure, acupuncture involves inserting hair-thin needles into certain points along your meridian, the path through which your boundless energy runs. Needling these points stimulates the body’s natural healing mechanisms by (according to Western medicine practitioners) stimulating blood flow, the release of endorphins, and other physiological processes that temporarily relieve pain.
For more on acupuncture, and an interview with the guy I personally use for my acupuncture, you should listen to the podcast episode “Exactly What To Expect If You Try Acupuncture.”
And there's no need to duck down back alleys to find some fringe Chinese medical clinic—in the USA, you'll find that the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) is chock full of licensed acupuncturists operating out of pristine medical clinics.
2. Stem Cell Therapy
Yes, I'm going all-in with the fringe stuff early in this article. Stem cell therapy is another potent recovery method that has flown under the radar for some time now but is finally becoming a bit more mainstream in recent years. This is due to stem cells' ability to transform into neurons, muscle cells, and several different types of connective tissue, allowing for rapid joint regeneration and even the reversal of frailty related to aging.
Clinics such as the Institute of Regenerative Medicine and Orthopedics in Tampa, Florida, inject non-embryonic stem cells into injury sites to stimulate rapid healing or to permanently fix chronic aches and pains. Companies like the U.S. Stem Cell Clinic in Weston, Florida (where I had my fat sucked out to concentrate and store my adipose-derived stem cells), Forever Labs in Berkeley, California (where I had my bone marrow removed to save for future longevity-enhancing injections) and Docere Clinics in Park City, Utah (where I underwent my full-body stem-cell makeover) are on the cutting edge of developing injectable stem-cell treatments to do everything from regrowing spinal cord cells to eradicating cartilage pain.
If stem cells offend your ethical values about how embryos should be used, then there's no need to fret. Contrary to popular belief, stem cells can be harvested from sources other than human embryos, such as body fat and bone marrow. Clinics such as the Institute of Regenerative Medicine and Orthopedics actually offer stem cells from these alternate regions for injections into injuries that need to be healed fast or chronic aches and pains that need a permanent fix. But at this point, an embryonic stem cell injection therapy session is going to require a jaunt to Europe or Asia, where those types of stem cell injections are more common.
Even one series of stem cell injections into a joint, throughout the body, or delivered intravenously can have a profound impact on an entire lifetime of recovery, and if you are an active individual with a decent recovery budget, I highly recommend exploring this new frontier of bouncing back faster.
The application of cold to an injured area is hardly a new concept. The Greek physician Hippocrates wrote about the use of cold therapy to control pain and swelling in the 4th century B.C., and the Roman physician Galen described the use of cold compresses for analgesia following soft tissue injuries in the 1st century A.D. During the Middle Ages, ice was used for pre-surgical anesthesia, and ice therapy has been extensively used in the athletic training and physical therapy for the treatment of sports injuries for many years.
The benefits of cryotherapy include enhanced immune system, increased cell longevity, decreased level of inflammatory molecules such interleukin-6, and of course, an incredible tolerance to be able to run outside and do snow angels in your underwear.
Cryotherapy stimulates the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system by inducing a hormetic stress response. A hormetic stressor is any light or mild stressor (like exercise) that stimulates a beneficial adaptive response, so you come out stronger than you were before. When you experience cold, the sympathetic nervous system (your “fight-or-flight” nervous system) kicks into gear to preserve your core body temperature. Blood vessels in your extremities constrict, restricting blood flow so that the temperature of your internal organs doesn’t drop. As a result, your heart rate increases to pump blood where it needs to go, and your lungs breathe powerfully and deeply. The result is a boost to your sympathetically controlled cardiovascular system and an overall improved recovery process.
I personally use some form of cryotherapy nearly every day, particularly in the form of a morning and an evening cold shower, a daily dip in the cold pool behind my house, and a long history of many swims in frigid lakes, rivers and seas, which I consider to be a muscular and nervous system “reboot.”
One way to maximize the effects of cold exposure and heat exposure is to use hot-cold contrast therapy. Hot-cold contrast therapy is alternating exposure to hot and cold water or temperatures. Once a week, regardless of my training load or recovery status, I personally do a hot-cold contrast session in which I swim, tread or move in my Aquatic Fitness pool, which I keep at 55~60˚F, for 8 minutes, soak in my hot tub, which I keep at 104˚F, for 2 minutes, then repeat this cycle for a total of 30 minutes.
You can simulate this session by taking a 5-minute shower and alternating between 20 seconds of cold water and 10 seconds of hot water 10 times through, sitting in a sauna for 5 to 10 minutes then jumping into a cold shower for 2 minutes and repeating for 20 to 30 minutes, or taking a 20-minute hot magnesium salt bath followed by a 5-minute ice-cold shower. The simplest solution? Just take a quick 1- to 2-minute cold shower at the beginning and end of each day.
When it comes to recovery and cryotherapy, this is just the ‘tip of the iceberg.' If you want to learn more, I've got plenty for you to read below—including an article that teaches you, step by step, how to make your own cold tub setup at home:
- How You Can Use Cold Thermogenesis To Perform Like Lance Armstrong And Michael Phelps.
- Tips For Burning More Fat With Cold Thermogenesis (And Why Icing Really Does Work).
- The Unfrozen Caveman Runner: How To Get A “Free” Endurance Workout & Blast Sprints On A Norepinephrine High From Cold Water Exposure.
- Cool New Research On Cold Thermogenesis.
- How To Burn More Fat With Cold (And Bump Up Your Metabolism by 301%).
- The Ultimate Guide To DIY Cold Thermogenesis: The Cold Tub Secrets Of Some Of The Top Biohackers On The Planet & How To Make Your Own Cold Tub Setup.
Prolotherapy fits into the same category as stem cell therapy—something to consider when you need to “take out the big guns” on a joint or muscle injury that just won't go away.
A particularly powerful form of prolotherapy is the injection of platelet-rich plasma (PRP). Platelets, which are small cell fragments, are involved in hemostasis (the halting of blood flow), antimicrobial defense, cytokine secretion, and tissue-growth-factor production. Using PRP to treat ligament, tendon and connective-tissue damage is like taking the little particles in your body that are responsible for repairing damaged tissue, concentrating them, then injecting them into the injured area to accelerate tissue repair and regeneration.
When an inflammatory reaction begins, cytokines mediate a process called chemomodulation. Chemomodulation leads to the growth and strengthening of new connective tissue, increased joint stability and a reduction in pain and dysfunction. Since cartilage and ligaments have particularly poor circulation compared to other tissues like skin and muscle, prolotherapy injected into these areas results in targeted repair at the exact site of injury in an area where recovery would normally take much longer to occur.
Pain clinics and anti-aging clinics also often feature prolotherapy and PRP injections, in many cases combined with more advanced treatments like stem cell and exosome injections. If you have a chronically inflamed joint with built-up scar tissue, prolotherapy can be a good option to re-initiate inflammation and heal the injury for good.
Prolotherapy clinics such as Dr. David Minkoff's Lifeworks Wellness Center are becoming more common. You can check out The American Osteopathic Association of Prolotherapy Integrative Pain Management to find a licensed practitioner near you.
It may not be the sexiest of methods, but the simple act of deloading is an extremely underrated recovery “technique.” A deload week is just a fancy word for an easy recovery week, and in the training plans that I write, I typically add a deload week every 4-8 weeks, depending on the volume of an athlete, the age of an individual (the older you are, the more deload weeks your hormones, joints, and ligaments need) and the training time of year. (Typically, I use fewer deloads during a race season, since an easy taper week leading up to a race is technically a deload.)
As you've already learned, exercise is just like any injury, wound, illness, or other stressor, and it's during the recovery period that you grow stronger. So when used properly, a deload week doesn't just leave you with the same fitness you had when you left off training, but can actually improve your fitness to levels greater than prior to the deload.
But a deload week doesn't mean you cease all activity and take things into bon-bon eating, couch-lounging mode. In most cases, I recommend continued use of mobility work, yoga, easy “injury prevention” style workouts, skills and drills to work on efficiency and economy, or learning new exercises and movements—along with a general reduction in weights, sets, and reps, and a few aerobic, fasted workouts.
Since it takes up to three weeks of inactivity for muscular atrophy, you don't need to worry about significant strength loss during a deload week, and one study actually found that deloading for up to three weeks doesn't cause loss of even an ounce of strength or power.
Gear For Rapid Recovery
6. Vibration Therapy
One of the underground training techniques you already discovered in the chapter on building endurance is Whole Body Vibration (WBV) therapy. A vibration platform has been shown to not only increase strength, power, and speed—but also result in a hormonal, immune system and anti-inflammatory response that can speed recovery.
Since there is an element of friction when you are standing on a vibration platform, you need to be careful in the early stages of healing for any ankle, knee, or hip injuries that may be aggravated by the “rubbing” of ligaments on bone from friction (such as IT band friction syndrome).
I actually experimented with vibration for recovery within hours after I had sustained a knee injury from stepping the wrong way during a trail run, and unfortunately found that the vibration left me reeling in pain for several hours, which probably slowed recovery.
But in the later stages of healing, and for any injured body parts not aggravated by vibration (e.g. if it hurts, don't do it), a simple WBV platform can be a handy investment and training/recovery tool to keep in your home gym, garage or office. You can simply stand on one for a few minutes in the morning or evening, or implement it into your actual workout routine (such as balance, yoga, lifting, etc.).
The best entry-level device, in my opinion, is the Myobuddy, which can be used like a vibrating car buffer for your entire body, including your gut and your head. A close second would be the Hypervolt, which is more powerful, has five interchangeable heads in a variety of shapes for different parts of your anatomy and is relatively quiet compared to other devices—meaning if you have it in your travel bag, you can massage your IT bands while waiting at an airport gate and save yourself some serious cash on getting a formal massage at the airport.
Although I used to find compression gear a bit annoying and time-consuming to put on for a workout or race, I do wear compression socks or tights while at my standing workstation, I sleep in compression gear after particularly tough workout days, and I wear compression gear on airplanes and during long car rides,
Also, nearly every day I take an afternoon nap while wearing a special style of graduated compression boots called NormaTec boots, which combine the following three massage techniques to speed the body’s normal recovery process.
Pulsing: Instead of using static compression (squeezing) to transport fluid out of the limbs, pulsing uses dynamic compression, which mimics the muscle pump of the legs and arms, enhancing the movement of fluid and metabolic waste out of the limbs after a workout.
Gradients: Your veins and lymphatic vessels have one-way valves that prevent the backflow of fluid. Via a similar action, a gradient holds pressures to keep your body’s fluids from being forced down toward your feet by the pulsing action in the proximal zones of the compression boots. This compression gradient can deliver maximum pressure throughout the entire limb, and the effectiveness of the pulsing action is not diminished near the top of the limb.
Distal release: Because sustained static pressure can be detrimental to the body’s normal circulatory flow, sequential pulsing releases the hold pressures once they are no longer needed to prevent backflow. By releasing the hold pressure in each zone as soon as possible, each portion of the limb gains maximum rest time without a significant pause between compression cycles.
In addition to these space-age recovery boots (which also include attachments for the arms and torso), I have also experimented with compression shirts made by AlignMed to enhance posture and upper-body blood flow and recovery.
Get yourself a decent set of compression socks or tights and wear them during a day of work or for several hours after a tough workout. Look for graduated compression gear, made by companies such as 2XU and Sub Sports. Compression gear also pairs quite well with cold soaks and cold thermogenesis, as it reduces some of the lymphatic fluid backflow that can occur during long immersion in cold water (this basically upgrades cold thermogenesis to be more effective).
Although there is a relative lack of research on the therapeutic use of magnets to help in the reduction of pain or speed of recovery, there have been some promising studies on the use of magnets to improve nervous tissue regeneration and wound healing. The proposed mechanism of action via which magnets might improve recovery include increased blood flow, changes in the migration of calcium ions, alteration of pH balance, changes in hormone production, and an alteration of enzyme activity.
For example, if a magnetic field is strong enough to attract or repel ions such as sodium and chloride in the blood, these ions may eventually encounter the walls of the blood vessels, move more rapidly, and cause an increase in tissue temperature or an increase in blood flow.
Companies such as Nikken, MagnaPower, and BodyGlove make thin, light and flexible magnets that can be wrapped around body parts or easily applied with adhesive, and then used while you are sleeping, exercising or at the office.
I must admit that aside from occasional experimentation with small adhesive magnets and magnetic wraps for tennis elbow and a sore knee, magnets have not been a huge part of my personal recovery routine, but many folks swear by slapping them on an injured joint, or wrapping sore muscles with a magnetic wrap—and I'm not going to argue with as much anecdotal evidence as I've seen.
If you’ve been to an Ironman triathlon or watched the Olympics recently, you may have observed several athletes with brightly colored strips of tape on their shoulders, hips, knees, or lower legs. Manufacturers of this tape, such as Rocktape and Spider Tech tape, claim that unlike traditional athletic tape, kinesiotape increases fluid drainage through special channels formed in the skin, and may alter joint motion through the elastic tension applied to the tape. It supposedly lifts the skin away from the muscle, which is supposed to increase blood flow and lymph drainage.
I've seen little quality evidence to support the use of kinesiotape over other types of traditional taping in the management or prevention of injuries, but one advantage of this type of tape is that it is more flexible and easier to apply than the average roll of athletic tape from the pharmacy. If you find that kinesiotape works for you, the best explanation is probably not any mechanical influence the tape has on joint motion, but rather, a tactile stimulation of the skin that may make you more aware of how you’re moving a body part or slightly override some pain sensations.
I recommend you keep a roll of the waterproof kinesiotape variety handy. I am personally a fan of Rocktape. Visit their website for a host of instructional videos for supporting everything from a sprained ankle to a bum knee or even doing a full-body taping protocol for more robust activities like a triathlon.
Similar to magnets, kinesiotape is one of those recovery tools that simply requires you to use yourself as an N=1 test to see if you notice a difference. In my opinion, one of the handier uses of kinesiotape is for postural cuing for something like time trialing on a bicycle.
10. Foam Roller
Deep-tissue massage and trigger-point therapy are the only true ways to remove knots from your muscles, and having a good foam roller handy keeps you from having to schedule a massage appointment after every workout. If you stretch after a workout, it will only make knots in your muscles tighter (in the same way that if you tie a knot in a rubber band and pull both ends of the rubber band, the knot will only get tighter).
So save your stretching for after deep-tissue and mobility work with a foam roller (or lacrosse ball, tennis ball, golf ball, etc.), which will actually encourage the release of the muscle knots. This means your ideal workout recovery order should ideally be: foam rolling to exercise, back to foam rolling, and finishing with stretching.
Or, if you're like me and don't have oodles of time to foam roll before and after a workout, you can just have 1 or 2 days during the week during which you make sweet love to a foam roller for 10-20 minutes. I recommend a very firm roller equipped with ridges that can dig into muscle tissue (and I am a big fan of the Rumble Roller for that).
The only problem with a foam roller is that it doesn’t fit too well into a carry-on, a suitcase or even a gym bag. This is why it is helpful to have a portable deep-tissue massage device, such as the Muscletrac, Myorope or Tiger Tail. While it is difficult to get as deep with these sticks as you can when pressing your entire body weight into a foam roller, they do the trick on calves, forearms, the neck, and hips. In a pinch, you can do this type of deep-tissue work with no more equipment than a glass water bottle or wine bottle and a lacrosse ball, although you will be able to go much deeper with tools like ridged rolling balls and foam rollers.
In case you can’t get any of these tools at all, there are still some tricks you can keep in your back pocket. The corners of dumbbells or kettlebells at the average hotel gym can easily be used to dig into the sides of your sore hips or shoulders. Rocks, the corners of park benches, flagpoles or anything else with a hard edge or surface can also be used on hips, backs, and the undersides of your knees.
I also recommend picking up the book “Becoming A Supple Leopard” by Kelly Starrett, which you can consider to be a “cookbook” for all things deep-tissue- and mobility-related.
11. Electrostimulation (EMS)
EMS devices, such as the Compex Sport Elite, can be effectively used to build strength; but they can also be used to keep a muscle fit when you are rehabbing from an injury. For example, you can do an electrostimulation strength set for your quads if you’ve injured your feet and can’t do lower body exercise, or for your pecs, if you've injured your shoulders and can't press or do push-ups.
EMS increases blood flow to the area of damaged muscle tissue. You simply place the electrodes over the area that need enhanced blood flow, and the electrical current causes a muscle contraction that results in heat and blood flow.
You can listen to a podcast I recorded about the MarcPro, an EMS device that uses a specific waveform to gradually and gently grab muscle fibers, which works better for rehabilitation and recovery. This makes it ideal for healing damaged areas of tissue or enhancing recovery, compared with other EMS devices that are primarily best for maintaining or building strength, muscular endurance or power.
The Neu.fit is one of the devices that can maintain muscle strength and power with extreme efficacy. It works through something called interferential, microcurrent, galvanic, Russian-stim iontophoresis, which is more compatible with your body’s natural electrical wave production. The current also passes through skin and fatty tissue more easily, so it can penetrate much deeper without burning your skin or causing other nasty side effects. Devices like this are also effective at training muscles close to injuries, as they exert no stress aside for the current running through the muscle.
I have found that for sore muscles or for sucking inflammation out fast, EMS combined with pressure and ice works well.
This treatment is pretty simple. You attach the electrodes to the affected area, place an ice pack over them, then flip the switch for 20 to 30 minutes. You can also apply a topical treatment, such as magnesium, and use the EMS to “drive” the ointment deeper into the tissue. By the way, the accuracy of electrode placement is crucial, so make sure you know your anatomy. Most EMS devices come with some kind of placement instructions.
12. Photobiomodulation (PBM)
At the cellular level, visible red and near-infrared light energy from PBM can stimulate your cells to generate more energy and undergo self-repair. Each cell contains mitochondria, which produce ATP, your body’s primary form of usable energy. A mitochondrial enzyme called cytochrome oxidase-c can accept photonic energy in the form of light for enhanced cellular function.
Based on this principle, low-level laser therapy (LLLT), also known as cold laser therapy, uses a particular kind of laser called a light-emitting diode (LED) to reduce pain related to inflammation. It is effective for treating tendonitis, arthritis, and both acute and chronic pain and can lower levels of pain-producing chemicals, such as prostaglandins and interleukin while decreasing oxidative stress from free radicals, bruises, swelling and bleeding.
Recently, larger PBM devices like the JOOVV have been developed that allow for both full-body treatment and targeted treatment, with similar efficacy to a handheld laser.
Here’s how PBM works: light can be broken down into wavelengths. Infrared radiation (IR), also called infrared light, is comprised of light with wavelengths that are longer than visible light wavelengths. Thus, it’s undetectable by the human eye. Infrared light wavelengths extend from 700 nanometers (nm), the red edge of the visible light spectrum, all the way up to 1 mm. Like all forms of radiation, IR carries radiant energy that can affect cells and tissue. A device like the JOOVV emits red light from the mid-600 nm to near-infrared wavelengths in the mid-800 nm range. The benefits of JOOVV light therapy include the repair of sun-related skin damage, enhanced muscle recovery and performance, rapid wound healing, the reduction of joint inflammation, improved fertility and the removal of scars, wrinkles and stretch marks.
Another device, the Vielight, is also based on LED light exposure but, unlike the Joovv light panel, is instead a light “helmet,” so exposure is highly concentrated around the skull and even in the nasal cavity to bridge the intranasal channel (which lacks hair and skin, both natural barriers for light energy) to more directly modulate the deeper, central area of the brain. But like the JOOVV, the results from the Vielight include a nitric oxide release for the entire body. (Clinical studies have shown that infrared light of sufficient power density is capable of diffusing through the scalp, skull, and brain to depths of 4 cm or more, both transcranially and through the intranasal channel!)
Finally, you can achieve some benefit with a handheld LLLT wand, although I have personally found the Vielight and JOOVV to give better results. If you want to get invisible far-infrared light combined with negative ions, there is a mat called the Biomat which provides a deep heating effect along with healing and recovery-enhancing negative ions, similar to those produced by clean, pure air outside. A daily nap or meditation session on a Biomat can be a great way to recover, and I take an afternoon nap most days on mine.
Start small to see how PBM affects your body. I recommend getting a JOOVV mini and using it for 10 to 30 minutes per day on any spots that need enhanced recovery. This will provide you with red and near-infrared exposure. If it works well for you, consider a larger JOOVV unit, a Vielight, a Biomat (which is far-infrared, not red and near-infrared), or all three.
13. Infrared Sauna
Infrared light covers the light spectrum from 700 nm up to 1000 nm and is a source of radiant heat, the same type of heat you get from sunlight or cold-laser therapy. Radiant heat is a form of energy that directly heats objects through a process called conversion, without having to heat the air around that object.
Exposing the body to infrared light has been shown to raise white blood cell counts, enhance immunity, heat tissue, increase blood flow to injured or recovering muscles and provide a host of additional research-proven recovery benefits. The best infrared saunas use infrared heat lamps that produce a combination of near-infrared energy, which penetrates the body even deeper than far-infrared energy, resulting in the detoxification benefits of near-infrared light combined with the heat therapy benefits of far-infrared light.
In a typical infrared sauna, ceramic or metallic elements are used to emit energy. Unlike a regular dry sauna or steam room, this energy penetrates the skin and heats you up from inside as well as outside the skin, so there can be a much more pronounced hyperthermic effect.
Every morning, I wipe the crust out of the corner of my eyes, suck down a giant cup of coffee, and then wander into my infrared sauna, and sweat hard and heavy for fifteen to thirty minutes. Sometimes I do yoga, sometimes I do kettlebell swings, sometimes I simply stare at the wall and meditate, but always I feel pangs of guilt, desire and an intense urge to go sweat if I ever miss my daily sauna session.
I'm a bit of a “sauna addict,” so I have a ton of podcasts and articles on the subject if you want to learn more:
- Everything You Need To Know About How To Use Heat Exposure To Enhance Performance, Burn Fat, Gain Muscle And Think Better.
- Ten Scientifically Proven Reasons I Am Addicted To A Daily Sauna.
- How *Not* To Microwave Yourself In A Sauna, Cooking Turkeys With Infrared Rays, Low EMF Saunas, Heat Detox Protocols & More!
- Three Ways To Biohack A Sauna For More Heat, A Better Detox & Enhanced Fitness.
One drawback to most home infrared saunas is that they can produce a significant amount of electromagnetic fields (EMF), which you can learn more about in my podcast, “The Non-Tinfoil Guide to EMFs: How to Fix Our Stupid Use of Technology (& The Real Research On WiFi Health, Cell Phones, Dirty Electricity & More!)“. This is why it's important to go with a low-EMF sauna.
I personally purchased a large, four-person Clearlight “Sanctuary” infrared sauna for my basement gym and use it nearly every day for workouts, heat acclimation, building blood volume and new red blood cells, recovery, and detoxification. For a more portable setup, look into the SaunaSpace. Many health clinics and cryotherapy clinics also now offer infrared sauna treatments as part of your visit, although I think it is more convenient to have one at home.
14. Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Therapy (PEMF)
Every night, I sleep with a PEMF device placed under my mattress, and I can take the same device and apply it to areas where tissue or bone needs enhanced healing. PEMF is definitely something you can feel almost immediately when you begin using it for anything from sleep enhancement to injury management.
PEMF uses electrical energy to direct a series of magnetic pulses through injured tissue, and each magnetic pulse induces a tiny electrical signal that stimulates cellular repair by upregulating a tissue repair protein called “heat shock protein” and also by increasing the uptake of oxygen and nutrients into tissue. Tons of studies have shown PEMF to be effective in healing soft-tissue wounds, lowering inflammation, decreasing pain and increasing range-of-motion. By stimulating ATP production through a process called myosin phosphorylation, PEMF can also decrease the amount of time it takes to replenish energy stores post-workout. PEMF may also accelerate bone growth repair, which can come in handy if you find yourself dealing with a stress fracture or recovering from a bike accident or fall.
There are several PEMF devices that are widely available for consumer use, and I personally use a small device called an Earthpulse. Similar to cold laser or far-infrared wands, PEMF can simply be placed and held or moved slightly for 10-30 minutes over an area of damaged tissue or healing bone. Interestingly, the magnetic signal released by a PEMF device is very similar to that released by a “grounding” or “earthing” mat, which have been used for over a decade by professional cycling teams in the Tour de France to enhance both sleep and recovery.
But unlike these mats, a PEMF device does not plug into the grounding outlet in your home—so it actually exposes you to less electrical “pollution” compared to a grounding or earthing mat. (For more on the electrical pollution issue with grounding or earthing mats, listen to this podcast.)
Hanging upside down like a bat may not seem like a stress-relieving or relaxing activity, but I personally hang from an inversion table in my garage for about 5-10 minutes several times per week, especially after a long bike ride or run, and the “drainage” effect is amazing. Heavy, swollen feet and legs almost instantly become lighter and less swollen—and the inversion effect even works nicely after a long day of standing workstation use. Inversion has been shown to assist with lymph fluid circulation, back pain, blood flow and circulation, and spinal or hip misalignment from high impact workouts.
If you don't want to purchase a new inversion table, you can usually find good deals on inversion tables on sites like eBay or Craigslist (usually sold by people who bought them as a cure-all and realized that hanging in a gravity-defying upside-down position is not quite as relaxing as they thought).
Of course, you don't have to have an inversion table to invert. For example, if you go for a long run, you can follow the simple rule of elevating your legs above your head by propping yourself up against a wall—and keep those legs elevated for at least 1 minute for every mile you've run. Another option would be any popular yoga inversion moves, such as plow pose, supported shoulder stand, supported headstand or, if you dare, the feathered peacock pose (Google it).
Nutrition For Rapid Recovery
While the majority of post-workout sports nutrition recommendations tell you to shove carbohydrates and protein down your gullet as soon as possible after you finish a workout (which has merit in some cases, as you'll learn in this book's section on nutrition), there is actually quite a bit of evidence that fasting can also have a recovery effect.
In a study on cyclists, three weeks of overnight-fasted workouts increased post-workout recovery capability, while maintaining lean muscle mass, lower body fat and maintaining performance. Another study on endurance athletes suggested that fasted training may more quickly activate muscle protein translation, especially compared to athletes who had eaten carbohydrates before training.
There are also benefits to fasting for weight training. A 2009 study found that subjects who lifted weights in a fasted state had a greater anabolic response to a post-workout meal. In this case, levels of p70s6 kinase, a muscle protein synthesis signaling mechanism that acts as an indicator of muscle growth, doubled in the fasted vs. the fed group. Martin Berkhan, a big proponent of fasting and author at LeanGains.com, has a good take on the possible mechanism behind fasted training adaptations:
“Another way to think of it is that by providing nutrients to the body, exercise is experienced by the body as less of a stressor compared to fasted-state training. No need to adapt or compensate when all is provided for you. A similar phenomenon can be seen with antioxidant intake, where recent studies show that ingesting antioxidants from supplements weakens the body's own response to deal with free radicals created by training. We are making it easy for the body and that may be a suboptimal way to train.”
I personally use fasting in two ways:
- Intermittent daily overnight fast of 12 to 16 hours, leaving me with an 8- to 12-hour daily compressed “feeding window”.
- Weekly or bi-monthly 24-hour fast from dinnertime to dinnertime. To maintain the adequate availability of recovery nutrients during these fasts, I’ll cheat with occasional low-calorie recovery or energy-enhancing nutrients such as essential amino acids, exogenous ketones, minerals, a multi-vitamin and bone broth.
A word of warning: I've found from my experience in wellness and nutrition consulting that for extremely lean individuals with low essential body fat stores, people prone to eating disorders, and women who deal with hormonal imbalances, the risks and stresses of fasting outweigh any benefits.
Before incorporating fasting into your recovery protocol, I highly recommend downloading Kion's free e-book, Fasting Decoded, here.
17. Anti-Inflammatory Diet
It is especially important for injured or recovering athletes to avoid inflammatory foods. One huge pet peeve of mine is to see an athlete “pulling out all the stops” to fix a hip, knee, shoulder, or low back injury; or fighting constant joint soreness—all while eating huge whole wheat bread sandwiches, drinking sugary sports drinks, and consuming multiple cups of coffee every morning.
The aforementioned foods can all aggravate inflammation, so trying to fix an injury without fixing your nutrition is synonymous to spraying a firehose full of water on a roaring fire on one side of your house while dumping gasoline on the other side of your house.
So what can make a food inflammatory?
There are at least two dozen factors that affect a food’s inflammatory potential, including the amounts and proportion of various fatty acids, the amount of antioxidants and other nutrients, and a food’s glycemic impact, or effect on blood sugar levels.
But when it comes to choosing anti-inflammatory foods, things are not exactly clearcut. Some foods have a combination of inflammation-producing and inflammation-reducing factors. An orange, for example, contains antioxidants that can fight inflammation, but also contains natural sugars that can have a mild inflammatory effect. Beef is another good example. A nice cut of steak contains mildly inflammatory saturated fats, but also has a high amount of anti-inflammatory monounsaturated fats.
A resource for cutting through the confusion is InflammationFactor.com, an excellent website that actually gives an “Inflammation Factor” (IF) for food. The IF Rating system allows you to take a quick glance at whether a specific food is going an inflammatory or anti-inflammatory effect, and to determine the inflammatory potential of entire meals or recipes, you can simply total up the IF Ratings of the individual foods.
Some convenient anti-inflammatory foods include:
- Pineapple – Pineapple is rich in a proteolytic enzyme called bromelain, which produces substances that help fight pain and inflammation.
- Blue, red and purple colored fruits and vegetables – All of these contain antioxidant flavonoids that limit inflammation, stop tissue breakdown, improve circulation and promote a strong collagen matrix. This includes pomegranates, eggplant, berries or tart cherry juice.
- Ginger – Two studies from the University of Georgia show that 2 grams of ginger per day helps fight inflammation and reduce exercise-induced muscle pain, and this can easily be consumed by boiling chunks of ginger, juicing ginger, or tossing ginger into a smoothie.
Other foods with very high IF ratings include garlic, peppers, parsley, dark leafy greens, onions, salmon, avocado, and apple cider vinegar. There is a free Superhuman Food Pyramid on my website that is categorized into Eat, Moderate, and Avoid categories, and for proper anti-inflammatory food intake—especially if you're injured or trying to optimize recovery—you'd only want to choose foods in the “Eat” category.
18. Vitamin C
Back in the 1940s, during World War II, physicians began routinely giving their surgical patients 1000 mg of vitamin C daily for three days before surgery, followed by 100 mg of daily C during recovery. These docs reported in the British Journal of Surgery that failure of wounds to heal properly decreased by 76 percent, with a three to six-fold increase in wound strength.
Russian researchers have shown that surgical patients who supplement with Vitamin C are discharged from the hospital one to two days earlier, compared to individuals who receive no Vitamin C. This is because Vitamin C plays a critical role in collagen formation, and collagen is the primary component of connective tissue.
Vitamin C also works as an antioxidant to limit free-radical damage to tissues and boosts the growth of fibroblast and chondrocyte cells, which produce connective tissue fibers and cartilage. I don't personally supplement with Vitamin C unless I'm injured, and instead simply get adequate daily doses from fruits, vegetables, and whole-food antioxidant powders. If you are injured and want to use Vitamin C, do not use synthetic Vitamin C capsules (which can actually increase risk of brain stroke), but instead supplement with a whole foods Vitamin C source.
19. Proteolytic Enzymes
Proteolytic enzymes such as papain, bromelain, trypsin, and chymotrypsin promote healing by supporting the production of cytokines, activating immune system proteins such as alpha-2-macroglobulins, breaking down fibrinogen, and slowing the clotting mechanism. This is another strategy that (similar to vitamin C) can even help heal wounds faster or assist you with bouncing back more quickly from surgery.
But just like Vitamin C, I really don't go out of my way to use anything other than natural food sources of proteolytic enzymes unless I'm injured or really beat up from a workout or race, and the best foods sources are pineapple, papaya, and meat.
If you do decide to use a supplement source of proteolytic enzymes, be sure to take them on an empty stomach, since consuming proteolytic enzymes with food simply causes them to digest the proteins in the food, rather than working to break down fibrinogen in your body. My two favorite sources of proteolytic enzymes are Wobenzymes or Recoverease.
20. Amino Acids
At the low end of the amino acid spectrum, you'll find whey and soy protein powder—and only 17% of their content is utilized by the body, with 83% leaving your body as nitrogen-based waste. Foods like meat, fish, and poultry fare a bit better, with 32% being absorbed and 68% being wasted. Eggs are the winners in the food stakes with 48% being utilized with 52% waste.
Compare those numbers to an essential amino acid supplement (EAAs), which have a massive 99% utilization by the body, with only 1% leaving as waste, there really is no competition when it comes to protein utilization.
EAAs are also absorbed by the body within 23 minutes, compared to several hours for food or powder sources of whole protein (and, for any weight watchers, there is only 0.4 of a calorie per gram/tablet/capsule). It's also completely legal to use EAAs in sporting events, and because they have a potent fatigue-fighting and recovery-enhancing effect, they're one of my top recommended supplements to use for both performance and recovery.
I recommend taking 5-10 grams of EAAs prior to a hard workout or race, and another 5 grams each hour during the event. If you want to learn more about amino acids, check out these podcasts and articles:
- The Misunderstood, Misused Darlings Of The Supplement Industry (& How *Not* To Waste Your Money Or Damage Your Health With Them).
- Everything You Need To Know About How To Use Amino Acids For Muscle Gain, Appetite Control, Injury Repair, Ketosis And More.
- The Search For The Perfect Protein (The Surprising Truth About A Little-Known Supernutrient For Weight Loss, Mood, Fatigue, Insomnia, and More).
21. Fish Oil
While omega-6 fatty acids found in compounds such as vegetable oils and heated seeds, nut and nut butters can produce eicosanoids that are pro-inflammatory (especially when eaten in the quantity that many endurance athletes tend to eat these items), omega-3 fatty acids found in sources such as coldwater fish, algae, and fish oil are anti-inflammatory—which is why you'll find them ranked so highly on the InflammationFactor.com website.
Conventional fish oil supplements contain significantly more EPA than DHA (typically a 3:2 EPA:DHA ratio), but mounting research suggests that higher levels of DHA are optimal for recovery and anti-inflammatory, so you preferably need to look for a fish oil with something close to a 1:1 EPA:DHA ratio, and also ensure that it is in a natural triglyceride form and not the cheaper, less well-absorbed ethyl ester form. Preferably, a fish oil should also be packaged with antioxidants such as astaxanthin and Vitamin E to keep the fatty acids from becoming rancid (and to keep your fish oil from doing more harm than good to your joints).
I am often asked what the healthiest fish oil is, as well as what the proper EPA-to-DHA ratio is for fish oil. As mentioned earlier in this chapter, I am convinced that the most effective ratio is a 1-to-1 ratio of EPA-to-DHA, so a good general rule is to look for a fish oil supplement that contains that ratio, since the added DHA allows you to consume an oil ratio closer to what you will find in many coldwater fish. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that more DHA than EPA is a good thing.
For example, one study tested the hypothesis that EPA-to-DHA ratios might affect how well the oils are digested and absorbed. The researchers found that a 2-to-1 DHA-to-EPA ratio significantly reduced the uptake of both oils by 21% to 23%, while a 1-to-2 DHA-to-EPA ratio reduced the uptake by 14% to 18%. If you invest in a fish oil supplement, you do not want to lose up to 23% of the available omega-3 fatty acids, so it is worth taking the time to look for a supplement that contains an approximate 1-to-1 ratio. When taken in the right amounts, EPA and DHA work synergistically to affect mood, behavior, and coagulation, as well as brain development, structure, and function.
In addition, it’s important to take into consideration whether the fish oil is in ethyl ester or triglyceride form. Any omega-3 supplement from fish oil is typically available as either as triglycerides (TG) or ethyl esters (EE). Which is best? The answer is TG form, hands down. This is the form actually found in nature and in fact over 98% of all fats ingested from any natural food is in in the TG form.
Because I have personally found it to be supportive of cognition, hormones and joint health, I take a relatively high amount of fish oil, at 4 to 6 capsules each day of Kion Omega Fish Oil, typically with breakfast. When I am injured or in need of more recovery, I will treat myself to a 20-to-30-g-per-day megadose of this same fish oil (which many folks in the biohacking community also swear by for cognitive clarity). It contains both EPA and DHA in their natural TG forms, which results in a 3-to-2 EPA-to-DHA ratio, but then the manufacturers add additional DHA to achieve the ideal 1-to-1 ratio. So I am getting both TG and extra DHA, a fish oil win-win scenario.
Turmeric is a widely recognized herbal anti-inflammatory that has proven in studies to be effective in reducing inflammation. This ingredient likely isn't new to most folks (especially if you're at least remotely familiar with ancient Ayurvedic practices). Turmeric's mainstream popularity has been rising for years, and it's now officially a beloved ingredient in the general health-sphere, being added to everything from specialty lattes to bone broth to natural skincare.
But in all honesty, turmeric's sudden stardom is for good reason. The research on its anti-inflammatory properties is pretty astounding, with most of the spotlight on curcuminoids: fat-soluble substances in turmeric.
However, newer research shows that there are also lesser-known water-soluble polysaccharides in turmeric that might actually have additional, more joint-specific health benefits. And because these turmerosaccharides are water-soluble, they're much more bioavailable to the human body.
All in all, turmeric's proven anti-inflammatory properties make it a great ingredient to add to your natural toolkit for recovering from exercise-related injuries and soreness.
You’ve probably heard of an Epsom salts bath for decreasing muscle soreness, enhancing relaxation, and displacing many of the calcium ions that can accumulate in muscle tissue during workouts. This is because Epsom salts deliver magnesium sulfate, which is the active compound that actually causes the effects listed above.
However, concentrated magnesium chloride is even more effective than Epsom salts.
As you read this, you have about two ounces of magnesium circulating through your body—mostly in muscle and bone tissue. This mineral is essential for more than 300 reactions in your body, including nerve and cardiac function, muscle contraction and relaxation, protein formation, and perhaps most importantly for the exercising individual, synthesis of ATP-based energy.
A magnesium deficiency can result in muscle cramping, excessive soreness, inadequate force production, disrupted recovery and sleep, immune system depression, and even potentially fatal heart arrhythmias during intense exercise.
Multiple studies have shown magnesium to be effective for buffering lactic acid, enhancing peak oxygen uptake and total work output, reducing heart rate and carbon dioxide production during hard exercise, and improving cardiovascular efficiency. In addition, supplementation with magnesium can elevate testosterone levels and muscle strength up to 30 percent.
While seeds, nuts, grains, and vegetables are good dietary sources of magnesium, active people who include these foods in their diet can still be deficient in magnesium. This is due to a combination of mineral loss through perspiration and accelerated mineral turnover due to high activity levels.
Unfortunately, simply using an oral magnesium supplement may not fully replace this deficiency, as oral magnesium in the amount needed for an athlete is not easily absorbed and at high doses creates diarrhea.
So while the use of oral magnesium (such as magnesium citrate powder) is certainly helpful from a supplementation standpoint, a far better way to deliver targeted doses of magnesium is through the use of topical (also known as transdermal) magnesium.
The delivery of drugs transdermally (through the skin) is a practice used in medicine to avoid the risk or inconvenience of intravenous therapy, to lower loss of absorption as a drug passes through the gastrointestinal tract, to lower metabolism of the drug by the liver, and to provide a more targeted application (such as a topical non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug delivery via patch vs. swallowing a pill). This same practice can easily be used to deliver high doses of precisely targeted magnesium to your muscles pre or post-workout for enhancing performance and recovery. Since topical magnesium also bypasses digestion, higher doses of this key mineral can be delivered.
There are multiple ways to take advantage of transdermal magnesium delivery. For example, you’ve probably heard of an Epsom salts bath for decreasing muscle soreness. Epsom salts actually deliver magnesium sulfate, which can help with post-workout recovery. However, magnesium chloride is even more effective than Epsom salts, and you can actually dissolve one to three pounds of pure magnesium chloride flakes or crystals in a bath for an extremely relaxing and soreness relieving soak. A bath will deliver about 500mg of magnesium. Alternatively, after a long run or ride, you can soak your feet in a magnesium chloride footbath.
I personally use 8-10 sprays or a large dab of magnesium lotion on my shoulders, arms, and legs prior to a race or hard workout, and do the same post-workout. In most cases, 10 sprays will deliver approximately 100mg of magnesium. You’ll want to make sure your skin is dry, and that you lightly rub in the magnesium after spraying. Some people may find that topical magnesium spray causes a tingling or slightly annoying burning sensation. This is normal and usually subsides with use.
If you use sports massage therapy, you can give magnesium chloride spray or oil to your massage therapist for use during your session. A magnesium sports massage can assist with the body’s natural recovery process and speed up healing from a workout or injury, as well as help prevent future injuries from sore and stiff muscles. Finally, if you have a strain or sprain, topical magnesium can be used to improve circulation or decrease pain – simply spray the magnesium on a sore area and rub it in.
It’s important to keep track of exactly how much magnesium you’re taking in via a combination of oral and topical use since anything above 500-1000mg can cause loose stool or gastrointestinal discomfort. So if you're using oral magnesium, make sure you're keeping track of total magnesium “exposure” unless you want a lot of toilet time.
If simultaneously implementing all these recovery tools seems overboard (or insane) to you, then you're right. After all, you don’t necessarily need to do everything that I just described if all you’ve done is enjoy a nice easy Saturday morning bike ride, or even a “typical” week of training.
But if you find yourself injured with an important race around the corner, or really beat up from a tough series of workouts, or at a training camp, or doing a big “deload” week, you may actually want to consider pulling out as many stops as possible, and truly geeking out on recovery so that your body is 100% repaired.
Perhaps your head is spinning about exactly how to take all this information about vibration, electricity, lasers and proteo-what'd-he-say-again? and actually apply it into your own personal recovery plan without feeling as though you're either…
A) Spending all your precious time fretting over repairing your body and not enjoying training.
B) Exposing your body to a constant state of under-recovery.
In other words, what would a typical recovery day, week, or month look like if you were uninjured and just trying to maximize the results of your training? Or injured and trying to heal your body and bounce back as fast as possible? Or in those last few precious weeks leading up to a race? Or in the throes of healing your body from something like an Ironman or a marathon?
Programming these recovery techniques properly can take some serious forethought and scientific application, and the good news is that in my new book, Boundless, I'll walk you through exactly how to design and implement your own personal recovery plan based on what you've just learned.
In other words, if you're concerned about how to string all this training and recovery material together into a viable and effective program that doesn't leave you gasping for air during a race because you spent too much time hanging from an inversion table or electrocuting yourself, then don't worry—I will be including that information for you in the beautiful, hard copy, edition of Boundless, as well as in the Kindle version.
In the meantime, leave your questions, comments, and feedback about how you recover from your workouts below.