Muscle Recovery Taking Too Long? A Quick Checklist To Go Over
Updated June 30th 2021
That feeling of uncomfortable pain in the joints and/or muscles that you get after a workout, particularly when starting out, is often what is called delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS.
It is a common side effect of training that affects both experienced and novice trainers alike and it is an absolutely normal part of working out.
What’s not common though is if it persists for too long and that forms the subject of today’s discussion.
Please read on to find out the factors behind your prolonged recovery and what you can and should do to get around it:
First things first: How long is too long?
- Endurance workouts
- Heavy lifting
Experts have found DOMS to subside within a couple of days after your routine with the soreness particularly felt during the day -or two- after working out.
While the exact cause remains unclear, it is thought to have something to do with structural damage or micro-trauma (small tears) that occurs in the affected muscles with the recovery time directly proportional to the time the body takes to repair itself.
That said, different kinds of workouts have varying recovery times as follows:
i) Endurance workouts
These kinds of workouts encompass long-running and 20+ & 50+ rep pullup and pushup sets respectively which generally require rest spans of about a day or 24 hours before you are able to go again.
That is the time needed to revitalize glycogen production as such routines target more fatigue-resistant fibers as compared to others.
It wouldn't be out of the norm however to feel the effects 48 hours after the session but when it goes beyond that, then something is definitely amiss.
ii) Heavy lifting
A typical intense low rep, height weight workout typically requires a recovery period of at least 48 hours and no more than four days.
Full recovery, however, could take anywhere between seven and fourteen days depending on the kind and amount of weight lifting.
Also, the more advanced you are at lifting weights, the longer it will take for you to recover from your workout.
Lifting weights involve muscle contractions of two types, i.e. concentric and eccentric with the former involving shortening of fibers when the muscles are contracting such as when going up a bicep curl.
Eccentric contractions, on the other hand, occur when the fibers are lengthening as is the case when lowering a dumbbell.
The latter kind tends to instigate more damage thereby necessitating more recovery time.
So, the next time you decide between a heavy or light lat pulldown, you should also be mindful of your recovery times.
Why does it take so long for my muscles to recover?
- Not getting enough sleep
- Being stressed out
- Excessive calorie restriction
- Insufficient protein
- Infrequent workouts
To quickly summarize, lack of sleep, stress, lack of nutrition, overexertion of muscles, age, or infrequent workouts are some of the reasons why your muscles make take so long to recover. While it is not the greatest to have lingering muscle recovery, there are many remedies in order to retain a healthy rate of muscle recovery.
Now that we’ve gotten the nitty-gritty out of the way, let’s get right back on track.
If your soreness spans beyond the timelines described above then you should know that there are a lot of things that could be at the heart of the problem.
1) Not getting enough sleep
Being sleep-deprived causes a slump in the body as it results in decreased synthesis of muscle protein as well as reduced testosterone production and increased cortisol, the combination of which ensures you’ll be lying on the sofa with cramps for days.
Alternatively, lack of adequate sleep interrupts the body’s most constructive part of the process (i.e. slow-wave sleep) where muscle repair, tissue healing, and growth hormone secretion are all at their peak.
Sleep loss also interferes with postural control and balance thereby aggravating the risk of injuries.
Think twice before working out on 5 hours of sleep.
2) Being stressed out
As with pretty much everything else in life, your mental state of being also determines muscle recovery.
And don’t just take my word for it, take that of scientists at the Yale Stress Center as well.
According to the findings of their study, strength recovery hinges crucially on the level of chronic mental stress.
The higher it is the longer the downtime and vice versa.
The reason behind this is that tissue healing takes longer when you're stressed as substantiated by an experiment during the exercise where two groups of students were tested on the concept via puncture wounds.
The stressed-out half of the population (those who had exams) fared much worse than their relaxed opposites (those who went on vacation) as they took three more days to heal.
“No pain, no gain” is often a term used to justify working out more than you ought to and this could actually be what’s impeding your healing.
More isn’t always better and cramming your schedule with as much exercise as you can actually do more harm than good.
Contrary to popular misconception, you don’t get faster, stronger and fitter during the actual routine.
You do that during your downtime when your muscles are patching themselves up.
Those who train every day aren’t fit because of their dedication.
Though training hard plays a role in the equation, being smart and tactical about your recovery is equally, if not more important.
As a general rule of thumb, the more effort you put in, the more rest you should also get.
4) Excessive calorie restriction
Fitness enthusiasts will often bring up “move more, eat less” to illuminate the path to weight loss.
That’s great and all but one thing doesn’t quite add up; you need calories for muscle healing.
If you’re hell-bent on shedding off body mass no matter the cost, then that’s alright.
But it’s not alright if you are looking to bolster performance.
Rigorous exercise paired with little calorie compensation sends your physiology into a state of starvation which triggers fat retention and muscle atrophy.
Moreover, the production of anabolic hormones are reduced as well and all these only get in the way of recovery.
So, have a burger after your workout the next time you are next to your favorite burger joint.
5) Insufficient protein
Different workouts require different durations of rest but what’s similar across the board, be it dancing, hillwalking, climbing, strength, endurance you name it, is that each movement sources its power from the skeletal muscle.
The latter in turn needs protein for its recovery lack of which leads to the issue of seemingly endless DOMS.
Like gasoline to a car, protein is the fuel that drives our muscles and without it normal body functioning stalls.
The aforementioned leads us to an important question in the way of how much protein is enough?
Well, it depends on the nature of the workout with hiking, for instance, having less protein demand compared to strength training.
All in all, amounts vary between 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight and 3.0 g/kg which is herald as the ideal range.
You might also find it helpful to note that upping protein intake can offset a calorie deficiency so if you are keen on calorie restriction, then you can make up for it with excess protein.
6) Infrequent workouts
Are you a weekend warrior?
You know, that kind of person who juggles everything including completing a 10k, deadlifting a stupendous amount of weight, scaling a mountain, and so on every other weekend without having worked out for weeks on end?
If so, that’s why you are down with a crippling case of the DOMS which makes the most mundane of tasks like back-scratching or shoe-lacing seem like you're pulling at an eighteen-wheeler.
Now, that stiff neck from deadlifts makes sense.
Working out is a lot like driving.
You need to ease into the process before delving head first into the deep end which is exactly what you’re doing with infrequent workouts.
Besides giving you a case of extended soreness, such an approach to working out is futile as any progress made is wiped clean during extended breaks.
Recent studies have shed light on the fact that age has a pivotal say in the recovery period.
The body tends to heal slower as the rate of cell renewal and regeneration declines with advancing years.
Consequently, statistics further indicate that those between 18 and 30 will take half as much the time as their counterparts beyond the age of 50.
Maybe you have not hit a respectable bench press yet but that does not mean you should not try.
Do not let this deter you as some lifters can still do sports.
So now that you’ve known what could possibly be behind your delayed recovery, it’s only natural you’d be looking at how to get past your current predicament.
We got your back on that as well and here are a couple of pointers that'll undoubtedly get you back to full fitness in no time.
Muscle Recovery Time
Trained athletes and untrained lifters need 1-2 days, 24-48hours, of rest to be optimally recovered for the next hard workout.
This can vary according to training experience, genetics, and goals.
But research has this data and it is our job to digest and apply it if it can help benefit our training.
Your muscle recovery time is based on how quickly you can do the following—
- Restoration of cellular energy enzymes
- Return to baseline physiological functions, ie blood pressure
- Your return to homeostasis
- Replenishing your energy storage, ie muscle glycogen
With bigger muscle groups, you would work out only once, maybe twice a week.
That is one reason why people choose to deadlift every week instead of twice or three times a week.
For smaller muscle groups, you would think about twice, maybe three times a week.
This may explain why you may not have a sore upper back after the bench press.
Quick Muscle Recovery
Massage helps reduce DOMS and fatigue while compression, immersion therapy, contrast baths, and cryotherapy seem to also have promising results.
At least according to research.
It is also important to point out that there is a healing component in therapeutic touch that allows lifters to feel more relaxed.
What two markers are important here?
- Creatine kinase
Creatine kinase is an enzyme released into the bloodstream once your muscle begins to break down.
If you strength train 6 days a week, you will know the feeling of muscle breakdown.
The experiment measured these levels pre and post-workout and see how quickly post-recovery interventions worked.
With the limited research so far, it suggests that massage may be the best tool to help you recover faster in terms of lowering your creatine kinase levels.
Immersion therapy also showed the second-best results.
Interleukin-6 is referred to as a myokine, a protein produced by the muscle when there is voluntary contraction.
It is also involved in anti-inflammatory pathways.
This makes sense since our body is inflamed from muscle breakdown.
Analyzing the decline of interleukin-6 would help to see why muscles take so long to recover.
The study showed massage to be the most effective tool with cryotherapy being the second-best.
Best Natural Muscle Recovery Tactics
- Get lots of shut-eye
- Hydration is key
- Have a protein shake ready
- Aspirin works wonders too
- Muscle creams are recommended
i) Get lots of shut-eye
How much sleep is enough you ask?
The doctors recommend 8 hours and so too do many fitness professionals who are of the consensus that you need at least seven for ample recovery and productive sleep.
If you are competing in a very intense sport, you should be aiming for a lot more than 8 hours.
ii) Hydration is key
Dehydration is also one of the leading causes of prolonged muscle fatigue as toxins accumulate after workouts causing them to become painful.
It could be one reason why you are having a bench press stall.
Drinking a lot of water on workout days can help get rid of these toxins rapidly so that they don’t affect you adversely.
iii) Have a protein shake ready
Science indicates that muscle recovery speeds up while muscle soreness severity declines if you take a protein shake pre or post-workout.
One with a protein to carb proportional of 1:2 is termed as ideal.
Taking creatine without working out may not be a bad idea as well... if it works for you.
iv) Aspirin works wonders too
Naproxen, ibuprofen and anti-inflammatory drugs, in general, can take the edge off a serious case of muscle soreness leading to elevated recovery.
However, they shouldn’t be relied on too regularly and also be sure to seek the go-ahead of your doctor first.
v) Muscle creams are recommended
Grab some topical muscle cream such as IcyHot from the store as these are great at relaxing tension within the muscles which is the first step on the road to recovery.
Alternatively, holding an ice pack over the affected area for about half an hour can also do the trick.
Last but not least, remember to stretch regularly preferably on a daily basis.
Stretching and light exercises like planks, lunges, and squats particularly on off days not only reduces the extent of soreness but also keeps possible injuries at bay.
You might not have time to stick to your schedule but you can always spare a couple of minutes for low-impact exercises that'll help you stay fit.
Wrapping it all up
Muscles take a while to recover if you want to have them at full strength.
It should take 1-2 days of rest, which could be even less time if you combine interventions like massage or cryotherapy to help decrease DOMS and fatigue.
For rest in-between sets, you may find the following rest intervals optimal for peak performance—
- Muscular endurance: 30 - 90 seconds
- Hypertrophy: 1 - 2 minutes
- Strength: 3 - 5 minutes
There are "rules" and guidelines athletes and lifters can follow to recover faster but nothing is really set in stone.
It takes a higher level of body awareness combined with scientific measurements to know objectively that you are ready to train hard again even though you feel mentally fatigued.