Whether you have five spare minutes or 50, you can find time for active recovery—and you should.
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If you think workout recovery serves solely pro athletes or weight room regulars who spend six days a week and countless hours working on their fitness, it's time for a stretch break to learn the basics. Yes, recovery methods—from foam rolling to getting a massage—work well to keep muscle soreness at bay, and they do get athletes and everyday gym-goers back to training quickly. But recovery is also important for easing everyday movements and improving body alignment. So even if you spend the majority of your days in a chair, you could benefit from a little rest and recovery.
"Recovery isn't just about avoiding soreness. It's about getting your body's posture back to neutral," says trainer Aaron Drogozewski, cofounder of ReCOVER, a studio in NYC dedicated to helping you feel better post-workout and beyond. "When the body isn't in proper alignment or it's out of balance, your strength and endurance tend to go out the window and your risk of injury increases," says Drogozewski. "So recovery isn't only about flushing out lactic acid, but making sure your posture is in a good place." (Related: Yoga Poses to Correct Your "Smartphone" Posture and "Tech Neck")
Don't let the idea of adding another thing to your fitness to-do list overwhelm you, though. Dedicating just a few minutes a day to stretching or rolling still offers body benefits. Just like your workouts, being consistent with your recovery matters most. Here's how to find time for it, regardless of your schedule.
If You Have 2 Minutes
Get rolling! Research has shown that foam rolling can help alleviate delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which is that achiness you feel a day or two after a tough workout.
To really work out the kinks, Drogozewski suggests pausing on a particularly tight spot for a few seconds, rather than constantly rolling. For example, desk workers might benefit best from hanging out on a foam roller placed on the side of their hip (known as the TFL, or tensor fascia latae), a common source of discomfort.
Opt for a vibrating foam roller, such as the Hyperice Vyper 2.0 or the Hypervolt, a brand-new handheld recovery tool, if you really want to rev up the benefits. Vibration sends a strong message to the central nervous system to get blood flowing and flush out lactic acid, says Kamraan Husain, D.C., an in-house recovery specialist at Tone House in NYC. This is especially helpful for someone who just crossed a finish line, crushed a workout, or even someone who's been sitting or standing for an extended period of time.
Intense exercise or staying in a static position can reduce blood flow to certain parts of the body, says Husain. And foam rolling increases that blood flow. "The more blood flow you have, the more oxygen you have, the less soreness and lactic acid you have, and the more you'll be able to handle and combat any insults to your body," he says.
If You Have 5 Minutes
Take some time to stretch to improve your range of motion. While static stretches tend to work best in your post-workout cooldown, a few 30-second holds throughout the day can also help your body reach recovery mode. And you only need a few minutes to do them, says Drogozewski.
Try these three easy stretches to help correct your posture (counteracting those hunched over, rounded shoulders). Here's how to do them:
Side-Stretch in Child's Pose
- Begin in child's pose with arms extended out in front of you on the floor.
- Tuck pelvis under to activate your lats (the big muscles of your middle-lower back), and walk hands over to one side, feeling a stretch down the opposite side body. Hold, then repeat on the other side.
Chest Stretch Using Door Frame
- Step inside a doorway with both arms extended out to the sides, hands against the frame.
- While hands remain planted on sides of the frame, take a step or two through doorway to feel a stretch in your chest. Keep your legs and core engaged.
- Lie on your stomach on the floor with legs stretched long behind you, tops of the feet on the floor. Hug elbows into the side body with palms on either side under shoulders.
- Straighten arms to lift chest off the floor, careful to keep thighs and feet planted. Hold for 2 seconds, then relax and repeat for 10 to 15 reps.
If tight hip flexors are more your problem (a common one for runners), try these moves:
- Kneel with right knee forward, left knee extended back, top of left foot resting on the ground.
- Tuck pelvis under and engage glutes as you shift weight slightly forward. You should feel a stretch in the hip. Reach arms overhead.
- Reach back with left hand to grasp left foot, and press left foot toward the ground to deepen the stretch. (This is one of the nine stretches to do after every single run.)
Active Hamstring Stretch
- Lie on your back with one leg straight up in the air, using hands to support leg. Engage your quad so your hamstring relaxes. Hold for 30 seconds, then switch sides.
- Lie faceup with knees bent, hip-width apart, and feet flat on the floor.
- Keeping abs engaged, lift hips off the floor and squeeze glutes. Lift toes, pressing heels into the floor for added stability. (Here's more on what to do when your hip flexors are sore AF.)
If You Have 10 Minutes
Go for the three-step process that will help reset your body to better your movement patterns. First, foam roll the muscle group, then stretch the same muscle group, and then perform a few dynamic strength movements that target those areas.
Starting on a roller will get more blood and oxygen to tight spots, says Husain. This warms up your muscles and then, when you stretch, you can more easily improve their range of motion. After stretching, working on more strength-focused activation movements in the opposing muscle group will help counterbalance this tight (and often weak) area. This helps all your muscles work together more efficiently, he says. (Related: Anna Victoria Shares 8 Essential Exercises to Correct Common Body Imbalances)
For example, if you're feeling sore in your shoulders and neck, give this process a try by rolling out your lats, then hold a stretch in child's pose. Wrap it up with resistance band pull-aparts: With arms extended out in front of you, pull a resistance band apart as you engage your back muscles.
Husain suggests focusing on one area of the body each day for this roll, stretch, strengthen sequence. Choose whatever muscles are feeling tight that day, or if you tend to focus on a specific body part per workout, do this recovery work the night before, concentrating on the muscles you'll work the next day. Before leg day, for example, grab a booty band and work those glutes and thighs.
If You Have 30 Minutes
Up your step count with a walk around the block to get your blood flowing and muscles working, or try out some next-level recovery tools.
"To get the lymphatic system moving and flushing waste products, a good 30-minute walk at a moderate pace is simple yet effective," says Drogozewski. This will keep fluids moving throughout the body and nutrients reaching your cells, both of which are crucial to muscle adaptation and recovery. (Learn more about nutrition tips that can help speed up recovery.)
If you'd rather have recovery technology (which has come a long way, BTW) do the work for you, consider finding a physical therapist or gym that have compression boots (a favorite among marathoners) or electrical stimulation (or e-stim) therapy available. More and more fitness studios (Tone House, Mile High Run Club, ReCOVER, all in NYC) are offering compression therapy as part of their regular schedules. How it works: Large, padded boots wrap around your leg from ankle to hip like a blood pressure sleeve. Air moves throughout the boot to massage the muscles in your legs, ridding your body of waste product, like lactic acid, and getting your blood moving more. A pretty heavenly feeling when you're sore.
E-stim is another option that often available at chiropractor's offices or physical therapy sessions. It involves electronic stimulation patches attached to different muscles to make them rapidly contract. It works well on specific muscles that get tight or uncooperative, says Drogozewski, but not necessarily your entire body. (Now, you can even try e-stim in the comfort of your home as part of a recovery tool routine.)
If You Have an Hour or More
Don't let the temptation of Netflix binges lure you into an entire day of zero activity. Even if it's a rest day, you should still get stepping.
"The rest day is misconstrued as the do-nothing day, but on a rest day, it's still important to move," says Husain. "When you have more movement, you have more blood flow. So if you're doing squats tomorrow, do something today to get the hips moving, like walking around your apartment with a band around your legs." (Learn more: How to Use Active Recovery Rest Days to Get the Most Out of Your Workouts)
Days out of the gym are also a good time to get into the yoga studio for a deeper stretch. The meditative benefits, particularly the focus on your breath, also offer a solid recovery pay-off. "Your body repairs in the rest-and-digest phase," says Drogozewski, and meditation could help you get there faster. (BTW, this is what the ultimate recovery day looks like.)
Other more time-intensive, but oh-so-relaxing ways to help your muscles recover include an Epsom salt bath (although science says this has more of a placebo effect than a biological one), an infrared sauna, cold tubs, or a sports massage that'll really work out any tension.
No matter how you choose to recover, just recover. "Don't worry about what you should be doing, and focus on what you can do in that moment—start small and when you have time, build upon it," says Drogozewski of a good recovery mentality. His mantra: "A little bit of something is better than a whole lot of nothing."