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Why is recovery so often skipped?

Maybe it’s our busy schedules; we’re off to the next thing so fast, often unable to account for the extra half-hour of recovery after workouts. Maybe it’s because we don’t know the best way to recover; with so many muscles and so much information out there, it can be difficult to truly optimize this process.

Recovery is as crucial as cooling down, eating protein, stretching, and hydrating. Simply put, recovery gives your body an opportunity to build muscle while replenishing and repairing following a workout.

Most athletes share an innate desire to be better and a willingness to push themselves to achieve their goals.

For many athletes, it’s a combination. Still, we’re humans who share the same basic biology: muscle fibers that need rebuilding, glycogen stores that need repleting. While supplements shouldn’t be solely relied upon for recovery, they can absolutely augment the process.

Skipping Recovery is a Mistake

Recovery provides ample time to repair the muscle breakdown that happens during a regular workout and should be part of every training plan.

It’s a process that synthesizes protein, rebuilds muscle fibers, restores lost fluids, and allows the body to metabolically remove waste products. In addition to rest, supplements can be introduced to help make the most out of this downtime and reduce muscle soreness.

To put the body in the best position to again break itself down with another workout, recovery is key to progress and even safety, as worn-down muscles are more likely to be injured. Recovery isn’t just important after things like overload training.

In order to benefit from even regular training, it’s necessary to first have a simple recovery process in mind and then add new methods (like supplements).

You've probably heard coaches and trainers lamenting the foundations of recovery for years.

As our muscles are 75% water, hydration is of utmost importance to recovery. Maintaining fluid balance has been shown to play a role in improving endurance performance.Montner1996,HewButler2015 Protein resynthesis also requires hydrated muscles.

Diet can also play a significant role.

Since exercise triggers the breakdown of muscle protein, it’s beneficial to consume some protein after a workout.Kerksick2008 Rebuilding and repairing muscles requires amino acids to promote the development of new muscle tissue.Biolo1997 Carbohydrates play a similarly important role in restoration, as they replenish glycogen stores depleted during workouts. But there's no need to go too crazy: consuming even 0.5–0.7 grams of carbs per pound of body weight within 30 minutes of training can promote adequate glycogen resynthesis.Kerksick2008

When consumed together, protein and carbs can stimulate insulin secretion and promoting glycogen synthesis.Rasmussen1985

Hydration and diet are the traditional ways to enhance recovery. However, these supplements can supercharge the process, helping put the body in the best position to go harder during its next workout.

Recovery Supplements

There are two results when it comes to post-workout supplements used for recovery: objective (measured through research) and subjective (experienced personally).

While some supplements are tried and true, validated with results over years of research, others are more cutting-edge, and still require additional research to provide conclusive results.

Many studies of supplements are conducted on trained athletes in their primes. While great for peak output results, it can be hard to conceptualize the benefits if you don’t fall into that category. That’s why it's important to look at your own performance and feelings when employing supplements in training and recovery.

For further reading, check out our guide to muscle recovery.


Your muscles need protein to rebuild. The body breaks down protein into amino acids, which are then transported throughout the body to be used in protein synthesis for other muscles. Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are the building blocks to maintaining muscle mass.Stoppani2009

BCAAs are a type of essential amino acid, meaning the body can’t produce them itself. Therefore, it is "essential" to obtain them through diet or supplements. Studies where participants incorporated BCAA into a post-workout meal broadly show enhancement of muscle protein recovery.Negro2008 Other studies in rats have showcased beneficial effects on protein synthesis,Yoshida2017 and a study in humans illustrated that BCAA supplementation alleviated skeletal muscle damage.Foure2017

Most BCAA supplements employ the three types of BCAA in some combination: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. However, leucine is often the highest-dosed of the three, as it is the most widely implicated in muscle protein synthesis.Pennings2011

  • How to supplement: About 20g daily, split up in four or five servings
  • When to supplement: Can be consumed pre-workout, but is best employed immediately after a workout
  • Try: Evlution Nutrition BCAA5000

Exogenous Ketones

D-BHB, the ketone body present in some exogenous ketone supplements, acts as an anti-inflammatory recovery tool. This helps reduce exercise-induced oxidative stress from the buildup of free radicals,Haces2008 which can cause damage to cells. BHB can also help reduce inflammation by decreasing the activation of a pro-inflammatory part of the immune system called the NLRP3 inflammasome.Youm2015

BHB can help decrease the impact of exercise on the body. Studies of athletes using an exogenous ketone supplement before a workout have seen a decrease in the breakdown of intramuscular glycogen and protein during exercise when compared to carbs alone.Cox2016

Exogenous ketones also expedited the resynthesis of glycogen by 60%,Holdsworth2017 and boosted signals for protein resynthesis by 2 times when added to normal carbohydrate or protein post-workout nutrition.Vandoorne2017

These benefits help put the muscles in a position to recover effectively, enabling them to replenish the necessary energy stores for your next workout.

  • How to supplement: Take one 35mL after exercise, and another 35mL serving before bed. Do not exceed more than 3 servings per day.
  • When to supplement: 30 minutes after a workout with normal post-workout carbs and protein, and 30 minutes before bed.
  • Try: H.V.M.N. Ketone 2.0


More generic protein supplements, protein powders, or protein-rich foods often contain ample amounts of BCAAs, EAAs (essential amino acids), and leucine. Before splurging on a fancy BCAA supplement, consider increasing your protein intake to build muscles and supplementing as part of a powerful recovery stack. Learn more about ways runners can supplement recovery.

In the first few post-workout hours, consuming protein can help the body repair muscle damage, reduce the response from cortisol (the “stress hormone”), and speed glycogen replenishment (especially if you aren’t able to consume the optimal amount of carbohydrate).Ivy2004 After a workout, increasing the availability of protein in the body accelerates the resolution of muscle inflammation and promotes muscle-building.Yang2018 Whole foods like chicken, milk, eggs, yogurt, and beans can provide necessary protein, while supplementation further introduces protein into the body, making it readily available for use.

There are a few different options athletes can take with regards to protein.

Whey is the most popular protein for workout recovery; the body absorbs it the fastest and many consider it the most effective for muscle protein synthesis.Tang2009 Consider using whey as soon as you finish your workout.

Casein is more beneficial for long-term recovery because of the time it takes the body to absorb it. Casein protein releases amino acids that slow the digestive process; one study found that consuming casein before bed led to a 34% reduction in protein breakdown.Boirie1997 This makes it ideal to take before sleeping, as it slowly releases amino acids to keep your muscles fed overnight.vanLoon2004

You may be asking, "why didn't you include soy-based proteins here?" Though they're an option for vegetarian or vegan athletes, science indicates they're less effective than milk-based proteins.

Protein-rich foods can also be a source of creatine, which is an organic acid best known for its positive effect on explosive strength performance. But it could help you with recovery too. For example, one study showed creatine supplementation reduced fatigue in swimmersAnomasiri2004 and another study showed creatine helped speed up glycogen re-synthesis.

Together, whey and casein protein supplements can be incorporated daily to tackle different aspects of recovery and encourage muscle growth and rebuilding after a workout.

That said, many whole foods are just as good (if not better) in terms of protein content—but they’re less convenient and tasty than a protein shake.

  • How to supplement: For serious athletes, one gram per pound of bodyweight of creatine (creatine monohydrate is best) is sufficient; for other athletes, about 0.5–0.75 grams is ideal.
  • When to supplement: Immediately after a workout (whey), or before bed (casein).
  • Try: Muscle Feast Whey Protein Isolate or MusclePharm Combat 100% Casein


The process of recovery can start even before your workout ends. Some supplements, taken before or during exercise, can reduce the damage exercises cause the body, making it easier to go again.

We’ve previously discussed the role of lactate in exercise and the resulting acidity. During periods of intense exercise, lactate accumulates in the blood, making it acidic. This is often associated with fatigue; when our blood is too acidic, our brains send signals (read: nausea) to make our muscles stop working so we can recycle all that extra lactate.

Buffers are meant to protect against lactate buildup and provide resistance against fatigue caused by acid accumulation. Two of the most popular are Beta-Alanine and sodium bicarbonate.

Beta-Alanine is an amino acid not used in protein synthesis but, instead, is converted into carnosine, which helps reduce lactic acid accumulation in the muscles. This can lead to improved athletic performance and reduced fatigue.Derave2007,Trexler2015

By reducing lactate accumulation (and thus the stress of exercise on the body), Beta-Alanine can help make it easier for the body to recover by making that recovery time shorter.

Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) also protects the body against acidity. By binding to the protons that cause acidity, sodium bicarbonate reduces blood pH and potentially provides resistance against fatigue.McNaughton2008 Regarding recovery, sodium bicarbonate offers similar benefits as Beta-Alanine–namely, less recovery time.

  • How to supplement: For Beta-Alanine, two and eight grams daily (split evenly throughout the day) depending on the person. For sodium bicarbonate, 200–300mg per pound of bodyweight.
  • When to supplement: Both should be taken 30–60 minutes pre-workout
  • Try: For Beta-Alanine, try Transparent Labs Beta-Alanine, and for sodium bicarbonate, try Prescribed for Life Sodium Bicarbonate


Fish oil is a popular supplement used to obtain omega-3 fatty acids, with the goal of preventing the process of inflammation.Mori2004 Inflammation refers to a spectrum of processes that can affect healthy people (such as athletes), as well as those who are less healthy (such as heart disease patients or people with joint pain).

The two main fatty acids in omega-3 fish oils are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). These are broken down into signaling molecules called eicosanoids that can block inflammation pathways in the cell.

For athletes, acute, low-level inflammation can actually be beneficial for performance because it encourages healthy adaption. However, chronic, high levels of inflammation can be detrimental—so taking a sensible approach in deciding when to use anti-inflammatory supplements can be beneficial for an athlete’s long-term career.

Inflammation happens throughout the body–not just in the muscles.

There are other body systems in which it can be helpful for athletes to reduce inflammation. For example, research suggests that fish oil supplementation helped decrease airway inflammation, and improved post-exercise lung function by 64%.Ade2014 This is important because, during exercise, airways can narrow, restricting airflow—which can be detrimental, because oxygen is necessary for muscle function.

  • How to supplement: 250mg–500mg daily.
  • When to supplement: Best taken daily and incorporated into daily nutrition routines.
  • Try: H.V.M.N. Kado


The legalization of marijuana has made the use of cannabis plant constituents slightly less taboo. Though many people are only beginning to understand its benefits, cannabis has quite a rich history of human use. As it's become more widely available, research on cannabis as a supplement for recovery has increased.

Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of the 104 chemical compounds known as cannabinoids found in cannabis.ElSohly2014 CBD is extracted from the cannabis plant and then diluted with a carrier oil. Its use for athletes is becoming more widespread.

CBD isn’t psychoactive—that’s tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is also found in cannabis and causes the effects often associated with marijuana. The absence of psychoactivity may be part of the reason for CBD’s increasing adoption as a natural pain relief alternative to pharmaceuticals.

For recovery, it has been used as a pain treatment for thousands of years.Hill2017

Interestingly, the body has a system called the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which helps regulate several bodily functions from appetite to sleep to pain.Mouslech2009 The body produces these endocannabinoids, which are neurotransmitters that bind to cannabinoid receptors in the nervous system. Essentially, our bodies have a special way to process and use cannabinoids.

Studies on both rats and humans illustrate the benefits of CBD. Two studies (in rats) showed reduced pain response to surgical incision and reduced sciatic nerve pain and inflammation.Genaro2017,Costa2007 In humans (using a product called Sativex), studies in subjects with rheumatoid arthritis resulted in reduced pain during movement and at rest, and improved sleep quality after taking CBD.Blake2006

The most popular delivery method is oral consumption through a dropper—but other methods include topical creams and foods mixed with CBD oil.

  • How to supplement: 1mg is a standard serving size (about one dropper full), but depending on experience with CBD and size/weight, that dose can be increased or decreased
  • When to supplement: As needed
  • Try: Green Roads CBD Oil (different strengths depending on user), or CBDPure Hemp Oil 600

Building a Recovery Schedule

It's important to budget recovery time into your training program. In particular, the timing of recovery in relation to exercise and supplementation is paramount, as each supplement and technique should be optimized for best results.

Before a workout: Incorporate pre-exercise supplements that might mitigate the damage caused by the exercise. Examples include nitrates, bicarbonate, exogenous ketones, and BCAAs 30 minutes before exercise. Omega-3 can also be taken daily for best results. A strong pre-workout recovery routine is important if you are in a heavy training block or have multiple races/sessions in close succession.

After a workout: Fuel that includes a mix of carbohydrates (for glycogen resynthesis) and protein-rich in BCAAs or leucine (for muscle repair) should be taken as soon as possible after exercise. CBD oil can also be used as necessary, with no required timeframe. Active recovery can also be employed here, including methods like foam rolling, stretching, a cool-down period (like walking or slowly cycling), and ice baths (although the placebo effect is likely a big contributor to any benefit here).

One aspect of recovery that’s too often overlooked is rest.

While this isn’t a supplement, sleep and rest days are necessary for muscles to recover. Lack of sleep can lead to muscle degradation,Dattilo2011 but many don’t get the ideal 7–9 hours nightly.

Sleep quality can be optimized by creating an ideal bedtime environment. Screens can have a negative impact here,Exelmans2016 so 60–90 minutes of "screenless" time before bed is important to combat the blue light from electronics, which can decrease our natural melatonin. Blackout curtains and a cooler temperature in the bedroom can also encourage restful sleep.

Similarly, recovery days are important to ensuring muscles have adequate time to replenish depleted energy stores, fluid loss, and repair damaged tissues.Parra2008 Between complete rest days, techniques for active recovery—like easy runs, yoga, cycling, or plyometrics—can increase blood flow and promote recovery.

Supplementing Recovery

These are just a few of the supplements you can employ to help optimize the recovery process; one that can begin before a workout (pre-hab), continues immediately post-workout, and extends several hours after exercise. Without thoughtfully approaching recovery, you could be compromising those muscle gains.

Things like protein and BCAA have been employed by athletes for decades, but it’s also worth investigating newer supplements like CBD to see if they are beneficial for your workout (and recovery) goals.

The benefits of supplements are best explored on a personal basis, as each person will react and employ them differently. Regardless of the approach, recovery should be taken seriously and implemented consistently for best results.

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