Dossier: Stress and relaxation

Rest and recovery after sport: dos & don’ts

Sport and physical activity are good for both our body and mind. But whether you run, swim, cycle or do strength training, the body is put under strain. Rest and recovery helps improve performance and prevent injuries.

Text: Kilian Bühler; photo: iStock

Why is rest and recovery after sport so important?

Exercise – especially intense exercise – often creates tiny tears in the muscles. These need time to heal. That’s why it’s important to plan regular phases of recovery in your training schedule.

Recovery not only gives the body enough time to repair these micro-injuries – done properly, it also prepares the body for the next sporting activity. “If you want to see results, you have to give your body sufficient time to recover so that it can heal and grow stronger,” explains Dr Karin van Baak from the Sports Medicine and Performance Center at Colorado University in an interview with UCHealth Today. Muscles only grow when the micro-tears heal, not during the training session itself.

The recovery time itself varies from person to person, depending on your age, the sport you do and your general level of fitness. Generally speaking, however, the more intensive the training, the more recovery time you’ll need. And if you still have sore muscles or feel flat after the recovery phase, experts recommend that you rest for a day longer.

What is supercompensation and what are the benefits?

Supercompensation is a key term in relation to recovery after sport. Put simple, it describes the following phenomenon: Due to physical fatigue, the performance level drops immediately after a workout. However, during the course of recovery, performance increases beyond the original level. This way, the body is better prepared for similar stresses in the future.

The 5 phases of supercompensation

Training stress

During the training session or physical activity, muscles, tendons and joints are subject to an intense strain. Energy is consumed.


After training, your energy reserves are empty. The muscles that you used may show micro-injuries, resulting in sore muscles or fatigue.


In this phase, the damaged muscle fibres and tissue are repaired. Energy reserves are refilled.


The body responds to the training stress by adjusting and getting stronger. This improves performance and – depending on the type of training – leads to greater muscle mass or better endurance.


In this phase, performance stabilises at a higher level. The training results are maintained for a longer period of time.

Dos & don’ts

The supercompensation phase usually lasts up to two days. During this time, it is especially important to eat properly, get enough sleep and recover. If you don’t, you run the risk of suffering from overtraining syndrome and your performance can be drastically reduced. Three things you need to bear in mind: 

Listen to your body

If you feel tired, weak or groggy, you urgently need to take a break from training. Take warning signs such as pain or exhaustion seriously and give your body the time it needs to recovery completely.

Get the nutrients you need

After a workout, provide your body with the nutrients it needs to repair muscles and rebuild energy reserves. If you don’t eat enough, you will delay the regeneration process and prolong recovery.

Plan rest days

Rest days from training give the muscles, joints and tissues the time they need to recover and repair. If you don’t take rest days and you start training again too soon, you increase the risk of fatigue, strain and even injury.

How do you recover properly and how long does recovery take?

Should we train for three days, then take a break? Unfortunately, muscle recovery isn’t that simple, because proper recovery after sport has to take the following factors into account:

Warm-up and cool-down

Stretching before a workout and cooling down afterwards play an important part in the recovery process. A warm-up helps to prepare the muscles for the strain ahead by increasing blood flow and improving flexibility. And a cool-down helps break down the lactic acid that builds up during exercise. 

Sufficient sleep

Sleep is one of the most important factors in the recovery process. While we sleep, the body recovers, repairs tissues and replenishes energy reserves. Getting enough good sleep boosts recovery and promotes supercompensation.

Active recovery

Active recovery activities such as gentle stretching, yoga or swimming can help increase the blood flow to the muscles and reduce muscle stiffness. These activities also boost the circulation and therefore facilitate the removal of metabolic waste products, which aids faster recovery.

Varied training

Varied training can help ease the strain on specific muscles while targeting others. By varying the type and intensity of your training, you ensure that your body has sufficient time to recover and continually improve.

Optimum recovery time

The optimal recovery time depends on factors such as the type and intensity of the workout, individual fitness level and genetic predisposition. As a rule of thumb, it usually takes around 24 to 48 hours after an intensive workout. Be sure to give your body sufficient time to recover to prevent injuries.

Tips for rapid recovery

Can you shorten the recovery phase? Studies show that sleep plays an important role in recovery. The duration and quality of your sleep is important. If you want to recover quickly from training sessions, you need to sleep properly. “This means, work, the TV and your smartphone should be banned from the bedroom. Develop habits and routines that prepare your body and mind for sleep,” says Baak. You can also do the following to help your muscles recover:

Stretching properly

Stretching, especially after training, can help reduce muscle stiffness and optimise flexibility. Be sure to warm up properly before training to prevent injuries!

Cold therapy

Cold treatments, such as ice baths or cold packs, can help reduce inflammation and swelling by decreasing the blood flow. However, caution is advised when using cold treatments and, if in doubt, you should talk to an expert.

Massage and fascia training

Massages and fascia training can boost circulation, reduce sore muscles and improve flexibility. Regular massages or foam roller exercises can help speed up your recovery.

Sufficient fluids

It is important to drink sufficient fluids to supply the body with the nutrients it needs and to support the elimination of metabolic waste products. So, remember to drink plenty of water.

What role does nutrition play in recovery after sport?

Be sure to get your recommended daily protein intake. Protein – for example from lean meat, fish, eggs and pulses – is critical for muscle growth and tissue repair. Antioxidants – from fruit and vegetables – also have an anti-inflammatory effect. Carbohydrates are a key energy source for the body. After exercise, you should replenish your glycogen stores with the help of foods like whole grains, fruits and vegetables. And, of course, vitamins and minerals are also essential. These are responsible for the regeneration processes in the body. If you eat a balanced diet, you’re already doing a lot right.