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boost blood flow for recovery: man in sauna

4 Ways To Boost Blood Flow For Optimal Post-Workout Recovery

Recovery is all anyone can talk about right now—and I’m here for it! People are starting to really understand that their recovery efforts are just as important, if not more important, than their workouts. After all, it’s not the time you spend in the gym that actually makes you stronger, faster, or better conditioned. Rather, it’s your response to that workout, which we call an “adaptation,” that gets the job done. Of course, for an adaptation to occur, you need to recover.

If you’re serious about your gym time, you also need to be serious about your recovery. Consider this article a quick guide to some of my favorite recovery practices—and how they might benefit your progress over time. 

What Does Recovery Really Involve?

First off, we need to address the obvious: What is recovery? Simply put, recovery is the process of returning what was ‘lost’ due to exercise. And what do we lose during exercise? Well, a few things:

  1. Water (from sweat)
  2. Electrolytes (from sweat)
  3. Energy, in the form of glycogen (stored carbohydrates) and even body fat
  4. Protein, in the form of damaged muscle fibers that need to be repaired

Exercise professionals typically recommend a handful of nutrition and hydration efforts to ensure we replenish what we lose during a workout—but my personal point of view is that it shouldn’t be a one-to-one exchange. Ideally, we want to overflow the bucket. This is termed “recovery-adaptation,” and involves returning what was lost and then some, so that you have extra materials handy to make your muscles bigger, stronger, or better conditioned (depending on the exercise you did).

Read More: New Research: The Limit Does Not Exist On Post-Workout Protein

Blood: The Mississippi River, But Better

While your nutrition and hydration efforts are clearly essential to proper recovery, there’s another crucial component to consider: How do your food and water get to your muscles?Enter the vascular system.

Think of your vascular system—which entails your arteries, veins, and capillaries—as a mighty river system. Large rivers all over the world are used to transport goods back and forth on massive boats, and your vascular system does the same with nutrients. 

When you eat food, your digestive system breaks it down into its simplest components; proteins become amino acids, carbs become glucose, and fats turn into fatty acids. These tiny bits and pieces are then absorbed into your bloodstream and delivered to tissues that need them. Bonus: When the delivery ship stops by and drops off some nutrients, it can also pick up some cellular waste products and send those down the excretion pathway. 

Given this, embracing blood flow is a key strategy for enhancing recovery. The more blood you can get to a sore muscle, the more nutrients and healing factors you can deliver—and the more cellular waste you can clear out. 

Blood Flow-Boosting Recovery Modalities

The following recovery modalities work to support your bounce-back (and positive adaptation) by enhancing that vital circulation. 

Sauna

Hitting the sauna is a popular pastime for those who crush it in the gym—and there’s more to it than just the fact that it feels good. Saunas are purposefully hot, generally making you sweat quite a bit. But really, the important perk is happening under your skin. You see, as you warm up, vasodilation, or the increase in size of your blood vessels, increases blood flow throughout your body. This allows more blood to flow to—and away from—your sore muscles. Moreover, increasing body heat often also helps alleviate some soreness and “loosens” your muscles, which can support a greater pain-free range of motion in periods of intense soreness.

Compression

Compression can be a useful trick, especially for local muscle injuries. If your entire body is sore, slipping into a full-body compression suit probably isn’t practical. However, if your calves are sore after a tough run or something similar, compression socks might help. How does compression help? In short, it helps move inflammation from the site (your sore muscle) by enhancing venous return (a.k.a. blood flow away from your muscles and back to the heart). Doing so helps get rid of any extra blood or fluid pooling in the area, which oftentimes reduces soreness. Remember, part of enhancing blood flow is helping our vascular system get rid of cellular waste, so propping up venous return can be a solid recovery modality.

Active Recovery

Active recovery is, by far, the cheapest and most accessible option for enhancing blood flow during a recovery state. All “active recovery” refers to is some sort of movement that involves your whole body and increases full-body blood flow throughout the body. Go for a walk! Take a hike! Try yoga! Any of these activities will also likely warm up your muscles, making them feel looser and helping you move with more comfort.

Supplements

Of course, supplements are always a potential option to enhance blood flow for recovery purposes. Many people associate nitric oxide-boosting supplements with pre-workouts, as they boost blood flow to enhance performance and achieve a satisfying “pumped-up” look. And surely they are helpful for all of that! That said, these supplements can also be useful for inducing vasodilation during your recovery period. So give yourself permission to chug down your favorite pump supplement after you leave the gym, in addition to on your way in.

Read More: 5 Ways To Add Beets To Your Training Routine For Fitness Gains

A Note On Ice and Cold Exposure

Icing is the opposite idea of hopping in the sauna. Icing causes vasoconstriction, which makes blood vessels smaller, rendering it more difficult to deliver nutrients. This makes icing not particularly helpful for long-term recovery, despite its enduring popularity as a post-training tactic. 

Some research suggests that while cold therapy like ice baths can indeed reduce inflammation and perceived muscle soreness, it might also attenuate some of the physiological processes essential for long-term adaptation to exercise. In fact, one study found that cold water immersion after strength training reduced long-term gains in muscle mass and strength. 

As such, in scenarios when rapid recovery is more critical than long-term adaptation (such as during competitions or tournaments in which athletes must perform multiple times within a short period), the immediate benefits of reduced soreness and inflammation might outweigh the potential drawbacks regarding adaptation.

However, if you’re just hitting routine training sessions and focusing on long-term improvements, it may be beneficial to avoid or limit the use of cold therapy. Instead, focus on other recovery strategies that do not potentially interfere with the body’s adaptive processes to training. 

The Bottom Line

Since recovery is heavily reliant on blood flow, using multiple modalities to enhance blood flow in the hours and days after a tough training session can definitely assist in the process. It’s important to understand that these methods won’t take days off your recovery time; if you crushed legs on Monday, you’ll still probably be sore on Thursday. However, your soreness might be a level four out of 10 instead of a six out of 10. You can also take that surface-level perk as a sure sign of greater blood flow-related benefits happening beneath the surface that all support sick gains.


Known as ‘The Muscle Ph.D.,’ Dr. Jacob Wilson has a knack for transforming challenging, complex concepts into understandable lessons that can support your body composition and health goals. A skeletal muscle physiologist and sports nutrition expert, Wilson is a leader in muscle sports nutrition. As the CEO of The Applied Science & Performance Institute, he researches supplementation, nutrition, and their impact on muscle size, strength, and power.

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