What do you do after a workout? You probably give your muscles time to recover, of course. Working out is hard work! Muscles need recovery time regardless of your age or gender. It’s during recovery that your muscles adapt in a way that makes them larger or stronger, in the case of hypertrophy or strength training. With regard to cardiovascular exercise, your muscles undergo adaptations that give your muscles greater endurance. Unfortunately, we often don’t acknowledge enough the importance of letting muscles recover after a workout.
You’ve probably heard that when you work your muscles against resistance, you shouldn’t work that muscle group again for at least 48 hours. Studies support this idea. It’s also not a good idea to do two back-to-back high-intensity interval sessions. Your muscles and cardiovascular system need at least two days to recover from intense exercise – but that doesn’t take age into account. Does the amount of recovery time you need increase as you age?
Longer Recovery Time?
So far, there’s been limited research looking at the impact of aging on muscle recovery and the results are inconsistent. Some studies, including one looking at master athletes, show that older athletes experience slower muscle recovery in response to exercise. However, other studies show muscle recovery proceeds at the same rate, regardless of age.
So, which should you believe? A recent study, published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2017, looked at this issue. In the study, two groups of subjects did knee extensions and eccentric knee flexions, completing 8 to 10 repetitions. One group was between the ages of 18 and 30 while the second group was 40 to 59 years of age. So, this study really looked at middle-aged adults rather than the elderly.
Once the workouts were over, the researchers measured markers of muscle damage, muscle thickness of the muscles worked via ultrasound, isometric and isokinetic torque, and muscle soreness. The results? There was really no difference between the two groups in terms of maximum isometric torque or peak isokinetic torque at 2 hours, 24 hours, and 48 hours after the workout. Both groups experienced muscle soreness and an increase in markers of muscle damage, but the increase was similar in both groups. This study suggests that middle-aged and younger participants respond similarly to resistance training and the recovery process proceeds at the same rate. However, it would be interesting to see a similar study carried out on three groups, younger, middle-aged, and older/elderly participants, as people over the age of 60 might need longer recovery times even if middle-aged people don’t.
What Determines How Fast Muscles Recover after Exercise?
It’s not clear, from the research that’s out there, whether older muscles need more recovery time and it might depend on other factors that impact muscle recovery. For example, you would expect muscle recovery to be slower after high-intensity exercise or heavy resistance training as opposed to low-intensity exercise or lighter resistance training. For example, if you train your muscles to failure, you work your muscles to the point that they can no longer generate enough force to move a load. This taxes the muscles you worked as well as your nervous system since it had to coordinate the contractions. After a high-intensity lift that forces a muscle to work to failure, you would expect the muscles to need more recovery time, regardless of age. Forty-eight hours between working the same muscle group, in this case, might not be enough. So, intensity is a factor you should consider when planning your recovery.
What about duration? If you do a workout of long duration, like running 10 miles, it places more stress on your body than 20 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio. So, long workouts require more time for optimal recovery. For example, you wouldn’t want to run 10 miles every day. Likewise, if you do a high-intensity workout and you’ve never done one before, it’s more of a shock to your muscles than if you do them regularly. Because it’s unaccustomed exercise, your muscles may need more recovery time. The type of workout matters as well. One study found that older athletes recover more quickly from high-intensity cycling than they do running at an intense pace as the latter creates more muscle damage.
Genetics and diet are a factor in recovery as well. You don’t have control over genetics, but you can add more protein to your diet. Dr. Stuart Phillips, a researcher and specialist in muscle health, at McMaster University recommends 30 to 40 grams of protein right after a workout to make amino acids readily available to the muscles and help speed up repair and recovery. As you might expect, it’s also important to consume enough total calories, as intense workouts deplete glycogen and muscle performance will suffer when your muscles are glycogen depleted. Consuming whole, nutrient-dense foods also ensures your body has the necessary micronutrients it needs for repair.
It’s not clear whether older athletes need more recovery time, but the principles of optimal recovery are the same:
Water is an adequate recovery beverage unless you’ve done a long (greater than 90 minutes) workout. Then, you might benefit from a sports drink to help replace lost electrolytes
Consume a snack with a ratio of 3 or 4 to 1 carbohydrates to protein. 30 to 40 grams of protein will make amino acids immediately available for muscle repair.
Sleep is an under-appreciated component of recovery. It’s during sleep that cells and tissues repair, thereby maximizing muscle recovery. Plus, it’s during deep sleep that your brain releases the most growth hormone to aid in muscle repair. Make sure you’re getting seven-plus hours of quality sleep per night.
Other Recovery Tips
Always end your work-up with a cooldown and stretch. If your muscles feel tight, foam rolling can help loosen them up.
The Bottom Line
Regardless of age, adequate recovery is important and how much recovery time you give your muscles depends upon exercise intensity, duration, and the type of workout. At the very least, don’t strength train the same muscle group more often than 2 or 3 times per week. Don’t forget the basics either – nutrition, sleep, and hydration matter too.
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 21(2), 628-631.
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 31(12): 3454-3462.Berkeley University of California. “Do Older People Need Longer to Recover from Exercise?”