If you haven’t noticed, recovery sure is trendy. And, it’s about time the fitness world loosened its grip on brutally hard workouts and embraced the glories of slowing down. But instead of the tried-and-true methods like sleep, nutrition, and gentle movement, we’ve made recovery a regimen in and of itself. We can’t simply rest; we have to be doing something—foam rolling, massage gunning, saunaing—in order to feel like we’re contributing to our health goals.
With more tools than ever at our disposal and the constant bombardment of fitness influencers’ cold plunge videos, recovery has gotten a tad out of hand. “Athletes can indeed take recovery too far,” says Tanner Neuberger, DPT, physical therapist at Athletico Physical Therapy. “If an athlete is using too many recovery modalities, it can impact their current training,” he says. Paul Longworth, athletic trainer and recovery specialist at PR Health, agrees: “The general mindset right now is that more is always better,” he says. “That’s rarely the case with training and recovery.” In fact, Neuberger notes that if you go too hard with your recovery, you could increase your healing time or cause more muscle damage.
Take cold plunges, for example. A quick dip a few times a week has the potential to relieve soreness and improve the rate which muscles muscle re-oxygenate after exercise. But spend too much time in the ice bath and you risk losing the benefits you hoped to gain (and could potentially get hypothermia, to boot. “You’ll see people doing cold plunges where they’re breaking the ice to get in, and they do it every single day for as long as they can,” says Longworth. But the water doesn’t have to be nearly as cold as what people think. (“Really, as long as it’s under 50 degrees,” he says you’ll reap benefits, and a 2016 review even found that temperatures between roughly 51 and 59 Fahrenheit are the most effective at relieving soreness.) If you’re dipping into freezing water, you only need to submerge for three minutes, three times a week at most, according to Longworth. “Any more than that and your body starts acclimating to it,” he says. That’s why recovery-focused wellness centers, like Remedy Place, will control the temperature and duration of ice baths for visitors.
Other modalities, like massage guns and foam rollers, also carry risks of improper use, so you probably don’t need to hammer away at your sore hip flexor for 20 minutes. Both Neuberger and Longworth recommend using it for a few minutes per muscle group and the Hypervolt 2 manual recommends approximately 60 seconds per region. After that, “we can increase swelling and bruising and make muscle tears worse,” says Longworth. Neuberger recommends keeping your total session duration to 30 minutes or less. And with massage guns, you’re not really supposed to push down: It is “only supposed to only deviate the surface of your skin by a few millimeters,” Longworth says.
Similarly, at-home cupping can carry a risk of burns and foam rollers can cause harmful effects because they put a high mechanical load on the underlying tissue, when the equipment is used improperly. But you don’t need to inflict obvious damage to be misusing them. Neuberger notes that if you feel more sore the day after recovery, that’s a pretty good sign you’re overdoing it.