The Science Behind 4 Popular Muscle Recovery Trends

Interested in what scientific research has to say about muscle recovery? Loads of athletes and marathon runners tout various techniques when it comes to helping muscles recover and preventing delayed onset muscle soreness after intense training. If you’re looking to sift through the claims and find real science-backed recovery methods, don’t miss this quick guide:

The Science Behind 4 Popular Muscle Recovery Trends


After a high-intensity training session, your muscles are literally shredded. Tiny microtears in muscle fibers cue the body to send special protein cells to start rebuilding the muscle even stronger. While researchers understood both this process and how massage played a role in relieving muscle tension, it wasn’t until a 2012 study published in Science Translational Medicine that researchers revealed what type of activity was going on on a cellular level inside the muscle after a massage.

What they found through biopsies of muscle tissue from 11 male participants in their 20’s in the hours following an intense cycling session was intriguing. A 10-minute massage of the muscle resulted in increased mitochondrial production in cells (mitochondria provide cells energy) as well as stimulation of biochemical sensors that transmit inflammation-reducing signals to muscle cells. The conclusion? Even a short massage of muscle tissue has the potential to speed up recovery times and reduce muscle fatigue.

Electrical Muscle Stimulation

Hooking your body up with electrodes that send low-current electrical currents through your muscles may sound like it’s out of a sci-fi movie, however, lots of athletes utilize this technique for muscle recovery. The belief is that electric stimulation of sore, fatigued, or weak muscles helps increase blood flow and decrease inflammation.

What does the science say though? The jury is essentially still out on this one as more concrete scientific research is needed to fully understand the positive effects of electrical stimulation. A TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) unit with customizable intensity for varying needs has been shown in some studies, however, to enhance metabolite removal and stimulate muscle contraction and relaxation which promotes better blood flow. These effects may support faster muscle recovery and alleviate muscle pain in the short-term.

Cold Therapy

Taking a dip in an ice bath isn’t just for the polar bear club! Many athletes are taking to the frozen waters for the boost they need to bounce back quicker after a long training run or workout session. Do ice baths work better than an active cool down session though? They have been standard practice for many runners for years because it was believed that reducing the temperature and blood flow in the muscles also helped reduce inflammation. 

New research published in the Journal of Physiology has found, however, that ice baths are no more effective than an active recovery session. Scientists performed muscle biopsies on 9 active men following recovery sessions from lower-body resistance workouts. They found soaking in cold water versus cycling to cool down did not reveal significant differences in cellular stress and inflammatory responses in muscle tissue. Still, some runners swear by it, though experts suggest keeping cold therapy to a minimum, as too much of it could alter the body’s natural inflammation response. Other methods of cold therapy include applying ice packs to muscles or laying in a cryotherapy chamber.


You may remember the topic of “cupping” exploding after the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio when Michael Phelps was seen proudly displaying his prowess in the pool covered in small dark circles. But what exactly is cupping? And can it help runners? 

A meta-analysis reveals that cupping has its roots in ancient Chinese medicine, like acupuncture, focusing on the qi, or channels of energy running through the body. Small cups made of materials like bamboo and glass are heated up and placed on specific acupoints on the body (meridians). Cupping therapists believe that this technique prevents blood from stagnating in the muscles and promotes circulation.

Whether it is a win for runners who are looking to stave off muscle soreness and speed up recovery, the scientific jury is still out and further studies need to be done to narrow down how exactly it affects the body on a biochemical level.

Additional Thoughts

Other popular muscle recovery modalities include wearing compression garments and foam rolling. Compression therapy is believed to aid circulation of oxygen-rich blood to exhausted muscles while foam rolling helps to work out tight fascia and knead restricted tissues. Both of these methods have appreciable scientific backing as to their role in decreasing muscle soreness and increasing voluntary muscle activation.

-By Joe Fleming

2 Responses to The Science Behind 4 Popular Muscle Recovery Trends

  1. Frangipani April 13, 2018 at 6:16 am #

    PEMF devices like EarthPulse are more effective and non-invasive these days. Everyone from olympic athletes to golfers getting back in the game have been going ga ga over some of these things!

  2. Johanna April 14, 2018 at 1:49 pm #

    Thanks for the article! I was just at a race expo and a team from Cedars-Sinai medical center had a table to promote a new recovery device. Apparently, it was developed to prevent DVT in surgical patients, but they later realized it may work for athletes. It sounded super cool and they said a lot of triathletes use it in training. It’s a type of electrical muscle stimulation but sounded like it was easier to get into since you can buy it for $30 instead of a more expensive TENS device (It’s called Firefly Recovery.) I’m debating getting one just to try out since my friends and I are driving back home on a loooong road trip the same day we run our next marathon…hmmm. Although maybe an ice bath and massage before the road trip would work, also, based on this article. But…ice baths! Nooooo!

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