by Ben Greenfield
I'm Ben Greenfield. Health and fitness expert, voted America's Top Personal Trainer, podcaster, writer, and self-proclaimed obsessive athletic competitor.
For years I raced Ironman triathlons, but have recently traded in the incessant chronic cardio for something more exciting and admittedly more masochistic: Obstacle racing. With that challenge came many more scrapes, bruises, sprains, and strains – more injuries than I ever experienced racing triathlons.
These bone, muscle and joint injuries aren't happening because I'm weak or unprepared, but are rather just natural consequences from shoving the human body to its limits. Living life to its full extent.
Whatever you want to call it.
In an effort to combat injuries, recover faster, and prevent myself from getting even more sprains and strains, I've tried a lot of weird, excessive, inconvenient, and expensive treatments… Acupuncture, stem cell therapy, cold laser devices, photobiomodulation, you name it.
However, most of those treatments aren't readily available – nor necessary – for the general population.
So rather than giving you a big, intimidating list of a few dozen things to do when you're injured, here instead are four simple, practical and natural ways I fix my joints, bones and injuries fast (and almost free)… without drugs, surgery, or fancy biohacking equipment.
1. Hot-Cold Contrast
After learning about (and experiencing myself) the benefits of hot-cold contrast therapy, I decided to install an endless swimming pool called an AquaFitness pool at my house right next to my hot tub. (Both are non-chlorinated and are instead kept clean with an ozone filter and ClearChoice Enzymes). I keep the pool at 60 degrees Fahrenheit and the hot tub at 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
Once per week, no matter what, I do a hot-cold contrast session in which I swim, tread or move in the cold water for 8 minutes, soak in the hot tub for 2 minutes, then repeat for a total of 30 minutes. To enhance blood flow and decrease inflammation, I'll do this protocol as often as every day if I'm injured or if I'm tapering for a race.
Hot-cold contrast therapy has several physiological effects that can enhance recovery, including:
- Reflexive vasoconstriction to cold followed by vasodilation from heat (blood vessel “pumping”)
- Slowing of nerve conduction velocity, which decreases pain and muscle spasms
- Decreased firing of the muscle spindles, which can reduce the stiffness that occurs when injured
- Increased flow of inflammatory byproducts out of muscle tissue, which is especially useful in acute inflammation stages in which swelling can cause pain and discomfort
However, in the likely case you don't have access to an endless swimming pool or hot tub at your house, here are some other examples of hot-cold contrast that you can implement:
- Take a 5-minute shower with 20 seconds cold, 10 seconds hot, 10 times through.
- Go to the gym and sit in the sauna for 5-10 minutes, then jump into a cold shower for 2 minutes, and do rounds for 20-30 minutes.
- Take a 20-minute hot magnesium salt bath, then follow it up with a 5 minute icy cold shower.
Want something slightly more complex? Here's one that I assigned to one of my athletes last week. He called it the “Killer Cold Pool Protocol”, and it involves 10 minutes of cold pool immersion (use an underwater .mp3 player if you get bored) and then a transition into a hot sauna for 10 minutes of yoga “sun salutations”, followed by going back into cold pool for 10 minutes, and so on, with a goal of completing 3 rounds for a total of 60 minutes.
Afterwards, he said: “Wasn't as bad as I thought, after the first 60 secs or so. By the 3rd set, I waded right in and was no issue. Amazing how much of this is psychological. Felt like a fu&%#*g beast afterward. Haven't felt like that in a long time.”
Give it a try yourself!
2. Deep Tissue Work
So here's the deal: I've written many times before about the benefits of foam rolling and deep tissue work, and extolled the virtues of books like “Becoming A Supple Leopard” and “Ready To Run” (both by Dr. Kelly Starrett) as the best resources to learn how to do deep tissue work the right way.
But since this particular article is about the practical application of deep tissue work, and exactly what I do in my own program, here it is in all its glory:
- Daily: Every morning, I use a tiny little ball with ridges in it (called a Beastie Ball), and I roll each foot for 60 seconds, and then roll the outside of each hip for another 60 seconds. Why these sections? I know from experience that the bottom of my feet and the outside of my hips are the two areas of my body that get the tightest when I'm in training, so I prioritize hitting those every day, and it makes a night and day difference.
- 2x/per week: I do a full body foam rolling session (with a Rumble Roller) that takes about 20 minutes, starting with my low back and progressing to upper shoulders, neck, under armpits, chest, hips, hamstrings, calves, quadriceps, IT band, and adductors. By the time I finish, I am usually dripping with sweat, and I count this rolling session as “workout time”. Most people think foam rolling involves about 2 minutes of messing around with a foam roller, but this doesn't count. It's just foreplay. Instead, you need dedicated, scheduled and planned sessions of rolling around on the floor and making sweet love to your foam roller. Seriously.
- 1x/month: I do a longer 60-90 minute full body massage or full body foam rolling session to get all my muscles and joints feeling their best. Make it deep, make it hard, make it hurt so good.
If you can just start doing those three pieces of deep tissue work, you're going notice your body change in… drum roll please… 9-12 months. Yep, that's right. Just like muscle gain, fat loss, getting to the extreme edge of cardiovascular fitness, and any other beneficial positive change, it takes patience to change your body, and it takes that long for your fascia, ligaments and tendons to begin to adapt and become more mobile.
But the hard work pays off: You'll feel like a completely different person, hardly ever get injured, and your training will improve because of it.
3. Topical Treatments
Truth be told, about once a week some beauty or healthcare company sends me some fancy bottle of some new magical potion or lotion that is supposed to instantly make soreness and injuries vanish.
Not only do many of these creams, lotions, and topical treatments contain unhealthy active ingredients, but they simply don't seem to work for me at all.
So what does actually work? Here's what's been effective for me in terms of topical treatments for muscle soreness and injuries:
- Transdermal magnesium lotion. Every day, post-workout, I step out of my cold shower, completely dry my body, and then apply transdermal magnesium lotion (not spray) to any major muscles I've worked, and rub it in for about 30 seconds. Compared to magnesium spray, magnesium lotion absorbs much better and doesn't leave me with a dry, scratchy or itchy feeling, or leave any white residue. The magnesium relaxes muscles and creates tissue saturation, which allows the mineral to travel to the body’s tissues and cells at a high dose without losses through the gastrointestinal tract (exactly why oral magnesium can give you “disaster pants”).
- Frankincense oil. If I have a muscle that has been strained, is having spasms, or a sore joint, I apply topical frankincense oil. Yes, frankincense, just like they brought little baby Jesus. The stuff works!
Incidentally, if you really need to amplify delivery of magnesium or frankincense into your muscle tissue, here's a tip I learned from Dr. Jeff Spencer: If you happen to have an electrostimulation device, you can slap it on over whatever topical treatment you've just applied, wrap an ace bandage around it, and allow the EMS device to drive the topical treatment deeper into the tissue. Throw some ice on top for even more potency.
I think that's a pretty cool biohack, especially considering it comes straight from the guy who is responsible for ensuring Tour de France cyclists bounce back as quickly as possible between grueling stages.
I've talked pretty extensively about nutrients that can support the body's inflammatory response, especially when it comes to recovering from exercise and injuries. These include commonly-known foods and supplements such as ginger, tart cherry juice, collagen, fish oil, proteolytic enzymes, and much more… Overall, it's incredibly important to eat a widely anti-inflammatory diet when you're training super hard or trying to bounce back from an injury.
With that being said, there are also some newly discovered and effective natural foods and nutrients that you should definitely be including in your diet if you're sore, injured, or just want to maintain the health of your joints and muscles for optimal training longevity.
A post on exercise recovery would not be complete without the mention of some of my favorite little helpers: amino acids.
Because amino acids are the building blocks of protein, they can basically help your body with anything it needs related to exercise, recovery, injury prevention, and more. And essential amino acids (EAAs) are even more critical, as they are essential for bodily functions and can only be obtained through diet or supplementation.
One study showed that consuming an EAA mixture after resistance training increased muscle protein synthesis and net muscle protein balance, indicating that ingesting EAAs post-workout may stimulate faster muscle repair, recovery and growth.
Another study showed that older men who consumed EAAs after resistance exercise had greater satellite cell proliferation capacity than those who didn’t supplement, meaning they were better able to regenerate skeletal muscle. This is especially important information if you’re at all interested in anti-aging, since muscle mass and resistance training can help you look and feel younger.
Because EAAs have such a potent fatigue-fighting, muscle-building, and recovery-enhancing effect, they’re one of my top recommended supplements for both performance and recovery.
Sure, you can get amino acids through dietary sources rich in protein. But the fact is sometimes it's not only inconvenient to keep tons of steak or chicken with you, they're also high in calories and their protein absorption rate is much lower than taking a pure amino acid supplement.
That's why I supplement with EAAs using a clean, plant-based, super low-calorie formula that is free of any added sugars or artificial ingredients. It's easy, effective, and the boost it provides to my workouts and recovery is undeniable.
This ingredient likely isn't new to most folks (especially if you're at least remotely familiar with ancient Ayurvedic practices). Turmeric's mainstream popularity has been rising for years, and it's now officially a beloved ingredient in the general health-sphere, being added to everything from specialty lattes to bone broth to natural skincare.
But in all honesty, turmeric's sudden stardom is for good reason. The research on it's anti-inflammatory properties are pretty astounding, with most of the spotlight on curcuminoids: fat-soluble substances in turmeric.
However, newer research shows that there are also lesser-known water-soluble polysaccharides in turmeric that might actually have additional, more joint-specific health benefits. And because these turmerosaccharides are water-soluble, they're much more bioavailable to the human body.
(Check out this article if you want to learn more about turmerosaccharides, and how they're different than your usual curcumin supplement.)
All in all, turmeric's proven anti-inflammatory properties make it a great ingredient to add to your natural toolkit for recovering from exercise-related injuries and soreness.
Unlike turmeric, this one may be new to you! Haritaki, also known as Terminalia chebula, is a tree that grows throughout the Middle East and other Asian countries. It's known as “the King of Medicines” in Ayurveda, and forms part of the trinity of plants in Triphala, an herbal concoction used for everything from digestion to dental cavities, to caring for wounds, and even as a supposed longevity-enhancer.
While the blend of Triphala is a widely popular medicinal remedy, Haritaki is now getting more attention for its specific health benefits on exercise recovery, joint health, and reducing soreness.
It contains unique terpenes and polyphenols that are free-radical scavengers, giving Haritaki potent anti-inflammatory effects that can support your ability to bounce back quicker from your workouts.
And conveniently, Kion's ultimate recovery formula called Kion Flex includes both turmerosaccarides and Haritaki extract, as well as a blend of unique, joint-supporting proteolytic enzymes.
So that's it. Whenever I'm training incredibly hard, trying to recover from an injury, or combating post-workout soreness, I simply include the following (almost free) methods into my daily routine:
- Hot-cold contrast
- Deep tissue work
- Topical treatments
- Natural recovery supplements, like Kion Flex and Kion Aminos
If you have your own fast recovery tricks that you've found to be particularly potent, I'd love to hear about them in the comments. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy living life at a slightly faster pace than the rest of the general population.