I have read articles from martial artists about recovering from training before and, almost without exception, there is not much value to them. Will mine be any better? Probably not, but here we go anyway.
I get a lot of questions about training, but I also get a significant amount of questions about nutrition, supplements, and recovery. I mostly answer those as quickly as I can for the person asking because, generally speaking, the first two topics are easy to address as long as people understand that what I am offering is in no way prescriptive.
That means I am not going to tell you how many calories or macros to eat or which supplements you must buy, but I am happy to tell you about the different lifestyle effects of certain dietary approaches and which supplements might work for your specific needs. Beyond that? Everything else is potentially snakeoil.
So with that in mind, as you read this or any article on recovery, scan it first to determine if the author is selling anything; if they are, stop reading and move on. Nobody has time for what is supposed to be an educational piece on extending your training viability dressed up as an infomercial selling the latest and greatest miracle supplement.
Full disclosure to help you with that: I am not selling anything.
The information that follows is descriptive, not prescriptive; it is what I do and you can adopt it or not because it won't pay my bills one way or another if you do.
The second thing you should scan for when reading an article on recovery is the person writing it. If there is even a hint that person is using steroids, stop reading. Steroids change everything about an athlete's recovery and the only people who don't think that's true are the athletes using steroids because it would minimize their accomplishments.
But steroids alter humans on a genetic level, whether you want to believe it or not, and taking recovery advice from someone who owes some portion of their success to the contents of a syringe or other PED delivery system will just leave you frustrated and disenfranchised with your training.
Full disclosure to help you with that: I am not a steroid user.
Do I care if you or your favorite fighter are? No, I DGAF as long you or they aren't using them in contravention of a rule set to establish fair play and competition. Beyond that? Plunge away. Your body, your choice.
With those two disclaimers covered off, here is my perspective on recovering from martial arts training. Descriptive, not prescriptive; your mileage may vary if you choose to follow these guidelines.
I break recovery into three stages. I am going to deliver this in a macro sense with broad headings, but if I get specific questions regarding whatever I offer here, I will do my best to answer inquiries in a follow-up article.
Here is the breakdown:
The day before hard training is the day that matters. You need to eat well, hydrate adequately, plan the next day's training, and not do anything to compromise your health and fitness like overdoing Saturday's workout if your sparring day is supposed to be Sunday. Two hard training days in a row doesn't make you a hero and when you're sucking wind the next day in class and telling people it's because you went hard yesterday, well:
Nobody cares about your excuses, even when they are true; you are responsible for you. Martial arts is about discipline and if you can't even moderate your day to day training with some semblance of self-control, you don't get kudos for that. It just means you lack judgment.
So the day before?
Eat, drink, visualize, and don't be a tool apply well to the day of training as well, but in smaller amounts (except that last one). The best way to approach a pre-training ritual is to think of it as not undoing all the good you did the day before. If you locked down the previous day's preparatory steps, then don't make a mess of them the morning before training.
Eat a little if you're hungry, drink a little if you're thirsty, visualize a little but don't stress yourself out, and keep trying not to be a tool.
Once you arrive at the gym, the simplest approach is the best approach. The human body works better when it's warm, so step one is to warm up. A thorough warm up that raises core temperature, increases range of motion through mobility drills, and primes your CNS for performance through skill practice is the best way to approach the hard training to follow. Whether that takes 10 minutes or an hour is up to you; only you know how much lead time your body needs to feel good, so respect that number and plan accordingly. If that means showing up early, then so be it; that's the price you can pay now, or you can pay the price later in injuries and time off. Your call.
Cooldown with some light calisthenics and do some gentle stretching after your hard training is completed. I know it's in fashion to ignore stretching because the science isn't all that specific on its benefits, but gentle stretching--not necessarily to enhance range of motion but to restore it--is a good way of scanning your body post training for anything that might need extra attention. Truth be told, I still think stretching matters for martial artists as much for tradition as anything; however, there can be merit to it if you think about why you're doing it. As a diagnostic tool, I think it works great.
Start the process of rehydrating right away. Water is just fine; water with electrolytes is just fine, too, if you think you need them. You probably don't, but if you feel better using them, go for it. It's good to know your pre-workout weight and your post-workout weight to help give a sense of how much fluid you lost during training, but most of us can drink to thirst and be fine. Your body is pretty awesome at regulating these things so listen to it.
Eating is important, too. The period directly after training has been coined “the anabolic window” by fitness trainers around the world and it is mostly a fairytale. The concept has been around a long time and is often trumpeted by well-meaning but misinformed trainers who read it in a magazine or, worse than that, supplement companies who want you to drink their expensive sugar water powder IMMEDIATELY AFTER TRAINING BRO OR YOU WILL LOSE ALL YOUR GAINZ.
No, you won't.
And it is spelled "gains," you dumbasses.
Eat whole food in accordance with what makes your body feel good. If you prefer protein powder over meat, eggs or seafood, then go ahead and drink that protein shake. Personally, I will be at home or my favorite restaurant eating real food.
Meditate, foam roll or other soft tissue work, and sleep are all you should be focused on from a recovery standpoint.
In a perfect world, you would meditate immediately after training to bring your CNS back under control; however, that's not always feasible so pre-bedtime is as good a time as any. There are many apps that can facilitate this for you and it is worth your effort to develop the routine, app or not.
Foam rolling and soft tissue work before bed helps quite a bit to settle your body and get rid of the kinks that might prod you awake at 2:00 AM. Don't get crazy with this, but a little five minute routine as you finish watching your favorite television show is something that will payoff as the days turn into weeks and months. Small things help.
Sleep is magic. You need to sleep to be an effective athlete. This isn't 100% accurate but it's not far from the truth: your body only recovers with sleep. The recovery and rebuilding processes when you are asleep make all the conscious efforts we make laughably pointless because, harsh truth, sleep trumps it all. People who mess everything else up but sleep well will outlast people who do everything right but don't sleep. I've been in both camps and there is no contest as to which was the more sustainable lifestyle. Sleep gets you those gainz.
Learn how to polarize your training load and moderate intensities. This could be an entire article on its own. Basically, alternate how you train with "hard" days and "easy" days and try to avoid "medium" days. Do more easy workouts than hard ones so you are able to get more training in with a lower risk of sickness, injury, and burnout. Even if you're only training a couple of times a week, pay attention to this concept. Injuries affect weekend warriors as much or more as the full-time athletes.
Beyond that, repeat the process as needed. Day before, day of, day after until you have no more days ahead of you. You won't even notice when it's over because you will have lived so well up to that point.