The Importance of Sleep to Workout Recovery

Sleep is the best recovery tool after a long day of work or training.
Beds are lined up in a hangar Oct. 8, 2014, at Avon Park Air Force Range, Fla. (Airman 1st Class Ryan Callaghan/U.S. Air Force photo)

When you consider all the ways your body can recover from stress, overworking and overtraining, you cannot start the conversation without mentioning sleep. It's the best recovery tool. If you don’t get restful sleep, the long-term effects of stress and overtraining will be detrimental to your health and training.

The chart below is a visual representation of my opinion and not fully based on science. The big takeaway here is that the amount of sleep and the types of foods we consume, along with the amount of water, electrolytes, vitamins and minerals we use, are the most important things we can do to aid in recovery. The remaining 10% is divided between natural recovery tools, including ice, cold/hot water and saunas; cryotherapy; cold sleeves; and other useful gear such as foam rollers, massage tools and compression garments.

The final section is the outsourcing of services from chiropractors, acupuncturists, float tanks, pneumatic compression therapy and other forms of body work and adjustments.

Here is the laundry list of things to do, gear to use and things to think about when it comes to your post-workout recovery:

The big three are sleep, food and water. Recovery begins here.

Sleep: See importance of sleep article for more details, but without this critical piece, recovery does not happen. Create sleeping rituals for yourself and build a good habit today with a focus on getting more and better sleep. See rituals article for help.

Nutrition planning -- food and water: Foods rich in protein/amino acids, good carbohydrates (fruit/vegetables), fats, antioxidants, electrolytes, omega 3, and other vitamins and minerals (supplements) required for a balanced diet. Not only do you need to recover from the previous workout with these foods, but you need to start fueling for the next workout.

Replacing any lost water through sweating is essential to your recovery, but also replacing any electrolytes lost during a training/work day is also critical. If these are not in sync, you will not have the fuel to handle future workouts at a preferred/optimum potential. You need water every day -- more if you sweat profusely or arid environments leave salt stains on your clothes (replenish sodium, potassium, magnesium).

The natural methods (hot, cold, stretching): Continuing on the theme of natural methods for recovery, the classic cold water/ice therapies/baths work great at helping to improve circulation, reduce heat and swelling. Products like FreezeSleeves, ice packs, cryotherapy, cold-water buckets and contrasts baths (hot tub/pool water) can help you take recovery to a new level for yourself. You also could get a heat wrap and microwave it to produce heat when you need it for recovery. You should place stretching (static and dynamic) into the natural methods to help with recovery.

Gear and outsourced services: This section is forever evolving, and where most people spend their money on getting the newest gear, service or supplement to help with recovery. However, there are some devices that we all love and consider them essential to recovery. 

Personally, the foam roller, lacrosse balls and learning myofascial release has been revolutionary in the last decade for many active people. More gear such as compression garments, sleeves, vibration tools like the orbital car buffer, and vibration platforms are pieces of gear that is very helpful to recovery as well.

Also, recovery supplements from reputable manufacturers like Thorne have a series of products that may help with boosting the nutritional side of recovery.

Most of the time, the following gear is too expensive to have in the home. Fitness centers, physical therapy facilities and other practitioners make a living by performing recovery therapies on people or allowing them to use their specialized recovery equipment like the following list:

Float Tank


Body work

Chiropractic care


IR sauna

Contrast baths


The purpose of the chart and this post is to reiterate the importance of what really is essential to recovery. Making your recovery optimal for you may require perfect sleep, perfect nutrition, and finding the gear and services that can push you well into the high 90 percentile. 

But the human body is resilient and will find ways to recover and manage under extreme duress for long periods of time. We will need to recover eventually.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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