Sports medicine expert Dr. Beau Hightower once told Bleacher Report that pro fighters often emerge from the ring looking like they’ve been in “several car wrecks.” There’s no denying that combat sports of any kind require serious physical fortitude, and for as much emphasis as is placed on pre-match training and preparation, boxers and mixed martial artists need to learn how to best maintain it in recovery, too.

We train hard and then push ourselves to our limits in the ring or cage, so how do we make sure that we’re giving our body the right tools for recovery? In addition to wearing the proper protective gear, here are some of the simplest things you can do to ensure that your body bounces back full-force after you’ve nabbed your title. Remember to always follow the instruction of a physician or a certified trainer when you’re pushing your body in any fashion, whether pre- or post-fight.

Recovering Like the Pros: Take a Break

Did you know that professional fighters are sometimes subject to mandatory medical suspensions (which are often enforced by their state’s athletic commissions) in order to help prevent post-fight injuries and other complications? One of the smartest things you can do to give your body the best chance at a full recovery is to provide it with plenty of time to rest.

  • Take Time Before Returning to Training — One thing that makes great fighters great fighters is their resilience. We want to push ourselves as far as humanly possible, but the key is knowing our limits. Never return to your pre-fight training regimen after you’ve been injured in the ring, or you’ll risk exacerbating the problem. Ease in when you feel you’re ready.
  • Make Sure You Rest the Right Way — Don’t just rest — rest the right way. The body will heal on its own, of course, but there are some things you can and should do to help it heal faster. If you experience swelling or muscle pain, make sure to practice the RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation) to help speed up healing while you take a break.
  • Focus On Post-Fight Soothing with a Hot Bath  The gold standard of post-workout therapy was once the ice bath, but recent studies show that the (gentler and more enjoyable) hot bath may be better for healing. In addition to soothing the muscles out of soreness, hot baths are thought to improve athletic performance by helping the body better adapt to heat and perform better when the pressure’s on.
  • Sleep — It’s often overlooked as a recovery technique, but one of the best things you can do for your body after a hard fight is to get plenty of sleep. Go to bed early and sleep in for a few days. This will help not just your body recover faster, but your mind as well. You’d be surprised at how refreshed you will feel after just a couple nights of getting a full night’s sleep.

Supporting Your Body: Reinvigorating the Muscles

There’s no doubt about it: after you emerge from a particularly challenging match-up, you’ll be sore. A combat athlete’s recovery arsenal should be packed with techniques and tools to help relieve soreness, tension and tightness that occur as part of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). It’s important to note that you should only use the following techniques after any surface bruises or lacerations have fully healed.

  • Try Using a Foam Roller Using the proper foam roller techniques can help you break up knots and tightness while improving blood flow, which helps you feel less sore. Use your foam roller to target the muscles that tend to get overused in boxing and other combat sports, such as the deltoids and triceps.
  • Book a Massage There’s a reason why most pro sports teams have a massage therapist on the payroll. This type of therapy is vital to sports recovery for the same reasons that foam rolling is, but a good massage professional will be able to target the muscles that a roller can’t reach.
  • Hit the Sauna  Note that scientists still don’t know exactly how to effectively treat DOMS, so a lot of times, the treatment centers around what feels good. Sitting in a sauna or steam room may provide your body with some temporary relief from soreness and pain, so it’s not a bad idea when you’re recovering.  

Eating for Recovery: Providing the Body with the Right Nutrients

After so many weeks of closely monitoring the scale, after the competition is over, it’s almost a given that you’ll indulge all of the food cravings you denied in the months leading up to your bout. While a temporary pig-out is fine, it’s important that your post-fight diet is formulated to help your body heal faster. Repairing muscles, bruises, bones and tendons requires fuel, and you don’t want to deprive your body of the ability to heal when it needs it the most.

  • Eat Protein and Fat After Your Fight — Good news for competitors who love to binge on burgers post-match. Your muscles will be taxed and your body will feel zapped of energy after you’ve put up a tough fight, and it will need protein to help heal muscles and fat to help you re-energize.
  • Chug Some Coconut Water  While many boxing pros still sip sports drinks post-fight in order to help quench thirst and energize the body, coconut water may be a better choice for some athletes. The primary reason for this is that it is naturally high in electrolytes like potassium, to replenish what you lost while you were seating, but lacks the added sugar found in most sports drinks.
  • Get the Right Vitamins and Minerals Vitamins and minerals are wonder-workers when it comes to healing, so you want to make sure you’re getting the proper amounts. Vitamin C and vitamin K are known to prevent blood from clotting and help bruises heal faster, while potassium can help naturally treat muscle cramps.

Know When to Seek Medical Attention

If your injuries go beyond mild soreness, fatigue and a little bruising, it’s time to seek medical attention. Nothing can stand in for proper medical attention, and the best fighters know when it’s time to see a pro. Improper recovery practices—failing to address serious injuries or pushing yourself too far when you haven’t yet fully healed—can prevent you from entering the ring as a serious competitor in the future. To keep the fight strong, it’s essential that you recover right.

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