A full bottle and glass of chocolate milk sit next to each other.
Chocolate milk can help soothe those sore muscles. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

You know the feeling—the aching muscles that slow you down the day after a big game, a long run or an intense workout.

Experts agree your body needs time off after strenuous exercise to recover, or you will not reach your fitness goals.

“The older we get, for the average person, the longer it’s going to take to recover,” said Phillip Adler, manager of the Spectrum Health Medical Group Sports Medicine Program. “It depends on where you are in your fitness program. Be smart about it, and stay focused on your ultimate goal.”

Adler offers these 5 tips for helping your body bounce back:

1. Drink chocolate milk

Yes, you read that right. Turns out this childhood treat has been scientifically proven in several studies to help with muscle recovery.

The secret of low-fat chocolate milk—compared to plain milk, water or sports drinks—is that it has the right mix of carbohydrate and protein content. And that’s exactly what tired muscles need. Adler said he’s seen athletes and coaches in college sports swear by this trick.

“Athletes are able to more effectively replace muscle glycogen—the sugar needed for energy to make the muscles work—and use the protein to rebuild damaged muscles,” Adler said. “Typically, there is more sodium (salt), potassium, calcium and vitamin D in a serving of low-fat chocolate milk than in a recovery drink like Gatorade.”

Adler said there are a lot of milk-like drinks or powder mixtures available, but they also tend to have a lot of additional ingredients that are not as natural as chocolate milk.

2. Get plenty of sleep

Getting a good night’s sleep of seven to eight hours helps your body recover.

When Adler worked as an athletic trainer with college football players, he noted one coach who changed the schedule so all practices and meetings wrapped up by 9:30 p.m., with lights out by 10 p.m. They noticed a difference in the rate of injuries.

“There’s a greater chance of getting hurt when your body is tired and depleted,” he said. “Our bodies just break down over time, and they can’t keep up.”

3. Hydrate

A serving of chocolate milk after activity is a great start to recovery, but hydrate with something more.

Instead of celebrating your success with a beer, choose something like water or a sports drink.

“Alcohol and caffeine tend to dehydrate you,” Adler said.

4. Take a day off, or rotate your workout

Make sure your body has some rest time when it is not working out.

If you are using a fitness program that targets different muscle groups, do it four or five times a week, Adler said. A personal trainer can help you develop a program that does not overuse your body.

Or, if you want to exercise every day, rotate the muscle groups you strengthen.

“Time is a dirty word in sports because nobody likes to take it,” Adler said. “But you’re not going to lose anything if you take a day off. Use your day off to recover, and if you really can’t take a day off, do something light that doesn’t overtax your body.”

5. Know an injury when you have one

Adler stressed there’s a difference between an injury and being sore from exerting yourself.

“My personal rule is that if there’s swelling that doesn’t go down in 24 hours, or pain that changes the way you walk or use your body for more than a day, that’s an injury,” Adler said. “Not everything is an emergency, but if you experience persistent pain that doesn’t get better in a couple days, you need to get it checked out.”