You might think it’s enough to make it to that 6 o’clock spin class (because, let’s face it, sometimes that’s tough), but the truth is, what you do in the hours and days following that workout are just as important for maintaining your fitness.
Without adequate recovery time, your body might not be able to properly rebound from a workout—essentially stealing the benefits of working out in the first place! And if you’re too sore or tired to make it out the door, you may not even make it to that next workout.
To keep your fitness performance—and results—going strong, your recovery plan needs to be just as much a part of your routine as your gym sessions themselves. Here, experts share the key components for effective recovery, so your body can bounce back post-workout and better prepare for the next one.
As tempting as it is to plop right down on the couch immediately after finishing a run or to get right into the car after nailing your last rep at the gym, spending a few minutes to cool down really will do your body good. Cool-downs help keep oxygen and nutrients flowing to your just-worked muscles to start the recovery process and ease your body back into normal everyday movement, says Ngo Okafor, personal trainer, NIKE+NYC coach, and creator of FitMatch.
When you finish up a workout, your heart rate is elevated, your body temperature is higher than usual, and your blood vessels are dilated—so if you stop moving too quickly you might end up feeling dizzy or sick to your stomach, according to the American Heart Association.
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Try to spend at least 10 to 15 minutes cooling down by walking or moving through a few drills, like planks or lunges, which still engage the muscles while allowing the heart rate to come down after high-intensity work, Okafor says.
Get Your Fluids In
Your body needs ample water to maintain even its most basic functions, so you’ll want to drink up after a workout—especially if you got super sweaty.
Make sure you’ve got a full bottle handy before and after you exercise, and that you’re hydrating regularly throughout the rest of the day. Okafor recommends that active men shoot for close to four liters of water a day, and active women shoot for close to three liters.
To really replenish after a grueling workout, you can also add some electrolytes or adaptogenic herbs to your drink, suggests CrossFit coach and nutritional therapy practitioner at Reebok, Emily Schromm, C.P.T. You’ve heard about electrolytes a hundred times, but in case you need a refresher, electrolytes are minerals like potassium, sodium, calcium, and magnesium, found in your bodily fluids (like sweat) that help to maintain your blood and muscle function.
Meanwhile, adaptogens are compounds found in a number of plants that help your body react and adapt to stress, supporting energy and vitality both in the short-term and over time. (You can find adaptogens and electrolytes in a few forms, including powders, capsule, and liquids.)
Massage It Out
Okay, you probably won’t need much convincing to get behind this recovery technique—but massages are as helpful for recovery as they are wonderful. When you directly stimulate the muscles, you boost circulation and promote relaxation, which can help ward off soreness and risk for injury, says Okafor.
Sure, you can book yourself a full-body massage (you’ve earned it!)—but you can also get the job done on your own. Here’s what to do: Gently roll a lacrosse ball, massage stick, or foam roller, over your major muscle groups. Pay special attention to big muscles, like your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and lats, says Schromm. Because these muscle groups do so much of the work when you exercise, they really tend to tighten up after an intense workout.
If you find a trigger point or ‘knot,’ which is essentially an extra-taut band of muscle, apply direct pressure until the discomfort fades away, Okafor says. Continue to work on that spot until the intensity of the discomfort lessens.
Although it may be uncomfortable at times, especially if you’re tense, Schromm recommends performing self-massage daily—especially both before and after tough workouts.
After a workout, there are two nutrients you definitely want to stock up on: protein and carbohydrates. Without them, your body won’t have the tools it needs to bounce back and grow stronger.
Carbs restore the energy stored in your muscles (called ‘glycogen’) that you burn through when you work out. Research shows that when carbs are consumed immediately after exercise, they’re more effectively stored in muscle as glycogen, where they help prevent muscle breakdown and set the body up for optimal performance, according to the Journal of the International Society of Sports Medicine.
Meanwhile, protein provides the body with the amino acids it needs to rebuild muscle in the process of protein synthesis—which is crucial for ensuring you benefit from your workouts and build muscle, instead of lose it.
Both Okafor and Schromm recommend consuming both carbs and protein within an hour after finishing your workout in a ratio of about four parts carbs to one part protein.
There are plenty of ways to refuel with this carb-protein combo: A banana with nut butter, Greek yogurt topped with chopped nuts and berries, lean grilled chicken with some rice or beans, or crackers with hummus all make great post-workout snacks. And in a pinch, you can always slug back a protein shake or blend up a smoothie with a scoop of protein powder, frozen fruit, and water.
Once you nail your post-workout grub, just keep in mind that getting ample protein throughout the entire day also helps your muscles stay in tip-top shape, says Okafor. He recommends aiming for between one and 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight each day if you exercise frequently.
Sleep It Off
This one seems like a no-brainer, but considering so many people get just six hours (or less) of shuteye per night, it’s worth driving home yet again, says Okafor.
Sleep is your body’s opportunity to restore itself. During this time, your body produces more anabolic (a.k.a. muscle-building) hormones and fewer catabolic (a.k.a muscle-wasting hormones), says Okafor. One of these catabolic hormones is the stress hormone cortisol, which spikes after a workout. Without ample sleep to help bring cortisol levels down, they can stay elevated and lead to a host of issues, like higher-than-usual blood pressure and weight gain.
Not to mention, regularly missing out on sleep can crush your mental drive to train, Okafor adds.
We all have slightly different sleep needs, but Okafor recommends shooting for between seven and nine hours a night. To set yourself up for better shut-eye, power down at least a half-hour before bed, keep screens out of the bedroom, and try to stick to a regular sleep schedule, Okafor says. You can even try eating a bedtime snack that’s high in magnesium, a mineral that has a soothing effect on the body, he says. (A handful of nuts or anything with peanut butter are two of our favorite magnesium-packed snacks.)
Take Actual Recovery Days
When you go hard day after day without adequate rest and recovery, you end up in a state of overtraining in which your body enters breakdown mode. At that point, you may lose muscle mass, risk serious injury, and feel so depleted that you’re zonked out all day long, Okafor says. On top of all that, your workout performance tanks—which totally defeats the purpose of training, right?
Remember: When you work out, you are breaking down muscle and depleting the energy your body has stored up. So, sometimes a full day off is necessary. Schromm recommends dedicating one day each week to recovering. Some people may be able to go for a walk or leisurely hike that day—but others may need a day of complete chill time, she says. If you start to notice any of the warning signs of overtraining (like chronic muscle soreness, elevated resting heart rate, irritability, and insomnia), pump the brakes and make sure you’re getting in one full rest day a week.