We’ve all had workouts that felt just plain awful. Like when we didn’t have time for that pre-workout snack, rushed through our warmup, or skipped our usual caffeine boost. And after sweating with a grumbling stomach or missing our squat P.R., you bet we made sure we were back on our workout prep game for next time.
“When you prepare well for a workout, that workout tends to go well,” says Brian St. Pierre, M.S., R.D., C.S.C.S., Director of Performance Nutrition at Precision Nutrition. “You feel good, you feel stronger, and you see that immediate effect on your performance.”
But even if you’ve got your pre-workout down, there’s a fair chance your post-workout game needs some help. “We don’t see that immediate, noticeable result when we neglect post-workout recovery, so it’s often overlooked” says St. Pierre. Don’t be fooled, though: Your recovery efforts could make or break your fitness long-term.
If you’re not giving recovery enough attention, you could find yourself feeling lethargic, losing motivation to train, even having trouble sleeping, says St. Pierre.
So After That Last Rep…
The first key to helping your body bounce back after exercise is proper post-workout nutrition. “If you fueled before your workout, eat a meal that includes a serving of both protein and carbs within an hour or so,” says St. Pierre. If you exercised on an empty stomach, he adds, get those nutrients as soon as you can.
Why You Need Protein
“When you work out, your body breaks down muscle tissue,” says St. Pierre. “Protein helps stop muscle breakdown and helps your body create new muscle tissue.” Consider protein the building blocks of your muscles. Without adequate protein, you may end up losing muscle instead of building it, he says.
But what is protein, really? “On a molecular level, protein is essentially a chain of different amino acids including branched-chain,” says St. Pierre. Some of these branched-chain amino acids (or BCAAs), like leucine, seem to be especially important for muscle synthesis, he says.
Related: BCAAs to add to your routine
All protein sources contain BCAAs, but some are better than others. “Animal proteins, especially dairy, are the richest natural sources of branched-chain amino acids,” St. Pierre says. So consider that when picking your post-workout grub.
But Don’t Forget The Carbs
In addition to protein, carbohydrates also help your body rebound from tough workouts in multiple ways. “Carbs not only make sure your blood sugar levels kick back up after exercise, but also help replenish energy stored in your muscles and liver in the form of glycogen,” says St. Pierre. Carbs act as our bodies’ fuel because they’re made up of glucose (that’s sugar!) molecules.
Without this energy, your body might struggle with basic functions, like balancing hormone levels. “So many people worry about carbs, but without them you might see a surge in the stress hormone cortisol,” says St. Pierre. Elevated cortisol can lead to weight gain and other chronic health concerns over time, according to the Mayo Clinic . Read: Don’t ban carbs from your diet!
Yes, You Always Need to Stretch
Tacking 10 minutes of stretching onto an already-long workout isn’t always possible. But that doesn’t mean you should just skip it all together. Stretching not only supports flexibility and mobility, but also increases blood flow to your muscles, says St. Pierre.
Luckily, when you stretch (or foam roll) isn’t crucial—as long as you do it at some point. “Just spend five to ten minutes of stretching or foam rolling in the morning or before bed,” suggests St. Pierre. Make it a habit and you’ll improve muscle tissue quality while stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you relax or even wind down for sleep, he says.
And About Those Zzz’s…
If fitness and nutrition are the first two requirements for a healthy lifestyle, sleep is the third. “The research pretty clearly states that adults need seven to eight—and maybe even nine—hours of sleep a night,” says St. Pierre. Without it, you might experience tanking energy and endurance in the gym, slower reaction time, and a lack of motivation, he says.
We get it: You’re crazy busy. But sleep is just that important. “Prune out little parts of your day so you can slowly build up your sleeping time,” St. Pierre suggests. Even adding an extra half-hour of shuteye at a time helps, he says. After all, do you really need to stay up late scrolling through Instagram? (Hmm, don’t answer that.)