When it comes to your fitness, what you do after your workout is just as important as what you do when you’re training. Postworkout recovery is an essential — but often overlooked — part of any workout program. Before you pack up your gym bag and bolt to the parking lot, there are a few crucial things you need to do to jump-start your recovery process, prevent injury and make sure you’re prepared for your next workout. Don’t worry, these postworkout tips aren’t complicated, and they won’t add too much time to your exercise regimen.
1. Cool Down
When you’re short on time, the cool-down is usually the first to go after a workout. But dismissing the cool-down as a waste of time really does your body a disservice. Slowly bringing your heart rate down after a workout can help you recover more easily and increase heart health over time, according to research published in the Journal of Exercise Physiology Online. Exercise helps get your blood flowing, so abruptly stopping can actually cause your blood pressure to drop rapidly, which can cause you to feel lightheaded. So don’t high-tail it out to the car as soon as your last set is done. Instead, walk or jog to keep your body moving, slowly lowering your heart rate. Take those extra five to 10 minutes to properly bring your workout to a close.
After cooling down, spend some time stretching. During training, your muscles contract, which leaves them in a shortened state. Stretching postworkout releases those contracted muscles. A targeted stretching program after your workout can increase your range of motion, and the greater your range of motion, the better your flexibility, which helps you maintain proper posture in any exercise. Over time, stretching also can decrease your risk of tendon overload and injury. When you’re stretching, focus on major muscle groups such as back, chest, legs and hips. Breathe and hold each stretch for about 30 seconds. In areas that feel tight, you may need to hold for up to 60 seconds.
3. Roll It Out
To further reduce muscle tension, foam-roll after your workouts. If you’re unfamiliar, foam-roller exercises — also called myofascial release — is a form of massage to do either before or after training in order to loosen sore muscles and tight joints. Regularly using a roller offers many of the same benefits as a sports massage (albeit considerably less expensive), including reduced inflammation, scar tissue and joint stress, as well as improved circulation in the spots you need it most. And just as with stretching, foam rolling also can improve your overall flexibility and range of motion. When you first start rolling, it can feel like torture, so gradually ease into it. Start with a soft roller and control the amount of pressure you apply, beginning softly and eventually adding more pressure. Ideally, you want to target an area for 20 to 30 seconds, but listen to your body and go longer or shorter as needed.
4. Drink Your Water
If you don’t drink enough water before a workout, then sweat a ton while you train, you’re on the road to dehydration. Staying hydrated while exercising is important because of sweat loss. Sipping some agua while working out can help fight fatigue and improve endurance. To optimize recovery, studies show that athletes should aim to maintain adequate levels of hydration and that they should minimize fluid losses during exercise to no more than 2 percent of their bodyweight. Plain old H2O is critical for rehydrating. Ideally, you should drink about 20 ounces of water two hours before exercising. Aim to drink about 10 ounces of water every 10 to 20 minutes during training to stay properly hydrated, and drink an additional 8 ounces of water within 30 minutes of finishing your workout. If you’re working out for longer than an hour or training intensely, you will probably need to replace electrolytes (minerals in the blood that help regulate the amount of water in your body), as well. This is where sports drinks come in handy.
After a workout, you need to feed your body. Experts recommend a solid dose of protein after working out to jump-start the muscle-rebuilding process. Whey is the ideal postworkout protein source because it absorbs at a moderate 8 to 10 grams per hour. Whey also boosts anabolic insulin better than any other protein source, transporting glycogen and nutrients into fatigued muscles, promoting faster and greater recovery. Experts recommend mixing approximately 0.2 grams of high-quality whey protein isolate per pound of bodyweight into 16 ounces of water (for example, if you weigh 175 pounds: 0.2 x 175 = 35 grams of whey isolate). Foods like Greek yogurt, low-fat cottage cheese and even beef jerky are also good sources of protein. And while protein is usually the focus, research suggests that we may be neglecting other nutrients essential for recovery. A 2015 study shows that “without adequate recovery of carbohydrates, protein, fluids and electrolytes, beneficial adaptations and performance may be hampered.” Foods like ginger and blueberries have been shown to help with inflammation as have supplements like turmeric and omega-3s. In short, it’s vital to have a nutritional plan for optimizing recovery.