Did you know that you don’t actually get stronger during a workout, you get stronger after it’s over?
It’s true. Whenever you do a workout, you put your muscles and bones under strain. This is a good thing! The stress on your body builds bone density and challenges your muscles, ligaments, and tendons.
After you finish your workout, your body starts the process of repairing the micro tears in your muscle tissue. This is how you get stronger; you break your muscles down during your workouts, then your body builds them back even stronger between workouts.
The faster you recover from a workout, the better you’ll feel and the more prepared your body will be to do the next workout. You won’t be quite as sore, you’ll reduce the likelihood for injuries, and you’ll build stronger bones. It’s a win-win-win!
Post-workout recovery, or recovery for short, is a catchall term for everything that helps speed this process up. It’s like giving your body the boost it needs at the exact moment it needs it.
Here are the 5 best habits you should build into your post-workout recovery routine.
01. Cool Down Cardio
A five to ten minute cool down jog, or even a fast walk, is an essential piece of post-workout recovery after strength, interval, and circuit workouts.
It’s something I see most people skip when doing workouts on their own, either because they’re rushed to get the workout done or too tired to do cool down cardio.
Here’s why it’s critical: when you work out, your heart rate and blood pressure are at much higher levels than they are at rest. If you go from a high heart rate straight into stretching, or worse, stop cold and skip stretching entirely, your body doesn't have a chance to adapt to the change.
Five to ten minutes of cool down cardio gradually brings your heart rate and blood pressure back to normal. It also promotes blood flow to your muscles, kicking off the recovery process in a perfect way.
Whenever you sweat, you’re losing both water and electrolytes. It’s a great part of getting your workout on, and it’s also important to replenish these stores to help your body return to normal functioning.
The amount of water you’ll need after a workout will vary based on how hard and long the workout was and how warm it is outside. Pay attention to your body; it’ll tell you how much water you need. If you’re looking to get a little more scientific, a good rule of thumb is to drink 16 ounces of water for every pound of body weight you lost during your workout.
Both drinking water and eating calories are an important part of helping your body recover. Some athletes like to drink plain water and eat their calories, while others like to combine their hydration and post-workout meal by blending up a smoothie with water in it.
Either way, you’ll get the electrolytes you need from the food you eat (more on this below), so there’s no need to drink sugar laden drinks like Gatorade just for the electrolytes.
What about getting your hydration from a protein or energy drink?
Only have a protein drink or energy drink if you make it yourself with whole foods. It’s always better to eat natural, whole foods, and many energy and protein drinks have additives and chemicals that you probably don’t want to be putting in your body. A much healthier solution is to blend frozen fruit and spinach in a NutriBullet or Magic Bullet with plant based milk. That way, you’ll get your hydration and calories.
Speaking of calories, they’re an important part of your post-workout recovery.
Many athletes talk about the “window of opportunity” when it comes to eating after a workout. It’s the window of time directly after your workout when your muscles most need nutrients to begin the repair process.
Aim to eat or drink your calories within the first 20 minutes after you finish your workout. That means you’ll probably be doing this during your stretching and rolling sesh (more on that below). The sooner you can give your muscles the nutrients they need, the sooner your muscle tissue can begin to repair.
The two most important post-workout recovery macronutrients are carbohydrates and protein.
Carbohydrates in the form of glycogen are your body’s primary fuel source during workouts. Depending on the workout, you might use more or less of these stores. For example, endurance workouts like a long steady run will require more glycogen than a strength training workout. Either way, replenishing those stores is critical.
Protein helps your body repair your muscles, so getting clean sources of protein is essential. Generally, your body needs more protein after a heavy strength training workout than a long endurance workout.
Go for easily digestible foods that have both carbohydrates and protein. A simple banana with almond butter or oatmeal with peanut butter swirled into it are great options.
04. Foam Roll
Don’t have a foam roller yet? It’s time to get one!
I swear by foam rolling (in addition to stretching). It’s like a daily trip to the massage therapist, but in your own home. Like the other things on this list, it’s absolutely part of my daily post-workout recovery routine.
What’s the science behind foam rolling? In addition to feeling great, it brings blood flow to your muscles and reduces soreness level post-workout. Whenever I do a hard workout, I make sure I do an extra long rolling sesh right after. It makes such a noticeable difference in how sore I feel a couple days later.
I love rolling my upper back, lower back, and glutes. For my legs (read: quads, IT bands, calves, shins, and hamstrings), I use The Stick. You’ll get similar benefits to foam rolling by using The Stick, but I find it’s easier to roll your legs with a handheld roller.
The idea of icing sore muscles has been around forever, and for good reason.
When you workout, you increase your body’s inflammation. Too much inflammation over time contributes to injuries. Icing helps reduce that inflammation and increases blood flow to the area after icing, helping those micro tears in your muscles repair faster.
I recommend icing anytime you feel a nagging pain or tightness in your muscles or joints. Ice the area for 20 minutes once your workout is over. It’s a great way to avoid getting a much worse injury.
It might seem like there’s a lot to think about when it comes to your post-workout recovery routine, but remember that a little bit goes a long way. Setting aside just 15 minutes after your workout to take care of your body will help you feel significantly better and improve much faster.