You’ve just completed a hard workout. But what do you do as soon as you’ve jumped off the treadmill and dropped those weights? Most of us, in haste to get out of the gym and back to dry clothing, grab our water bottles and head for the showers or back home. However, that’s a mistake. Post-workout recovery is essential when it comes to giving your body some much-needed TLC. In fact, what do you right after your workout is just as important as what you do during your workout.
“Recovery after a workout is important because it allows your body to slow down and recuperate,” Bryant Johnson, personal trainer to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and creator of The RBG Workout, tells SheKnows.
Along the same lines, Pure Barre director of training Katelyn DiGiorgio tells SheKnows that excessive exercise, heavy training at every session or a lack of rest days will limit your fitness gains from exercise and undermine your efforts. Giving your body the time needed to recover will ensure you are maximizing your efforts and reaching your goals in a safe, effective way.
In order to help you out, here’s a list of some of the best things you should be doing post-workout.
While it’s kind of a no-brainer, reaching for water should be the first thing you do after working out.
“Your body loses fluids during exercises, so filling up after exercising helps boost recovery. Water supports all metabolic functions in the body,” says DiGiorgio.
Johnson agrees. “Water is always essential if you worked out for 30 minutes or less, but I recommend coconut water if you’ve worked out for longer than 45 minutes,” he says. “When you work out for a longer period of time, you start to loose salt and electrolytes, and coconut water helps replenish these because it has potassium.” And coconut water doesn’t have as much sugar as those post-workout sports drinks.
Stretch it out
Working out is great, but don’t forget to stretch when you finish.
“If you did a lot of running and cardio, then I always like to stretch directly after because it allows your heart rate and nervous system to calm down,” Johnson says. “When I’m lifting weights, I also like to recommend using foam rollers after the workout to relax the muscles and calm them down, which can get your mind, heart and body refocused and back into routine.”
After you’ve pushed your body and used up a lot of energy, it’s like a car or a machine — you don’t want to turn it off right away, he explains. “You want to let the body slow down because if you don’t, your blood can pool up and that’s when you get cramps. When you rest and recover, you allow your body to bring the heart rate and nervous system back down, which allows your body to get refocused so it’s able to do what it has to do next.”
Similarly, Johnson recommends stretching post-workout because your muscles are warm and pliable, “so you can stretch them more than you could in the beginning.” He suggests stretching and holding each position for more than 10 seconds per stretch. “When you initially go into a stretch, your body tries to protect the muscles and tendons, so the longer you hold, the muscles, fibers and nerves start to relax more, allowing for a deeper stretch.”
Take care of inflammation
Each workout causes microscopic tears to your muscle fibers, and it’s the job of the inflammation process to help repair the damage caused during the workout while your body is in recovery mode, which is why Bonnie Micheli and Tracy Roemer, cofounders of Shred415, a high-intensity interval training class, recommend ice or cryotherapy to help reduce inflammation.
Another technique? Infrared sauna. “It helps reduce inflammation by releasing heat shock proteins,” they tell SheKnows.
Eat some protein
When it comes to post-workout snacks, Micheli and Roemer recommend protein post-workout.
“Choose to set aside 20 to 30 minutes to take in some food after finishing a workout,” they tell SheKnows. “It will optimize recovery, help reduce muscle soreness and help individuals perform better during their next workout — plus it helps you avoid injury.”
The pair recommends eating lean protein, a healthy carb that is minimally processed and a healthy fat after a workout. “You want to refuel your body,” they say. “If you’re more of a morning workout person, we recommend having a protein shake with chia seeds; overnight oats with chia seeds, a spoonful of almond butter and berries; eating a hard-boiled egg…” They also suggest smearing peanut butter on a couple or rice cakes and topping it with banana slices.
For those who prefer to get a workout in the evening hours, they recommend eating organic chicken, fish, grass-fed beef or organic tofu for your protein fix.
When it comes to eating, Johnson, who tends to eat a light snack post-workout, cautions, “Your body can’t distinguish between thirst and hunger, so sometimes, pending the workout you’ve done, it might just need water right away to replace the fluids your body has lost.”
Listen to your body
Because each of us is built differently, our post-workout recovery process will be different too. “Being in tune with how your body is feeling is an extremely important part of quick recovery,” says DiGiorgio. “If you are feeling tired, sore or notice decreased performance, you may need more recovery time or a break from working altogether.” On the other hand, if you are feeling strong the day after a hard workout, you don’t have to force yourself to go slow either, says DiGiorgio.
As with anything that’s related to fitness and your body, you will learn what works for your body post-workout through trial and error. Maybe you need a lighter snack like Johnson, or maybe you’re someone who needs a heavier meal. But no matter what, don’t skip out on your post-workout recovery no matter how much you might need that shower.
“The body doesn’t get stronger or faster by just working out — you get stronger and faster when you let your body recover and recuperate,” says Johnson. “You have to let your body rebuild what you put it through, and it’s important to not work the same muscles over and over again. You need to focus on resting.”
A version of this story was published January 2019.
Before you go, check out these products you need in your workout recovery kit: