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What Do You Do After A Workout?

Updated: May 16, 2022

We eat, sleep, exercise, repeat—constantly striving to get healthier, stronger, faster or slimmer — but is there a point where too much becomes harmful? Many recognize the need for recovery after exercise, but do we understand what it takes to fully recover and whether we have actually achieved that state?

All workouts, especially tough ones, stress the body. You’re fatiguing, or tiring out, various muscles when you work out, which means you’re causing microscopic damage to muscle cells. Hormone and enzyme levels fluctuate, and inflammation actually increases.

The changes you’re causing can do your body a lot of good. They lead to muscle growth, fat loss, improved insulin sensitivity, reduced inflammation, better cardiovascular health, and overall healthier bodies. But you need to give your body time for those good changes to happen before you start stressing it out again. This rest, called exercise recovery, is what allows people to benefit from their workouts, allowing you to get the maximum benefit from every exercise session.

The damage that exercise causes triggers your body’s immune system to repair that damage. And when your body’s tissues — from your muscles and bones to heart and lungs — recover, they become slightly fitter than they were before. That way, the next time you perform the same workout, you won’t suffer as much damage. But you have to cause some damage to your body for it to adapt. Repeated over a period of time, this process of stress and recovery is what results in improved health and fitness.

What you do after your workout is an important part of yielding results, such as muscle gain and weight loss, while reducing muscle soreness. A post-workout routine also helps to maintain optimum energy levels as you restore your vitality, making it easier to stick to your fitness plan.

Types of Recovery

Though recovery is a critical phase of the exercise-adaptation cycle, it is among the least understood components of training. Essentially, recovery is a process that includes rest, refueling through nutrition, rehydration, regeneration (repair), re-synthesis, reduction of inflammation and restoration that ultimately returns the body to homeostasis.

Recovery after a workout can benefit people by:

  • reducing lactic acid buildup in the muscles

  • increasing blood flow to muscle tissue

  • removing metabolic waste from the muscles

  • reducing muscle tears and pain

It’s helpful to think of three categories of recovery:

  • Immediate recovery, which happens in the short time between successive efforts, e.g., cycling at a low intensity between lifting sets or a light jog between a set of sprints. We’ve all seen people at the gym sitting on the bench surfing social media between sets of bench presses. It might be more beneficial to find a low-intensity activity like walking a lap around the gym or cycling on a stationary bike between sets to get ready to hit it hard on your next set or walk for half a minute during a long run.

  • Short-term recovery, which happens between sets, e.g., the cool-down. Spending about 5-10 minutes after your workout session performing some light cardio exercise, like walking or cycling at a low intensity or stretching can help you get your heart rate down to recover from your workout. In addition to that, foam rolling is also a great post-workout recovery technique that can reduce muscle stress.

  • Training recovery, which happens between workouts or runs, e.g., performing light cardio or doing a low-intensity movement session like yoga. Typical active recovery activities include walking, swimming, cycling, jogging, yoga, or active stretching. The key is to find an activity that’s low-intensity and keeps your heart rate at 30-60% of your maximum heart rate.

Focusing on training recovery offers the greatest potential benefit because everything that happens outside of an exercise session —i.e., life— has a potential impact.

Safe & Injury-Free Workouts

Let's not skimp on the rest and recovery part. Rest helps reenergize the body so you have the stamina to give it your all during your next workout. You can’t push it to your maximum without giving your body time to recoup in between. Overtraining can lead to overuse, which can lead to burnout and injury. Common overuse injuries include iliotibial band syndrome, stress fractures, patellofemoral syndrome (runner’s knee), and muscle strains.

It's recommended to spread out weekly exercise over the course of a few workouts (on at least three different days), rather than performing it all at once, to lower injury risk. And if you’re starting a new workout routine, or upping the intensity of your exercise habits, the guidelines recommend doing so slowly, so muscles have a chance to adapt and for the lowest injury risk.

Other ways to let your muscles recover would be to

  • Soft tissue therapy includes massage and foam rolling.

Performed immediately before and after exercise, it may help decrease feelings of delayed onset muscle soreness while speeding muscle recovery.

  • Nutrition & fluids The foods you eat provide your body with the building blocks needed to repair muscles and promote recovery. A whole-foods-based diet rich in antioxidants, whole carbohydrates, and lean protein can help trigger the right changes in your body between workouts, so your system is in better shape when it comes time for the next workout.

When you exercise, the proteins that make up your muscle fibers become damaged. Consuming protein after your workout can help give your body the raw material it needs to repair this muscle damage. Research has found that 20 to 40 grams of protein, or roughly 0.4 to 0.5 g/kg (0.18 to 0.22g/lb) of body weight, is enough to maximize muscle growth. Protein powder is a convenient way to add more protein to your diet. You lose a lot of fluids & electrolytes during exercise and ideally, you should be replacing it during exercise, but filling up after exercise is an easy way to boost your recovery.

  • Sleep This is a large part of the recovery equation. During sleep, the body produces the majority of its growth factors and hormones that aid in daily muscle repair and recovery. Getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night allows those growth factors to do their work.

Bottom Line

What’s important to remember is that recovery looks different for everyone. That’s why it is critical to pay attention to both how you feel and how your body is responding to your workouts. Exercise plateaus (when you can’t seem to push yourself harder), mental fatigue, feelings of burnout, and extreme muscle soreness that lasts for more than three or four days are all signs that you need to increase your workout recovery.

About the authors:

Madur & Anitha Jagannath are certified Nutrition Consultants, in addition to their professions in technology and human resources. When Madur started feeling lethargic and slowing down, he started exercising regularly, became conscious of healthy eating habits and nutrition. He is an avid runner and does half-marathons often. At Voyage to Wellness, they attribute our reputation to the lasting customer relationships they have developed throughout the years. They believe in health & wellness and being fit, at all stages of people's lives.

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