Whether you've just started hitting the gym for the very first time or you're training for the marathon, it can be all too easy to focus your energy into just the exercise itself. But making the most of your downtime between sessions is just as important in healing your body and promoting your progress. It's all about the workout recovery (i.e. taking the time to properly rebalance your body on your "off" days).
"Post-workout recovery is just as important as the workout itself," reminds Jenna Schultz, BSN, RN, a marathon runner and nurse. It's not only vital in helping your body mend itself after a bout of physical exhaustion, but it's essential for preparing your muscles for the next workout in your regimen. "We all want to live long and healthy lives—we all also want to get in a good workout," says Schultz. "We need to balance the intensity with recovery so we can keep our bodies healthy, safe, and strong for the long haul."
Proper recovery requires more than laying on your couch after a sweat session. From foam rolling and food to saunas and sleep hygiene, there are so many things you can do to support your body so it can handle—and thrive in—a healthy fitness regimen. Here's what Schultz and other experts say about the steps that are crucial for post-workout recovery.
Meet the Expert
Jenna Schultz, BSN, RN, is a cardiac and thoracic surgery step-down nurse. She does one-on-one education with patients and families to help them better understand their road to recovery after surgery. She's also a health and fitness enthusiast, yogi, and runner—and has run five marathons.
Lower Your Heart Rate
"Post-workout recovery should start with a proper cool down, mobility, or stretching routine," advises Schultz. "First and foremost, bringing your heart rate back down to your resting rate will help your entire body recover faster. It brings blood flow to the tissues and muscles you just worked." She names activities such as static stretching, yoga, and foam rolling as excellent ways to bring down your heart rate and initiate recovery.
Dr. Kasia Iwan, a pain medicine physician, advises stretching immediately after each workout and opting for an Epsom salt bath at night if you're feeling particularly sore.
Meet the Expert
Dr. Kasia Iwan, M.D., is a fellowship-trained interventional pain physician who is double board-certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation and pain medicine. She is involved in several organizations including the North American Neuromodulation Society and the American Academy of Pain Medicine.
Commit to Good Nutrition and Hydration
"The general rule of thumb is to consume protein-rich fuel about 30 minutes after your workout," Schultz notes. "This is also a perfect opportunity to add in complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, and of course some veggies for added nutrients."
She suggests trying a smoothie with protein powder (pure whey isolate or plant-based), a protein-rich non-dairy alternative (or regular old milk), leafy greens, collagen powder, and a slide of avocado or a scoop of peanut butter.
The general rule of thumb is to consume protein-rich fuel about 30 minutes after your workout
Personal trainer Patrick Fusaro agrees nutrition plays a fundamental role, as what you put in your body plays a very big role in how your body performs. He says, "It's 80 percent diet and 20 percent working out. It allows you to know exactly what you're putting into your body—and makes it easier to cut back on processed foods."
Meet the Expert
Patrick Fusaro is a personal trainer at MBSC Thrive, helping clients safely and sustainably reach their personal fitness goals.
In fact, according to Shultz, not eating after a workout or skipping meals throughout the day is really detrimental to your post-workout recovery. "Starving your body of nutrition tends to be a big error made after workouts," she observes. "Fueling and nourishing your body will help it recover more effectively and efficiently." Shultz also notes dehydration is a common mistake and suggests continuing to drink water throughout the day (or buff it up with electrolyte tabs such as Nuun) and avoid high-sugar beverages."
"Foam rolling is a form of self-massage," explains Fusaro. "By rolling out your muscles for 30 seconds to a minute each, you're helping break up the muscle tissue after your muscles contract and become tense during your workout." Running sore limbs over a foam roller can be painful, but it will help reduce tightness and gently knead the fascia, or connective tissue, between the muscles better than stretching.
Fusaro explains that foam rolling will help to get rid of any knots or tension and allow for better blood flow throughout your body. "I have my clients target their calves, hamstrings, glutes, quads, and adductors before each session," he notes.
Spend Time in a Sauna or Steam Room
"Steam helps with opening your pores to release natural toxins from the body, and it also helps to relax your muscles," says Fusaro. The process is especially beneficial post-workout, as it can counteract the lactic acid build-up around your muscles, soothing them back to their relaxed state. "After an intense workout in which your muscles are contracting to a high degree, this is a great way to help them recover," he describes. Your blood vessels open up due to the high level of heat, which in turn allows greater blood flow through your muscles and entire body. "I sit in the sauna or steam room for anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes at a time—sometimes even when I don't work out," he says.
Steam helps with opening your pores to release natural toxins from the body, and it also helps to relax your muscles
Get a Good Night's Sleep
Fusaro reminds us it's during sleep that the body recovers most. "Without sufficient sleep, your body won't have as much energy and your muscles won't be at peak performance," he warns. Schultz, who's an advocate for sleep hygiene, recommends seven to nine hours of sleep each night, noting that not only will it make a huge difference in your physical fitness but in your overall wellness as well.
Take it Slow and Add Structure
Especially when we're just getting back into your workouts (or giving it a go for the first time), it's important to not overexert yourself. Iwan says that consistency is key. "By doing just 15 minutes of exercise a day, you are investing in your health," she says. Work up to more intense workouts as you build strength and listen to your body.
"If an injury or illness was the cause of your hiatus, always be sure to see a doctor prior to resuming increased physical activity," Schultz recommends. "From there, start slow. Walk, bike, or lightly jog as tolerated. Add in some stretching and try gentle yoga. Then, begin with core exercises and continue to build your base from there." Schultz says she's a big fan of utilizing free plans, like Nike Training Club, as they give structure and prevent you from doing too much too soon. "And, of course, reach out to that one friend who you can count on to join you and hold you accountable," she recommends.
Pearcey GE, Bradbury-Squires DJ, Kawamoto JE, Drinkwater EJ, Behm DG, Button DC. Foam Rolling for Delayed-onset Muscle Soreness and Recovery of Dynamic Performance Measures. J Athl Train. 2015;50(1):5-13. doi:10.4085/1062-6050-50.1.01