The rise of the internet has brought with it access to a worldwide network of cutting-edge fitness and workout information. We've never been so spoilt for choice when looking to push ourselves to the limit. And while there's almost infinite depth to the training conversation, we're only just beginning to scratch the surface of it's less sexy, but equally important counterpart - post-workout recovery.
We're certainly working harder, lifting heavier and running faster than ever before. However, we aren't necessarily putting the same energy into recovering better.
Thankfully there are a number of very simple physical, nutritional and mental ideas to consider. Ideas that will not only optimize the effects of your hard work but keep you on the path to better health, function and sustained fitness.
So let's take a look a what you can do to optimize your post-workout recovery.
Why is Post-Workout Recovery Important?
For years we thought the best way to maximize your workout gains was to work hard. Post-workout recovery was often an afterthought.
However in a world where everyone is now working hard, allowing the body time to adapt to your training stimulus has become a vital edge.
In essence, a workout alerts the body to its physical and mechanical boundaries. We push our limits with a heavier weight, an extra rep or greater distance/speed to show our tissue that it needs to get better. And so it tries to adapt.
An optimal post-workout recovery allows the body to quickly restore a normal steady-state (homeostasis), supports the body's need to adapt and improve, all while replenishing and restoring vital energy stores needed to go again as soon as possible.
What's often lost in the 'training hard' conversation is many of the gains we equate with working out are actually the consequence of post-workout recovery.
So if you're looking to maximize the return on your effort, here are thirteen ideas to consider from immediately post-workout and the days following.
Perform an Active Cool Down
Once your workout is complete don't just go and sit down. Keep moving until your breathing has normalized and you've stopped sweating.
This will help flush out any remaining waste and congestion accumulated during your workout and allow important nutrients back in - decreasing the risk of next-day muscle soreness.
An active cool-down will also provide a much smoother gradient for down-regulation post-exercise than doing nothing. This allows the body to more quickly return to pre-workout physiological levels.
Time can often be the enemy of an appropriate active cool down but do what you can. If you can't prioritize one immediately post-workout, try to make the rest of your day as movement-rich as possible.
Practice Deep Breathing
Thanks to the work of people like Wim Hof, we now have a better understanding of how conscious deep breathing can affect our physiology. Interestingly, we can apply his findings to optimize an active recovery.
Voluntary hyper-oxygenation can help reduce the time your body spends in Oxygen Debt.
Oxygen Debt is the period post-exercise where your body still requires increased oxygen to oxidize lactic acid and replenish its immediate energy systems. Consider this the period where we continually puff and pant long after our actual workout has finished.
By taking deeper, more consistent breaths you can increase available oxygen in your body and seriously speed up this process, kickstarting your post-workout recovery in record time.
Prioritize Nasal Breathing
When exercising there's often a point where you can no longer comfortably breathe through your nose and have to rely solely on mouth breathing.
Physiologically, this indicates the moment where our body's demand for oxygen exceeds our ability to supply it via the nose.
Interestingly, this also indicates the moment your Autonomic Nervous System (the nervous system responsible for many automated body responses like heartbeats, digestion, etc) shifts from being Parasympathetic dominant (rest and recovery) to Sympathetic dominant (fight or flight).
This is important because, in order to promote optimal recovery post-exercise, the body needs to drop back to a more Parasympathetic state as soon a possible.
And we can help promote this by prioritizing nasal breathing straight immediately post-workout.
Rehydrate with Water
In this current climate, we are more likely to reach for a sports drink than a glass of water post-workout. And it may be doing us a disservice.
Dr. Stacy Sims, of OSMO Nutrition, suggests that our infatuation with carbohydrate-heavy sports drinks may in fact support local dehydration rather than address it.
Dr. Sims suggests the sugars in these drinks may draw water to the gut for digestion and away from the areas needed for use and recovery.
Dr. Sims recommends removing calories from liquids altogether if looking to re-hydrate. Instead, focus on drinking water and aim to ingest your calories from real, solid foods.
Importantly, she also suggests that drinking water on its own does not guarantee it gets absorbed by the body. This means you can go through all the effort of rehydrating post-exercise but ultimately urinate it out.
As a solution, Dr. Sims recommends putting a pinch of good quality iodized table salt in your glass of water to help facilitate proper absorption and better post-workout recovery.
Eat a Little Protein, Eventually
As most will know, post-workout protein consumption is a building block for muscle growth and recovery.
Traditionally, we look to consume this protein within an "anabolic window" 30-60 minutes post-workout for optimal gains.
Interestingly, Brad Schoenfeld, a world-leader in strength, conditioning and all things muscle building, suggests post-workout protein fits less of a window and more of a global goal.
His recommendations vary depending on pre-workout protein intake as well as what your meals will look like afterward. Point being that if you're consuming enough throughout the day, the timing of that post-workout protein is less critical.
Brad suggests the window for protein after exercise can be as long as four to six hours, with muscular "protein sensitivity" lasting up to 24 hours. So don't feel like you need to prioritize a protein shake on the way to the car if the rest of your day is protein-rich.
Use an E-Stim Post-Workout
One of the great advances in optimizing post-workout recovery is the use of electrical muscle stimulation machines, or E-Stims - the most notable of which is the Marc Pro.
Machines like the Marc Pro use electrical current to stimulate low-grade muscle contraction to mimic an active recovery.
The Marc Pro is a popular choice as it offers low-grade muscle stimulation without fatigue. Essentially this means you can use the Marc Pro for hours to assist recovery in between workouts.
Active recovery is still paramount, but machines like the Marc Pro can further optimize those counter-productive, but ultimately unavoidable passive moments.
Leave the Ice Alone
The use of ice for recovery has become increasingly controversial over the last few years. Not because we don't use it enough but because we're using it at all.
Gary Reinl, the self-proclaimed Anti-Iceman has worked hard to provide a new perspective on a forty-year-old idea. Thanks to his work, we are slowly realizing ice may actually delay healing and recovery rather than assist it.
Traditionally, we ice to prevent pain, swelling and inflammation post-training. This is despite these factors not only being normal, but vital for proper healing and post-workout recovery.
We know ice slows down blood flow - the transportation system carrying necessary ingredients for healing and recovery.
It's like hitting the pause button until our tissue re-heats and the body continues to do what it's programmed to.
In its place, keep moving post-workout and beyond. Help the body do what it's already trying to do. Alternatively, use a machine like the Marc Pro or...
Get a Massage
You probably don't need too much convincing to get a massage but it's important to reinforce its role in post-workout recovery.
A good massage has many benefits:
- Decongest your tissue
- Down-regulate your nervous system
- Decrease the risk next day soreness (DOMS)
- Improve/maintain tissue flexibility
Ideally, you would have a professional do this for you, but that's rarely time and cost-effective for many. Self-massage does work but can sometimes be a little awkward depending on where you need it.
Thankfully, mobility tools like the foam roller and lacrosse ball are a fantastic substitute.
Go looking for any tight spots, spend some time pressing into them or try and sheer them free with movement.
Save Mobility for Later
Assuming you were nice and limber pre-workout, save any stretching and mobility work for just before bed-time.
This way, you'll not only get the benefits of stretching, but you'll also get the little down-regulatory bump associated with massage. One that'll help optimize your sleep and further enrich your post-workout recovery.
As a word of caution, don't stretch any next-day muscle soreness (DOMS). You'll potentially exacerbate those tight and stiff areas and delay your recovery.
Instead, continue focusing on active recovery and reintroduce some low-grade movement relevant to your previous workout. This will encourage better blood flow and flush out any remaining waste and congestion.
Prioritize Your Sleep Quality
Good quality sleep is perhaps the most vital component of your post-workout recovery. So it makes sense to optimize your sleep environment.
Follow the lead of most hotels and invest in blackout curtains. Consider pairing this with the use of an eye mask or earplugs to reduce night-time stimulation.
Similarly, aim to have your bedroom a little on the cooler side (60-72°F or 15-22°C) to promote healthier sleep.
If you're heavily into technology before bed strongly consider equipping a blue-light filter. There's mounting evidence to suggest blue light may be messing with your Circadian Rhythm and Melatonin production - essential components for quality sleep and recovery.
Alternatively, acquaint yourself with the "gut smash". Popularized by Jill Miller of Yoga Tune Up, it requires you to lie face down with a softer, medium sized ball gently pressing into your stomach muscles.
This technique helps loosen any trunk wall tightness and stimulates the Vagus nerve - associated with the down-regulation of the nervous system. A few minutes with this and you'll have no trouble drifting off to a richer sleep.
Enjoy a Post-Workout Ice Bath
Now, this may sound hypocritical considering we don't promote icing post-exercise, but cold exposure does have it's benefits.
As opposed to local ice application, general cold exposure is a great way to down-regulate your nervous system and optimize post-workout recovery.
We just want your cold exposure to be as far away from the training stimulus as possible.
If the timing works for you try finishing off with a cold shower before bed.
If you had a late workout, perhaps leave the ice bath or cold water immersion until the next morning. This way, you'll find the best balance between allowing your tissue the most time to recover and still down-regulating your nervous system.
Be Mindful of What You're Doing
The mental side of post-exercise recovery still has an important place.
Make sure you take the time to reflect on and process what happens during your workouts. Learn to appreciate what you did well and where you can improve.
If you found a specific aspect of your training difficult, take the time to consider why. Was it purely a physical limit you'll likely overcome in time? Or was it mental?
Take these little morsels of information and use them to your advantage next time.
Similarly, it's important to recognize there's no official endpoint to a life of training. So it's beneficial to fall in love with the process.
Don't wait for a competition win or a lifetime personal best to enjoy your efforts. Take the time to process what you accomplish each and every session. Be mindful of how hard you're working and pay attention to any small victories you accumulate along the way.
It's OK to be proud of what you're achieving. You deserve to be happy.
We often look at the physical side of recovery as a chance to optimize your training gains and get you ready to go again as soon as possible. So why not use that same time to optimize your mental gains as well?
Establish Good Daily Habits
It's worth noting that you can optimize post-workout recovery long before your workout begins or ends. You just need to practice healthy habits independent of your training and recovery cycles.
If you sit throughout the day consider standing and moving more. It'll improve your tissue quality and substantially reduce the need to do mobility work pre and post-training.
Improve the way you handle daily stress to give yourself a more relaxed initial baseline to perform and recover from. Your nervous system will down-regulate more easily when faced with the inevitable mental and physical stress of training or performance.
The same goes for proper nutrition and sleep. How much more robust would your post-workout recovery be if you're already coming from a healthier base?
Better yet, the more routine these ideas already are the less input you'll need when trying to optimize your post-workout recovery when it counts.
If you're devoting your precious time to workout and exercise it's important to maximize the return on your investment.
The specifics of your post-workout recovery will differ based on the training itself. But regardless of who you are, what you've just done and what your goals are, there's great depth to this conversation for everyone.
Whether it's prioritizing an active recovery, good quality sleep, mobility, and nutrition or potentially letting go of an old-school idea, the more time you can invest in your recovery the greater the benefits.
In fact, the more you invest in post-workout recovery, the more you'll realize these ideas filter into the rest of your life as well.
Ultimately, the bottom line is pretty simple. You deserve to play hard. Just make sure your post-workout recovery supports that hard work!
How do you attack your post-workout recovery? Let me know in the comments below.