If you're someone who regularly hits the gym to burn off a little steam and keep your body feeling strong and capable, you're already winning in many ways. As any health professional will tell you, working out can be a major asset to your general wellbeing, both physically and emotionally. That said, there are certainly times when you may push yourself a little too hard, which is why knowing how to recover after a brutal workout can be just as important as your fitness routine itself.
You've probably heard a lot about workout recovery these days, as it's a buzzworthy phrase in marketing for topical CBD products and nutritional supplements/drinks, but according to experts, it's actually totally legitimate — especially if you're doing more strenuous workouts like HIIT or weight-lifting. "High-intensity workouts are just that, intense," shares Dr. Kate Ayoub, physical therapist and health coach with Own Your Movement. "You are working at a high heart-rate and burning more calories, which means if you don't fuel well, you are going to feel depleted after."
According to Ayoub, intense workouts cause micro-tears in your muscles, forcing your body to go into repair mode. "Without appropriate recovery, the small damage, which is normal in exercise, compounds," she explains. "We can develop repetitive stress injuries which can lead to muscular, tendon, or bone injuries." So how can you actually improve your workout by maximizing your recovery? Both Ayoub and Micah Golden-Grant, M.Ed, NASM-CPT, agree that there are a few crucial things you can to do keep your body safer from stress and injury.
If you've heard it once you've heard it a million times: Drink. More. Water. According to Golden-Grant, after an intense workout session the water you drink has been used by your muscles to bring in more oxygen, so the rest of your body is likely to feel depleted. The solution? Drink more — and not just during your sweat session. "A general rule of thumb is that if you’re only drinking when you are thirsty, you are not drinking enough water," he explains. "If you are only drinking during workouts, chances are you were already dehydrated coming in. In turn, your body will likely exhaust more quickly and have a harder time recovering." He suggests 100 ounces per day as a good goal.
By now you've probably been told about the benefits of foam rolling, but if not, one of the major ones is its role in workout recovery. As Golden-Grant explains, that's not only because of the feel-good factor that comes from releasing pressure and tension (think of it as a massage without the fancy spa setting), but also the fact that it can actually help repair the micro-damage caused by intense workouts. "After a workout, before [your body's natural] recovery begins, the muscles are just broken down, tired, and tight," he says. "Performing active stretching and foam rolling before the workout, and then static stretches and foam rolling afterwards can help the muscles to bounce back more quickly and ignite this recovery/rebuilding process."
Feed Your Body What It Needs
Ayoub notes that exercising affects your blood sugar levels. "When we need more, our body converts glycogen, which is stored in our muscles and liver, into glucose," she explains. "If we run low on glycogen, our blood sugar levels decrease, causing the feeling of low energy." Because of that, it's super important to make sure you're feeding your body nutritionally — especially when you're putting in a ton of energy at the gym. When you don't, you've probably noticed you can experience fatigue, brain fog, and a spike in sugar cravings.
To help, Ayoub explains that refueling post-workout is paramount, and she advises you do so with a nutritious snack within 30 minutes of wrapping it up. "Look for something with carbohydrates and protein, ideally 3:1 carb to protein ratio (1, 2, 3)," she says. "For example, 90 grams of carbs and 30 grams of protein. [Some ideals includes] a fruit smoothie with Greek yogurt, a recovery drink, chicken with sweet potatoes, or cottage cheese with fruit."
And Golden-Grant agrees, adding that a simple banana with almond butter is a great option for before or after your workout, since it's balanced with protein and carbohydrates and will keep your energy going throughout your fitness regimen and beyond.
Take Time To Rest
"Doing high-intensity, full-body, max effort workouts five or six days per week may not be allowing your body to recover and adapt as it should between intense sessions, leading to injury, fatigue, or illness," Ayoub explains. While it can be tempting to adopt a "no pain no gain" philosophy with your fitness, you actually need to know when to slow things down and give your body a rest.
Golden-Grant suggests planning your rest periods systematically, but if that's just not possible, he says you can always stick to a general rule of thumb: Work out when you can and rest when you need to. And while he notes that workouts like HIIT have some recovery time built into the routine, other types of workout might require you to add it in on your own. "Even if strength training and lifting weights is your game, recovery intervals come into play so that your sets can be as effective as possible and your energy level can stay high," he explains. "In the most common types of strength training, namely strength/stability endurance training for muscle tone and function and hypertrophy training for muscle growth, the suggested rest interval between sets ranges from 45 to 90 seconds."
And Ayoub adds that while your recovery days should be taken seriously, it doesn't always have to mean that you opt out of physical activity entirely. "Rest days are just that, days you rest, but you can also use active recovery; these are light workout days," she says. "Go for an easy bike ride around town, walk with a friend, or attend a gentle yoga class. Energy day should not be a max effort workout, mix in."
And speaking of rest, don't forget to focus on good sleeping habits — namely, getting enough of it. "Insufficient sleep can lead to low energy, decreased immune system, decreased performance, and food cravings," Ayoub points out. Keeping all that in mind, you should find yourself having better workouts, and less overall stress on the body.