Just because your workout’s done doesn’t mean your work is over. Half the battle of a results-driven fitness routine takes place after you rack your weights and hang up your running shoes.
You see, your standard 45-minute training regimen isn’t when changes actually take place (at least, not directly). As you exercise, you place stress on your body’s systems — your lungs, heart and muscles all cry out, “Holy moly, what are you doing to me?” as you work to get over that hill or through your final set.
This stress is actually damage (which sounds terrible, I know), but as your body repairs the microtears you’ve incurred in your muscles, it builds itself back better and stronger, more capable of handling the same level of stress the next time you hit the gym. It’s this 24- to 48-hour recovery period post-workout when your body experiences actual changes. Make sure you’re not selling your workouts short by skimping out on (arguably) the most important part — recovery.
Flexibility is one of the five components of fitness and should therefore be considered every bit as important as your “main” workout. By adding a five- to 10-minute full-body stretching routine to the end of your workout, you’ll take advantage of your already warm, pliable muscles, making it easier to increase flexibility and maintain or improve range of motion.
In turn, when you’re able to move your joints through their full range of motion, you’ll be less likely to experience an injury or chronic pain, two vital factors for maintaining a consistent workout regimen.
2. Foam roll
Everyone should want to foam roll, just because it feels so stinkin’ good, but it’s especially important after a workout because it’s like a low-cost sports massage. By rolling across a foam roller, you can target the muscles you’ve just worked, increasing blood flow and decreasing the likelihood of developing myofascial adhesions — potentially painful areas where connective tissue becomes “glued” together and limits or alters a muscle’s ability to contract. As Sarah Jane Parker, an ACSM-certified personal trainer explains, “Foam rolling keeps your fascia and tendons flexible and elastic.” Like stretching, this helps keep you healthy and capable of continuing to see results.
3. Shower off
Or if you can’t make time for a full shower, at least take a couple of seconds to towel off with a wet wipe. If you skip the wash-down and allow your sweat to dry on your skin, you’re basically turning your body into a petri dish for bacterial growth (more than it already is). This is especially concerning if you experienced any chafing during your workout (around your sports bra and between your thighs are the primary culprits), because even microtears of the skin can leave you open to staph infections and other bacterial illnesses.
If your workout involved heavy breathing and buckets of sweat (or even if it didn’t), you need to grab a bottle of H2O to rehydrate after your sweat sesh. Water is the medium in which all your body’s processes take place. If you don’t drink water post-workout, your metabolism won’t work at full capacity, and you’re bound to feel sluggish and fog-brained.
Most college and pro athletes aren’t even allowed to participate in their next practice if they fail to rehydrate properly after a workout. If you return to exercise while still dehydrated, it can leave you open to heat-related illness and potential injury, not to mention poor performance.
5. Eat a snack
Ladies, if you forget everything else I’m telling you now, remember this: A post-workout snack is beyond important when it comes to exercise recovery and muscular development. (And no, I’m not talking about developing big, bulky muscles — just getting those svelte, strong arms you’ve been craving.)
Consuming a post-workout snack within 60 minutes of your fitness routine helps restore muscle glycogen — the source of energy your body taps into when exercising — essentially helping you to recover for your next workout. At the same time, a well-planned snack can put you into a state of positive nitrogen balance, which is the optimal state to grow muscle.
The key here is to make sure you’re consuming a snack that delivers a balance of carbohydrates and complete proteins to ensure you’re getting the right allotment of amino acids for muscle repair and growth. A few possible snacks include:
A big glass of chocolate milk
A bowl of cereal with milk or soy milk
Celery sticks or an apple with peanut butter
Yogurt mixed with berries and nuts (or you could grab a Yoplait Plentí Greek Yogurt — it comes with whole grain oats, flax and pumpkin seeds already mixed in)
Half a whole-wheat pita filled with tuna salad
More: What to eat before and after a workout
Go ahead and throw on those compression leggings after a tough workout. While they may not be the most effective way to recover from exercise, studies have shown that they’re a more effective recovery method than passive rest, not to mention that wearing compression garments post-exercise can reduce delayed onset muscle soreness, which in my book makes them pretty cool.
7. Get some rest
Between the sheets is where the magic happens. Rest and recovery literally take place while you’re resting. During sleep, your body is able to reset itself, engage in muscular repair and assimilate new experiences to enhance neural pathways for future bouts of exercise. Skimping on sleep after a workout is like paying for a full burrito and being OK with the restaurant serving you half. No one should ever be OK with half a burrito.