Just because you’ve clocked your last mile or finished your final rep, doesn’t mean your workout is over. In fact, what you do after your workout is just as important as what you do during it. After any workout—involving cardio or weights—your muscles are tired and begin breaking down. The immediate time after exercise is essential to muscle and tissue repair, strength building and overall recovery.
“The post-workout phase is a critical part of any exercise routine,” agrees Fabio Comana, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise. Here, five key things you should do after every workout.
There’s a reason the treadmill has a “cool down” setting: When you’re exercising, your effort is at, say, eight out of 10 and your body needs help getting back down to one out of 10. “A sudden stop in physical activity can cause blood pooling in your legs, your blood pressure could drop and you could get very dizzy,” warns Jenn Burke, a personal training manager at Crunch gym in New York City. After a run, slow down your stride and walk for three to five minutes (or longer if it was an exceptionally intense effort).
Cooling down is even important after a strength workout. After lifting, try doing some dynamic stretches such as walking lunges or yoga poses. “You want to bring your heart rate back down to a more calm state—about 100 to 120 beats per minute,” Burke says.
After strength training or cardio, your muscles are warmed up so they’re more elastic and pliable. “This is when you’re going to see the most benefits in flexibility,” says Burke. “Stretching also relaxes the tension from the workout.” Although stretching hasn’t been found to decrease injuries, it has been shown to decrease next-day soreness in hamstrings, quads and calves. Stretching also maintains circulation in key areas and expedites the healing process after muscles begin breaking down. “You’re technically supposed to stretch each major muscle with four reps at 15 to 60 seconds each,” says Comana. “But that could take about 40 minutes. Instead, you can get away with five to 10 minutes.”
If you just do one stretch, Burke suggests a hamstring towel stretch: Lie on your back, raise one leg and loop a towel around your foot. Pull the ends of the towel to bring your leg toward your chest and feel the stretch in your hamstring. Hold the position, then repeat with your other leg.
Every time you move you’re expending water from your body. After an intense workout, you need to replenish water supplies—this helps decrease muscle soreness and increase strength and flexibility. How much liquid do you need after a workout? Comana has a simple method for figuring that out: Weigh yourself before you workout, then weigh yourself when you’re finished. The weight you lost is strictly water weight. To replenish, you need to drink that weight in liquids, plus 25 to 50 percent to make up for what you’ll loose in urine.
Grab a protein shake
No matter what time of day you work out—morning, afternoon or night—you should drink a protein shake after you work out. “Do this 15 to 30 minutes after your workout, when your metabolic window is open,” says Burke. “This is when your muscles are more reactive to absorbing nutrients.” A shake will put carbohydrates and protein back into your muscles so they can rebuild and get stronger. A good recipe is about four grams of carbohydrates for every one gram of protein. “If you don’t want a protein shake, I strongly recommend a glass of chocolate milk. Sure, it’s high in sugars but skim milk is good for you and, with the chocolate, it’s got just the right ratio,” says Comana.
Get a massage
Some studies fail to support claims that massages after strenuous workouts can speed muscle recovery but others find that massages can speed up recovery by up to 50 percent, and reduce swelling and muscle damage. And both of our experts are pro massage. “Massages are great to break up knots and or adhesions. Anything you can do to make sure your muscles are still aligned is a good thing,” says Burke. If you can’t afford a full-out massage, get a foam roller, put it on the floor and use your body weight to roll it along your back and neck. “Even if there are no physical benefits, I think there’s at least psychological and emotional benefit,” says Comana. Just make sure the pressure isn’t too deep or heavy—as it could damage the already vulnerable muscles.