If you exercise regularly then you will know that workout recovery is as important as doing your session well, but how do you ensure you have a great recovery? The key is to know what your body needs and how to provide it in the hours after your workout.
Nobody wants to be sore and stiff for days after a gym session or run, but you can improve your recovery and performance by making smart decisions about what you eat, what you drink and what you do.
After a workout, your body needs time to repair itself, especially muscle fibres and other soft tissues. When you work a muscle you cause microscopic tears in the fibres, which then grow back bigger and stronger as you recover.
If you neglect your recovery phase, then you’re neglecting the whole reason for working out in the first place. Without the right fluids, nutrients and rest you will get the pain but not the gain, as your body will not be able to recover properly.
By far the most important thing to do after a workout to aid recovery is to replace lost fluids.
When you exercise your body heats up, and to deal with this it will start to sweat, which means your body is losing water. The amount you lose will depend on your metabolism and the conditions. One study of endurance athletes found that this could vary from an average of 254 millilitres per hour to 1.2 litres per hour depending on the heat and humidity.
Without sufficient water, your body will not recover effectively from your exercise, and will instead prioritise getting enough water to your major organs.
Eating after exercise is a tricky area, and often comes down to personal preference. Many people just are not hungry at all after a session, while others will be famished.
But whatever your preference you should try to fuel your workout recovery with healthy protein and carbohydrates. This will replace depleted energy stores and provide your body with the raw materials for rebuilding damaged tissues.
You can use protein shakes, which are designed to deliver protein to your body as efficiently as possible. A recent study showed that 40g of whey protein was more effective than 20g when consumed after a workout.
Don’t neglect the carbs either, as they provide your energy. If you don’t get enough carbohydrates then your body may use protein instead, which is less efficient and even counter-productive if you are trying to build muscle mass.
You can’t overstate the importance of rest in workout recovery because you need to allow your muscles and other soft tissues to repair themselves.
This process, known as muscle protein synthesis, is not instant and is one of the key reasons why you should not work the same muscles repeatedly. All you will achieve is exhaustion and damaged muscles.
By allowing your muscles the time they need to recover and rebuild, you are more likely to see progress and development in your strength and fitness.
Sleep is part of the rest process but is even more important than simply not exercising a particular muscle. When you sleep, your body enters a whole different cycle of activity, including the release of growth hormone.
This hormone is vital for repairing damaged tissues, burning fat and even building bones, and if you don’t get enough sleep over time then your body will also release less growth hormone even when you do sleep.
Studies have shown that performance improves when athletes get more sleep, and goes down when they are sleep deprived. This is partly due to the effect on decision making and coordination, which are important aspects of exercise, so you are also at greater risk of injury if you don’t get enough sleep.
Stretching should be an important part of your life, but not all stretches are the same and you need to understand how and when to do them to get the benefit.
First of all, you can do two distinct types of stretches: static and dynamic. Static stretches involve lengthening the muscles and holding that position for a certain period. Dynamic stretches involve lengthening and then shortening the muscle without holding the position.
When it comes to workout recovery, your muscles are already warm so you should be doing static stretches. This helps to increase your range of motion and so reduces the long-term risk of injury.
A recent US study found that you are unlikely to reduce muscle soreness by stretching after your workout, and that stretching before a workout brings few benefits in terms of soreness or reducing the risk of injury.
Many gym-goers use supplements which include branch-chain amino acids (BCAAs), on the basis that they help workout recovery, but the research on this is mixed.
Some studies have found that BCAAs can reduce the perception of muscle soreness, but it’s not clear that they actually improve the recovery of the muscles themselves.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use them, but they will not replace a high-protein diet or any of the essential ingredients in recovery.
Whatever your level of exercise, workout recovery is an important part of your session. Even with the best exercise plan you will fail to fulfil your potential if you don’t refuel, rehydrate, rest and get enough sleep.