It's typically thought that it's when we lift weights and exercise that we're building muscle and gaining strength, but to be quite honest, intense exercise breaks down muscle tissue. In reality, it's the days and hours after we train that our bodies repair, recover, and grow bigger, stronger, and faster.
However, you won’t find many (if any) posts going viral on social media showing your favorite insta-fluencer #killingit on their rest day. That’s because there's nothing particularly engaging or alluring about watching someone rest and recover on their off days.
But, if you've never been one to take your rest and post-workout recovery as serious as your time spent lifting weights and doing cardio, then you're likely leaving a lot of gains (and therefore results) on the table.
Today, we highlight the importance of post-workout recovery as we discuss what it is, why you need it, and how to maximize it for quicker recovery and better results.
Importance of Post-Exercise Recovery
Simply put, recovery is essential to not only getting results from your hard work in the gym but to performing optimally in your upcoming workouts.
You see, an exercise is a form of stress to the body, both mentally and physically. The intensity and duration of your workout is directly tied to the amount of stress you induce. As such, the more stress your mind and body incur, the greater the magnitude of recovery your body has to complete before you can perform to the same (or greater) level.
Failure to adequately recover from exercise leads to decrements in performance and can eventually lead to overtraining and injury.
In addition to the physical recovery that is needed post-workout, there's also an element of psychological healing that's necessary. (Remember, we did say that exercise stresses both the body and mind.)
If you don’t think intense exercise is mentally taxing, load up your squat 10RM and perform a set of 20 reps without putting the bar down. This is one of the oldest muscle building techniques for developing strong legs, and it’s also one of the most mentally daunting tasks to complete if you’ve ever tried it.
If you did use your 10-RM and somehow managed to complete all 20 reps without losing your lunch, you're going to be wiped out mentally and physically, meaning that the chances you'll want to perform that same workout again tomorrow are zilch.
For non-competitive or non-professional athletes, recovery also helps you avoid mental fatigue and maintain a more balanced lifestyle between training, work, family, and relaxation time.
Benefits of Post-Exercise Recovery
As we stated at the outset, prioritizing post-exercise recovery is vital to your ability to continue to perform to the best of your abilities as well as get results from your training program.
Post-exercise recovery allows the body to repair damaged tissues as well as replenish energy stores (muscle glycogen) that are depleted during exercise.
If you never give your body enough time to recover in between bouts of intense exercise, you'll never fully repair the damage done to your muscles, which means you'll never fully realize the full benefits from your training (i.e., moving as much weight or performing as much work as you are truly capable of).
It’s also important to remember that muscles aren’t the only things that are stressed and damaged during exercise. Your joints, ligaments, tendons, and connective tissue also take a beating. Post-exercise recovery allows these important structures to repair themselves.
The benefits of post-exercise recovery extend beyond the physical, too. Training hard day after day after day can induce significant amounts of mental fatigue, and after a while, you may even lose the desire to exercise altogether!
Taking rest and recovery days gives your body and mind a break from the rigors of training and can help you regain the zeal and enthusiasm to get back in the gym and crush it!
Now that you understand why post-workout recovery is so important, let's look at a few ways to maximize recovery following your workout.
How to Maximize Post Workout Recovery
Make Sure You’re Eating Enough Total Calories
One of the most important things you need to keep in mind when trying to maximize post-workout recovery is to make sure that you are consuming enough total calories each day.
Calories supply our bodies with the energy that is needed to replenish energy stores and repair the damage that was done during our workout.
If you're not consuming enough calories, your ability to sufficiently recover will be significantly impacted as you're not giving your body the required energy it needs to perform the repair work it needs to do.
As such, when looking for ways to maximize post-workout recovery, consuming enough total calories is at the top of the list.
If you need help figuring out how many calories do I need to eat each day, click here.
Eat Healthy Recovery Foods
After accounting for total calories, the next thing you need to focus on to maximize post-workout recovery is consuming the proper ratio of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fat).
The two most essential macronutrients we're concerned with when trying to optimize post-exercise recovery are protein and carbohydrates.
Protein supplies our body with the building blocks (amino acids) that it needs to repair the damage done during training.
Carbohydrates provide the body with glucose, which is used immediately to provide energy for all the metabolic processes that are involved with recovery. Carbs also are used to refill muscle glycogen -- the primary source of energy our muscles use during high-intensity exercises, such as resistance training, sprinting, HIIT, etc.
Lastly, carbohydrate-rich foods, such as fruits and veggies, are loaded with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, all of which play key roles in repairing the damage done during exercise as well as neutralizing free radicals that are created during training.
Now, some of you may be wondering about dietary fat, and make no mistake, consuming enough dietary fat is essential for overall health and wellness. Still, it takes a backseat to carbohydrates and protein in terms of facilitating recovery from exercise.
In terms of post-workout nutrition, its importance has been downplayed quite significantly in recent years. And, to be quite honest, the "anabolic window" isn't quite as narrow as we were led to believe. It's more of an anabolic "barn door" than a "window."
What this means is that if you don’t slam a protein shake the minute your last set is complete, your gains won’t be hindered, and your workout won’t be wasted.
Furthermore, if you consume a high-quality pre-workout meal, there is no need to have a post-workout meal immediately following your training session as your body is still digesting, absorbing and utilizing the nutrients from the pre-workout meal.
Now, that's not to say you're doing any harm by having a post-workout meal following your workout if you had a pre-workout meal. It's just that it's not completely necessary.
This may be helpful for those individuals who do not feel particularly hungry following a tough workout.
Now, if you are someone who likes to train fasted or with an empty feeling stomach, then the need to consume some protein post-workout becomes increasingly important since intense exercise has a largely catabolic effect on your muscles. Consuming protein helps halt protein breakdown and kickstarts muscle protein synthesis -- the metabolic process which fuels muscle repair, recovery, and growth.
While any number of foods can work as suitable post-workout recovery meals, we're particular to having some whey protein (such as Steel Whey™) as a base.
Several studies have shown that having post-workout recovery shakes using whey protein supports better recovery and muscle growth. <1,2,3>
In addition to having protein post-workout, you may also want to include some source of carbohydrates, especially if you were engaged in glycogen-depleting training.
Some of our favorite carb sources for post-workout recovery are:
- Fruit (Bananas, Berries, Apples, etc.)
- Sweet Potatoes
- Russet Potatoes
- Whole-Grain Bread
- Whole-Grain Cereal
One last thing we'll say regarding post-workout recovery meals before ending this section is concerning the type of carbohydrate you eat. Similar to how the importance of the anabolic window was a bit overblown, so too was the need to consume high glycemic, fast-digesting carbohydrates immediately post-workout.
The reason this was recommended was that high glycemic carbs (white bread, white rice, gummy bears, pop tarts, etc.) are rapidly digested and spike insulin levels. Insulin is an anti-catabolic hormone that stops muscle breakdown and shuttles nutrients into muscle cells.
The thinking was that the quicker your body gets the carbohydrates in the bloodstream, the faster you'll recover, and the bigger you'll grow.
And while this makes sense, in theory, the truth is that the average fitness enthusiast who only trains one time per day should be more concerned with consuming enough total calories and carbohydrates than replenishing muscle glycogen as quickly as possible.
If you're only training once per day, your body will refill your glycogen stores over the ensuing 24 hours, and you'll be all set by the time you train the following day.
Individuals that need to be concerned with pounding down fast-digesting carbs immediately post-workout are those athletes that engage in multiple bouts of competition or training in a single day with only a few hours separated the engagements. If you fall into this category, then getting nutrients in after your workout is an absolute must so that you can adequately perform in the ensuing bout or training session.
Lots of Water
The human body is approximately 60% water, and virtually all of the major systems in your body depend on water -- including the ones involved in recovery from exercise. Furthermore, intense exercise causes increased water loss from the body, which means consuming enough water is paramount to performing your best and recovering fully.
Not only is it important to drink water following your workout, but it's equally important to consume enough fluid and electrolytes before and during your workout. Water helps regulate body temperature and blood pressure, and it also is needed to transport essential nutrients (carbs, fats, and protein) that are required by the body to perform and recover.
The American Council on Exercise recommends that individuals drink 8 ounces of fluids 30 minutes after exercise and 16 to 24 ounces for every pound of body weight lost during exercise. <4>
If you're exercising in the heat, the importance of staying hydrated is even more critical, as you can lose up to 4 liters of fluid per hour!
Rest and Relax
A little R&R can go a long way to helping you recover faster from training.
Rest can either be passive or active. Passive rest can be something as simple as lying in bed or on the sofa and watching T.V. or curling up with a good book. It can even be something like prayer, meditation, or sipping a cup of tea by the fire.
Active rest is typically viewed as low impact, low-stress activities that have you moving around. The benefit of active rest is that it increases circulation and blood flow to your muscles, which may help them heal quicker. Examples of active rest include walking, hiking, yoga, and stretching.
Massages are incredibly relaxing. And, as a bonus, they can help loosen uptight and/or sore muscles, increase oxygen and blood flow to tired muscles, and enhance the delivery of vital nutrients needed to repair muscle tissue.
A meta-analysis from 2018 that sought to determine the best way to maximize post-workout recovery found that "Massage seems to be the most effective method for reducing DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) and perceived fatigue." <6>
Bath (Hot or Ice)
Epsom salt baths and ice water baths are two popular methods for helping reduce the onset of muscle soreness and accelerate recovery.
The same meta-analysis described above reviewed the effects of cold-water immersion and found that the effects on DOMS were minimal. However, it did find that contrast water therapy (CWT) had a significant impact on DOMS. <5>
Contrast water therapy involves alternating between bathing in warm and cold water. Researchers believe that the DOMS-decreasing effects of contrast water therapy can be attributed to repeated vasoconstriction and vasodilation of blood vessels, which may reduce the swelling after exercise, as well as influence inflammatory biomarkers (such creatine kinase, C.K.) and decrease the perception of pain.
Yoga is a thousand-year-old practice that seeks to train and heal the mind and body. The combination of muscular activity and an internal focus on the breath create a one-of-kind mind-body fitness that isn't easily replicated.
Many view yoga as a workout unto itself due to the challenges it places on your balance, coordination, and patience. Yet more seasoned yoga practitioners use their practice as a means to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and pain.
Research has found that practicing yoga may also be a great way to optimize recovery post-workout, as it can improve sleep and enhance an individual's overall well-being and quality of life. <6>
Green smoothies have become all the rage in the health and fitness communities the past few years, and for a good reason. Greens are low in calories yet high in essential vitamins and minerals.
Of particular interest is magnesium, an essential mineral involved in 300+ biological processes. What's more, is that significant portions of the population do not get enough magnesium each day. <7>
Why is this important?
Magnesium plays a vital role in resting and recovery blood pressure with exercise. The versatile mineral is also supporting muscle contractions and fosters better quality sleep, which, as you know, is a significant contributor to your ability to adequately recover from training. <8,9>
When it comes to making a green smoothie, you don't have to use only greens. One of our favorite ways to eat more greens is to sneak them into our post-workout shakes.
In a blender, combine:
- 1 Cup Milk
- ½-1 cup Ice
- 1 Scoop Steel Whey™ Chocolate Milkshake Flavor
- 1 Tablespoon Peanut Butter (or other nut butter of choice)
- 1 Tablespoon Dark Cocoa Powder
- ½ Frozen Banana (cut into chunks)
- 1-2 Handfuls of Frozen Spinach (or other dark green)
Blend on high for 1-2 minutes and enjoy the ultimate greens-fueled post-workout shake.
The Bottom Line on Post Workout Recovery
While we all tend to focus on eating right and training hard, very few of us place as much emphasis on our recovery. Yet, it's recovery that ultimately governs how well we can perform in subsequent training sessions.
Eating enough high-quality food, consuming sufficient protein, and getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night can go a long way in accelerating recovery. If you still find that your recovery is lacking, try incorporating some of the tips outlined above to kick things up a notch and get on the road to healing quicker and feeling better post-workout.
- Pasiakos, S. M., Lieberman, H. R., & McLellan, T. M. (2014). Effects of protein supplements on muscle damage, soreness and recovery of muscle function and physical performance: a systematic review. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 44(5), 655–670. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-013-0137-7
- Cintineo HP, Arent MA, Antonio J, Arent SM. Effects of Protein Supplementation on Performance and Recovery in Resistance and Endurance Training. Front Nutr. 2018;5:83. Published 2018 Sep 11. doi:10.3389/fnut.2018.00083
- West DWD, Abou Sawan S, Mazzulla M, Williamson E, Moore DR. Whey protein supplementation enhances whole body protein metabolism and performance recovery after resistance exercise: a double-blind crossover study. Nutrients (2017) 9:735. 10.3390/nu9070735
- "How Hydration Affects Performance." ACE | Certified Personal Trainer | ACE Personal Trainer, www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/professional/expert-articles/5397/how-hydration-affects-performance
- Dupuy O, Douzi W, Theurot D, Bosquet L, Dugué B. An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. Front Physiol. 2018;9:403. Published 2018 Apr 26. doi:10.3389/fphys.2018.00403
- Woodyard C. Exploring the therapeutic effects of yoga and its ability to increase quality of life. Int J Yoga. 2011;4(2):49–54. doi:10.4103/0973-6131.85485
- Schwalfenberg, G. K., & Genuis, S. J. (2017). The Importance of Magnesium in Clinical Healthcare. Scientifica, 2017, 4179326. https://doi.org/10.1155/2017/4179326
- Zhang, Yijia, et al. "Can Magnesium Enhance Exercise Performance?" Nutrients, vol. 9, no. 9, 2017, p. 946.
- Kass LS, Skinner P, Poeira F. A pilot study on the effects of magnesium supplementation with high and low habitual dietary magnesium intake on resting and recovery from aerobic and resistance exercise and systolic blood pressure. J Sports Sci Med. 2013;12(1):144–150. Published 2013 Mar 1.