With today’s fast paced society, post-workout recovery is an often overlooked (but very important) aspect of fitness. See if this scenario sounds familiar: you have one hour to finish your workout before you have to get back to work, pick up the kids, get to class, etc. So you decide to get right off the elliptical or squat rack while your heart is still racing, so you can get the shower and get out of there.
No stretching, no recovery drink, nothing! There is a popular misconception that you grow muscle while you are exercising when actually you are breaking down and causing micro tears in the muscle. Muscle repairs itself and grows during rest4 which is why post-workout diligence is so important, and recovery starts before you’re even finished working out.
Post-workout cool down process
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Post-workout recovery begins in the cool down phase. Although some research suggests that cooling down does not affect delayed onset muscle soreness, a post-work out cool down will return the body back to regulated state.3
Cooling down from peak exercise is generally recommended of 5-10 minutes of low to moderate aerobic intensity.3 So basically, if you’re running at 6 mph up an 8% incline. A good cool down would be to slow down to 2.5 to 3 mph for 5-10 minutes.
A longer and more progressive cool down would be needed with those who have known cardiac disease. Bringing the heart rate down slowly during a cool-down can reduce the possible occurrence of lightheadedness, musculoskeletal issues, abnormal heart rhythms and cardiac arrest1
Physiological changes during the post-workout cool down include:
1. Enhanced venous return. Which prevents blood from pooling in the legs.
2. Enhanced transport of metabolic products away from skeletal muscle.(i.e. lactic acid)
3. Gradual return of heart rate and blood pressure to pre-exercise levels.
4. Skeletal muscle and connective tissue may be more pliable after exercise3, making it a good time to…..
Stretch it out
Muscles will work most effectively if they are able to go through their full range of motion. While current research is suggesting that post-workout stretching will not improve delayed onset muscle soreness, it will help with overall flexibility.
Think of a muscle as a rubber band; if the rubber band is cold and you go to stretch it, it is much more likely to snap. If the rubber band is warmed, it is certainly more pliable. Therefore, post-workout stretching may be an optimal time to enhance flexibility and decrease injury by stretching, either by static stretching or yoga.
Current research suggests that within 30 minutes of exercise, a post-workout recovery drink with a ratio of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats (chocolate skim milk for example) will experience a greater rate of muscle glycogen and protein synthesis more efficiently than a sports drink (Gatorade or similar).2
Pretty much, it helps you recover. With the exception of the recovery drink, there is a lot of speculation as to what overall diet works best and there is no cookie cutter program that works best for everyone.
Some people require more protein for muscle building, some require more carbohydrates as an endurance athlete; if you are trying to be healthy and recover, a balanced diet of quality proteins (fish, poultry, lean red meat), carbohydrates (fruits and vegetables), and healthy fats (olive oil, nuts) would be a good option. I would recommend tinkering to what makes you feel your best.
People often overlook the importance of staying well hydrated pre and post-workout, but it is critical in regards to performance and recovery. Water plays an important role in temperature regulation, blood pressure, and cell transportation to name a few.3
Dehydration causes many problems including; decreased performance, higher HR and low BP, risk of cramping, plus many others. It is recommended to consume about 1.5L of fluid per 1kg of weight loss post-workout.
Sleep it off to recover
As a father of 3 children I look at sleep the same way I do as winning the lottery, the chances of it are small but I wish for it nonetheless. Sleep and general rest are critical to maintaining a desirable body weight and for repairing muscle post-workout.4
During sleep, the body releases growth hormone which aids in muscle repair as the muscles are relaxed. Recovery sleep can also restore antioxidant activities and antioxidant capacity in both the liver and heart which is very important for cardiovascular function. Research suggests that 7-8 hours per night is optimal for recovery.4
Putting it all together
As mentioned earlier, people often times feel rushed and overlook post-workout recovery. So what can you do to make it more of a priority? Log your workouts. It is probably the most effective way to ensure that you will prioritize it and stay with it.
Track how long it takes you to complete your routine and set aside another 15-20 minutes for cool down and stretching. If you are a forgetful person, set a reminder on your phone to have that recovery drink when you’re done exercising.
Keep a log of food intake to assure that you are getting the proper nutrients, and put away electronics for an hour before you go to bed.
Training to recover is the mindset here. Neglecting to allow yourself the ability to recover is like buying a fancy sports car and never maintaining it. It may be great in the short term, but in the long term it’s going to fall apart on you and you won’t get to enjoy it.
Being consistent with your post-workout recovery will allow you to train harder and achieve greater gains in the long run. As always, any questions or comments are always welcome.
1. Gary F. Fletcher, Gary J. Balady, et al. Exercise Standards for Testing and Training: A Statement for Healthcare Professionals From the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2001;104:1694-1740.
2. Chad Kerksick, Travis Harvey, et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: Nutrient Timing. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2008, 5:17.
3. Walter R. Thompson, PhD, FACSM., Neil F. Gordon, MD, PhD, MPH, FACSM., and Linda S. Pescatello, PhD, FACSM. ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription. Philadelphia : Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, ©2010. Pg (153-173).
4. Faith S. Luyster, PhD, Patrick J. Strollo Jr. PhD, et al. Sleep: A Health Imperative. SLEEP, Vol. 35, No. 6, 2012.