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The Beginner’s Guide to Post-Workout Recovery

Posted by Jill Derryberry on Apr 1, 2021 1:46:19 PM
Jill Derryberry
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**This post is a part of our beginner's guide to fitness series.  To see all blogs in the series click here. 


What if I told you there was a way to reduce the risk of injury, minimize muscle soreness, boost performance and improve the results from your workouts? Would you do it? The secret is to focus on your post-exercise recovery. Exercise is physical stress imposed on the body that in turn changes your body. The positive changes occur when your body is repairing itself after the stress of your workout. This time after your workout, when your muscle tissue is repairing itself, is when you get stronger and build endurance.


Exercise or any other physical work cases fluid loss, muscle damage, and the depletion of energy stores (muscle glycogen). Without proper recovery time, the repair process where the microscopic muscle tears created during a workout will not heal into stronger muscles. A muscle needs to rest anywhere from 24-48 hours to repair and rebuild or it may simply lead to tissue breakdown instead of building. Muscle damage also impacts the amount of force that is able to be exerted until repair is complete. The muscle damage not only impacts muscle building and strengthening results from your workout, it also impairs the ability to transport blood glucose (used as energy) into the muscle cell, which means not as much glycogen is replenished and less energy and force is available meaning you have less energy for your next exercise session. Recovery allows the body to repair damaged tissues, replenish energy stores and prevent overtraining. Overtraining can occur when the body isn’t able to recover. Signs of overtraining can include decreased sports performance, depression, increased risk of injury and disrupted sleep.


How do we recover? Stretching, sleep, refueling and rest are four aspects of post-exercise recovery and all important parts of a good workout program.

stretching for recovery

Stretch Adding stretches to your warm up and cool down help to prevent injury, increase flexibility, decrease potential post-workout soreness and can improve performance. Be aware there are different types of stretching. Starting your workout with dynamic exercises or stretches (stretches with movement) is best and then cool down with static stretching (holding a stretch). Optimal recovery for the myofascial network (the connective tissues covering or binding your muscles) should also include techniques for improving tissue extensibility (the ability of separate layers of muscle tissue to slide across one another). Myofascial release is a good way to do that and can be done using foam rollers or a massage from a professional therapist. Read more about stretching and foam rolling on the blog here.


There are other healing modalities like cryotherapy and heat treatments that could be added to your recovery plan. Cryotherapy is the use of extreme cold air to help increase blood flow to help repair tissue faster and reduce inflammation. An ice bath is another way to use cold to help recovery. The heat in a sauna or whirlpool can help with post-exercise tissue recovery because the heat increases the body’s circulation, which removes metabolic waste products such as hydrogen ions, while carrying oxygen and other nutrients necessary to muscle tissues. This will help to reduce any potential soreness as well as helping your muscle tissue repair and rebuild.


Sleep   How does sleep affect your performance and recovery? Sleeping is one of the most efficient means of allowing your body to recovery from one day’s workout and to properly prepare for the next exercise session. Ensuring you are getting an adequate amount (between seven and nine hours a night) as well as getting good quality sleep are equally important. Our bodies repair, regenerate and grow muscle tissue during stage 3 of non-rapid eye movement sleep. Insufficient sleep could result in higher levels of catabolic hormones like cortisol. Too much cortisol can potential inhibit muscle growth and affect your energy levels. Being overly tired could cause a missed workout or an injury during exercise. Lack of sleep also impacts cognitive performance which could result in reduced reflex times or poor form, each of which could cause an injury. Plus, getting enough sleep supports your immune system, which in turn reduces the risk of becoming sick and missing a workout.


Refuel Refueling properly after exercise replenishes your energy stores and can assist the tissue repair process. A post-workout snack with a proper ratio of carbohydrates (carb) to protein can help with both of those things. Carbs are digested and then replenish your energy stores and protein helps to rebuild your muscles. Research has suggested having something within 30-45 minutes after a workout with a 3:1 ration of carbs to protein works best to help recovery. A popular example is a banana (healthy carb) with a little bit of peanut butter (protein). But balance is key here, eat too much more than what your body needs and it will be stored as fat.


Don’t forget water! Rehydrating is number one when it comes to refueling. You lose a lot of fluid during exercise and replacing it is important. Water supports every metabolic function and nutrient transfer in the body. It is important to stay hydrated for many reasons, one being to assist in the muscle rebuilding process as well as to help any potential muscle soreness. Muscle soreness occurs from lactic acid build up in a muscle. Drinking adequate amounts of water is one way to help to rid some of that build up.


Rest Rest days are part of any smart workout plan. It is possible to workout everyday if you have a good plan that varies the intensity and type of workout done each day, making some of the days active rest days. An example of an active rest day would be a yoga class or a walk. If you are training a specific muscle group, give it at least a day to repair and rebuild before using resistance training with that muscle again. This is where a weight training plan might split the muscle groups up so that you are training one or several of the muscle groups on one day then different muscles groups the next, which allows those worked on day one rest the next day while training others. High intensity exercise should not be done every day. Most studies recommend high intensity training just two to three times a week on non-consecutive days.  A personal trainer can put together a workout plan personalized for you, your fitness level and type of workout you enjoy and that includes the proper amount of complete rest and active rest. Excessive exercise, heavy weight training every day, or a lack of rest days will limit your fitness gains from exercise and potentially lead to overtraining and injury.


Any form of stress (from life or exercise) takes a toll on us both mentally and physically. The body can only take so much, so it is vital to give yourself a break every now and then. By neglecting rest days, you may increase your risk for injury, decrease your level of performance and not see as much progress.


Post-workout recovery is not a one-step process or just one thing to do. It’s basically everything you are doing when you are not working out. The basics of a good post-workout recovery include having a workout plan with at least one rest day a week, completing a warm up and cool down including some stretching with each workout, getting enough sleep, staying hydrated and eating a balanced diet. Pay attention to these things and you’ll enjoy more results from your workouts.  


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