By Dan Stahl
There’s no shortage of workouts pushing you to (or beyond) your limit. Barry’s Bootcamp has athletes alternate between treadmill sprints, weight-lifting, and burpees for almost an hour. UFC Fight Fit and EverybodyFights let you unleash your inner John Cena. Then, there’s CrossFit and high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) ranked among the top three fitness trends of 2019.
People are obsessed with working out and working out hard. But after pummeling their bodies, many of them just pack up and head home without giving recovery any thought. That’s a mistake.
To reap the benefits of exercise, you need rest. After all, muscle growth doesn’t happen during a workout. It happens afterward, as your body slowly repairs the muscle fibers you’ve assaulted with weights and cables, then grows new ones to meet the demands you’ve made of it.
Even if building muscle isn’t your biggest priority, recovery still matters. Dominick Gauthier, a former Olympic skier who now coaches other Olympic athletes, compares it to putting money into a savings account. “You may not see the payoff right away,” he says, “but you will long term.”
The two biggest benefits of recovery are injury prevention and improved performance. But you’re also straight-up going to feel better overall. Skipping a recovery session after an intense workout means you’ll be functioning at 75 to 80 percent the next day, Gauthier says, not the 100 percent you need to get all your stuff done.
So, how exactly do you incorporate recovery into your workout routine? Here are a few tips from Gauthier.
1. Cool down after exercising. Once you finish your workout, spend 15 to 20 minutes on a cool-down activity. You want something that keeps you moving but with minimal impact. The best option, says Gauthier, is cycling on a spin bike at a very low resistance level. Alternatively, you can walk or jog. Whatever you choose, “don’t engage too much effort,” Gauthier says.
Don’t have an extra 15 minutes to spare at the gym? In that case, Gauthier recommends spending the last 10 to 15 minutes of your normal workout window cooling down. “It will pay off,” he says. “You’ll feel much better the next day.”
2. Make deep stretching its own workout. While some people make stretching the focus of their cool down, Gauthier sees it as “a workout of its own” and suggests doing one or two deep stretching sessions each week. One option is yoga. You can sign up for a class at a local studio or find YouTube videos, like this one from the highly respected Samyak Yoga Ashram. (Whether you go online or off, check the instructor’s credentials before starting.)
For a more targeted approach, first note where you feel tension, says Gauthier. Then get into a position that stretches the muscle for 15 to 20 seconds. For example, if your glutes are sore, try this glute stretch to loosen them:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Bending your left leg, bring your right ankle across your left knee. Rest your right hand on your right knee and your left hand on your right heel.
- Maintain the position for 15 to 20 seconds.
- Repeat with the legs reversed. Do a total of two or three stretches on each side.
You can also incorporate a foam roller into your stretching routine. In this video, certified personal trainer Adam Michael Brewer explains how to use a roller for your back, glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, and IT band.
3. Eat right. According to the ACSM, “well-chosen nutrition strategies” can help with recovery. What makes for a good strategy? Carbs and protein. Carbs replenish the energy you used during your workout, and protein enables your spent muscles to repair and grow.
4. Breathe mindfully. “We work very intensively with athletes on their breathing, because we believe it’s a good way to either wake yourself up or calm yourself down,” Gauthier says of his coaching. But you don’t need to be a top athlete to benefit from breathwork. He recommends the following practice after exercise.
- Lie down on your back.
- Inhale fully for three to four seconds.
- Pause for two seconds.
- Exhale slowly for ten seconds.
- Pause again for two seconds.
- Repeat until you complete ten cycles.
5. Hit the sack. “We all need to believe in the importance of resting,” Gauthier says. That doesn’t just go for breathing after a workout. It also applies to sleep: Yes, you should be getting roughly eight hours every night, the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) says.
Why? Like food, sleep restores your energy and gives your muscles a chance to rebuild. Your slumbering body releases human growth hormone and other muscle-building chemicals. In fact, sleep may be the only time when muscle growth happens, the NSF notes.
Sleep also helps regulate your body’s production of the stress hormone cortisol. Too little sleep means too much cortisol, according to the medical journal Sleep. Not only will you feel more stressed out; you may interfere with your hard work at the gym. Increased cortisol can cause muscle loss and fat gain, studies have found.
Gauthier urges people not to feel guilty about sleeping more and fully embracing other forms of R&R. We should “stop thinking we are lazy for it,” he says. “It is part of performing at our best.”