Your workout doesn’t end after your last rep. To reap as many rewards as possible from each training session, you need to devote as much time to your post-workout routine as you do to everything leading up to your first set.
Whether you’re looking to improve your range of motion, alleviate soreness, or boost recovery time, Nick Clayton, M.S., M.B.A., C.S.C.S.,*D, R.S.C.C., the Personal Program Manager for the National Strength and Conditioning Association, suggests doing these six things after you train.
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We can’t promise it’ll be painless, but performing self-myofascial release techniques using a foam roller can help improve flexibility, increase blood flow and circulation, and break up “knots” in soft tissue. It’s a good thing to do both pre- and post-workout.
“After your workout, use a foam roller before you do your stretches,” he advises. “While it’s similar to stretching, a roam roller affects more of the fascia connection. [And] breaking up a superficial layer of tissue enables you to get a deeper stretch.”
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2. Cool Down
Don’t make a beeline for the exit after your last set. Allowing the body to cool down after you exercise can prevent blood from pooling in the veins.
“I encourage athletes to cool down for five minutes, doing light cardio to flush out any metabolic waste products,” says Clayton. “Keep your cool-down activity specific to what you just exercised. So, for example, if you do an upper body workout, then use the row machine to target the area you just damaged.”
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According to Clayton, a post-workout stretch is especially important for those who have bulked up and lost flexibility and range of motion.
“I don’t recommend stretching for people who are already flexible, but that’s typically not the case with bodybuilding or heavy strength training,” he says. “Done properly, stretching can help the nervous system relax and recover along with benefiting the muscles.”
Work your stretch too hard and you’re likely to pull or strain something; dog it and you’re wasting time. The key to a good stretch is to find that balance between discomfort and pain.
“Stretch to where it’s uncomfortable but you’re not hurting,” Clayton advises. “I suggest that my clients focus on diaphragmatic breathing during their stretching.”
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The body sweats to cool itself down as you’re blasting through a grueling workout. Without refilling the fluids you’re losing through sweat (and urine), you’ll get dehydrated.
“Sweating out 2% of your bodyweight will translate to negative affects on performance,” Clayton says. “You’ll notice the effects most during cardio. So if running a seven-minute mile is relatively easy for you, when you’re dehydrated, the body and heart will be working harder to achieve that goal.”
Proper hydration regulates body temperature and lubricates the joints; it can also help stave off constipation. Thirst is typically a delayed indicator that you’re dehydrated. But how can you tell for sure? Use the pee test.
“If your urine is clear or light yellow, like a lemonade, you’re in good status,” Clayton reveals. “When it’s yellow or bright yellow, that’s when dehydration is creeping in.”
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5. Consume Protein
While we advocate consuming protein within an hour after your workout to begin repairing damaged muscles, Clayton says the timing of protein consumption isn’t critical.
“You don’t need to eat protein within 30 minutes of your workout,” he says. “Most research shows that it comes down to your overall protein intake throughout the day. The anabolic window for the body to recover is anywhere from 24-36 hours after your workout, so consistent feeding and getting protein and essential amino acids in every meal is what you’re looking to do. The problem is it’s hard to make recommendations [on protein amounts] because it depends on things like your fitness goals and body size.”
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6. Wear Compression Clothing
There’s a reason the medical community has fitted patients with things like compression stockings for years: Compression garments—such as pants, sleeves, and socks—can help reduce toxins in the muscle, improve circulation, and aid recovery.
“Wear [the compression clothing] for about three hours after your workout; you’ll get more oxygenated blood in the muscles and it will help remove any leftover metabolic waste.”
However, be wary of claims that compression clothes enhance athletic performance. They won’t. A review of 37 studies found that wearing compression clothing did not supply an edge in competitive sports.