So, you’ve started—or re-started—a new workout routine. That’s great! But there’s more to getting in shape than your strength training plan.
In fact, what you do to recover from your workout is at least as important as the workout itself.
Proper recovery can multiply the effectiveness of anything you do in the gym, and neglecting it can leave you worse off than when you started. Things like sleep, nutrition, and time off will be the difference between seeing results and being disappointed—or worse, injured. So let’s break down some of these building blocks of recovery, and how anyone from fitness newbies to seasoned athletes can apply them to a well-rounded workout plan.
If you’ve done any kind of health-related reading, you know that sleep is important. It can help you lose weight, reduce stress, keep sickness at bay—and yes, build muscles.
When you’re asleep, your heart rate and blood pressure lower, giving your cardiovascular system a much-needed break. And in the deep stages of sleep, blood flow moves into your muscles and tissues, strengthening them and repairing damage. If you cut your sleep cycle short, you risk missing this crucial repair process.
While the amount of sleep people need varies, experts generally agree that 7-8 hours a night is ideal. If you’re falling short of that on a regular basis, you might want to make some changes.
Here are a few to try:
Stick to a schedule
Having a regular bedtime and wake-up time will take advantage of your body’s internal clock, synching it to your schedule. You’ll find yourself falling asleep more quickly and waking up more naturally because your body knows what to expect. As hard as it is to turn off Netflix at night, or to give up sleeping in on the weekend, it’s worth it to regularly get a good night’s sleep.
Limit screen time before bed
The light from your phone, computer, and television can play tricks on your brain—they mimic natural light, making your body think it’s daytime and therefore time to be awake. By shutting off screens an hour or so before you want to fall asleep, you remind your brain that it’s time to wind down.
If you absolutely must stay connected, download an app that filters out the blue light on your screen. That’s the mock-sunlight culprit, and losing it should help you fall asleep faster once you log off.
Make your bedroom an oasis
A bedroom that is noisy, bright, or otherwise uncomfortable is a recipe for poor sleep. Try a fan or white noise machine to drown out traffic and noisy neighbors. Use blackout curtains or an eye mask keep things nice and dark. And adjust your thermostat and number of blankets to reach your ideal sleeping temperature. Your bedroom should be a place where you can shut out the outside world and properly rest.
If you see echoes of your own poor sleeping habits above, give those suggestions a try–or do a bit of searching and find something else that works for you. The change might be gradual, but you’ll find yourself sleeping better—and notice the difference in your body as well.
Nutrition and Hydration
What you eat and drink after your workout can either help or hinder your recovery progress. Luckily, it isn’t too complicated to get it right.
Before you reach for a Gatorade or other sports drink, consider how intense your workout was. Most short-term activity won’t dehydrate you enough that you need anything more than water afterward. If you’ve been doing intense activity or working out in hot, humid conditions, then you might want to pair your water with a salty snack to replenish lost sodium—the most crucial and easily depleted electrolyte.
Sports drinks are only really useful for endurance athletes—otherwise, you’re just consuming a lot of unnecessary sugar.
Having a post-workout snack within half an hour of training has been shown to vastly improve recovery. Your body needs carbohydrates to replace muscle glycogen depleted during your workout, as well as protein to kick-start muscle building and repair. Ideally, you should aim for a ratio of about 3-4g of carbs for each 1g of protein in your snack.
There are pre-packaged bars and shakes that are portioned for you, but they aren’t necessary. If you want to save money and do it yourself, easy options include an apple or banana with a couple tablespoons of nut butter, some tuna on a few wheat crackers, or a smoothie with frozen berries and a scoop of whey protein.
What about all the other stuff out there? Pre-workout powders, electrolyte gummies, creatine, BCAAs—the list is long and can be overwhelming. The good news is that you probably don’t need to worry about it, especially starting out. For most low to mid-level workouts, you shouldn’t need any special supplements outside of normal food and water.
If you decide you want to get more serious about performance and need an extra boost to your workout or recovery, then you can have a look at what supplements might meet your specific needs and give them a try. The resources mentioned at the end of the article are a good place to do that research.
Rest Days and Active Recovery
So how long do you need to rest between workouts? And what should you be doing on those rest days?
For most people, it takes 24 to 48 hours for your muscles to repair and recover after a strength workout. If you jump back in too soon, you can actually hurt your progress and potentially injure yourself. More is not always better! So if you’re doing a full-body workout, make sure to take at least a full day off between sessions, or even two if you’re still feeling sore. If you split upper and lower body sessions, you can do those back to back before taking a rest day—but only if you’re really working completely separate muscle groups each day.
Now, just because you aren’t doing strength training, that doesn’t mean rest days should be spent sitting on the couch. Doing light activity will keep the blood flowing to your muscles and help them repair—as well as helping with any soreness and stiffness you might have from your training. Things like cycling, walking, and yoga are great rest day activities, and it’s a good opportunity to do some mobility work as well.
*Some of the links below are affiliate links, and I will get a small commission if you make a purchase through those links.
Want to go even further down the rabbit hole? Pick up one of the books below and prepare to have your mind blown!
Becoming a Supple Leopard 2nd Edition: The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance by Kelly Starrett and Glen Cordoza
Beyond Training: Mastering Endurance, Health & Life by Ben Greenfield
Muscles are built in the bedroom, at the dinner table, and on your rest days just as much as in the gym—so make sure you’re dedicating enough time and effort to your recovery. Implement the tips above, and you’ll find yourself healthier, less sore, and performing better.
Christine Hutchinson has combined business with passion, building a career as a freelance health and fitness writer. When she isn’t working to deliver clear, research-based information with a twist of fun, she can be found hiking in the woods, climbing her way through obstacle course races, and nerding out over superheroes and science fiction. You can find her on Twitter @CMHContent.