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Why Recovery Is Essential to Any Workout Routine—and How to Do It Right

·5 min read

Stretch. Drink water. Take the time to rest. These are all mantras you've heard in fitness classes, but how important are they, really? Very important, as it turns out. "Recovery days are important for rehydration, nutrient replenishment, sleep, and muscle repair and growth," says John McDonald, MD, board-certified orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at Texas Orthopedics, Sports & Rehabilitation Associates in Austin, Texas.

In many ways, post-workout recovery and full recovery days are just as important as those intense workout days. In fact, taking proper recovery can actually help make you a better athlete and healthier overall. "The ability to improve muscle development, improve mental health and stress, and reduce the risk of overuse injuries all aid in the production of a better athlete," says Dr. McDonald.

To make sure you're recovering the way your mind and body deserve, here's what to do post-workout on the days you move, as well as how to spend recovery days.

RELATED: How to Start Working Out (If You Basically Haven't Moved in Ages)

How to Recover Properly After a Workout

Stretch

After a workout, you should take the time to stretch. "Don't just go from an intensive workout to jumping in the shower," says Erin James, certified personal trainer.

"Do slow stretches for both your upper and lower body," she says. "A downward-facing dog is great, especially when you pedal your feet." Work your way through each body part: arms, back, legs. "One stretch I love is to lie on your back and twist your leg over onto each side. Rest there for a minute," she says. "It also helps relax the nervous system."

RELATED: 7 Common Stretching Mistakes That Are Hurting Your Efforts

Hydrate

Hydration is also key. Sports nutritionist Marie Spano, MS, RD, who often works with professional athletes, says about half of us walk around in a state of dehydration. But how much and what fluids you need post-workout depend on what kind of exercise you did and how much you consumed during it.

"Most people can get by with just water. However, competitive athletes, or those who exercise intensely, will want either a sports drink that contains sodium, or they can drink water and add sodium to their post-workout meal," she says. Hydration should be a priority throughout the day.

RELATED: Exactly What to Eat After You Exercise to Refuel and Recover Fast

What to Do on Recovery Days

Take a day to recover at least once a week.

Recovery days are essential for all athletes, but the type of recovery you do may vary depending on what your workout looks like. If you're doing intense cardio or heavy weights, Spano advises aiming for at least one recovery day per week. If you're doing something like lower intensity yoga or the elliptical machine, you may not need to take a full recovery day every week, unless your body is telling you otherwise.

Do move in some way.

"A recovery day for a recreational athlete or weekend warrior should either include some type of cross training (if you did a spin class the day before, maybe try a walk or a short yoga session on the recovery day) or a break without significant exercise (stretching only or daily activities i.e., walking the dog)," says Dr. McDonald. Moving your body in some way is always good, whether that means doing extra stretching or going on a walk with a friend.

This is extra important when you're starting a new workout routine. "The most common mistake occurs when someone gets excited about a new routine or sport and plays it nonstop for several weeks in a row. That's when we see a huge spike in overuse injuries like tendonitis," he says.

Get plenty of protein and healthy carbs.

It's not just what you do physically, you'll also want to pay attention to what you eat on a recovery day. You still want to get an ample amount of protein the next day—Spano suggests around 20 to 40 grams of protein. "Think of it like a fixer-upper house, the protein helps your muscle tissue to repair, taking out the old materials and helping you build new," she says.

If you're doing longer duration or really intense exercise, carbohydrates are also key on a recovery day to help restore energy. If you aren't getting enough, you'll feel it the next day.

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Listen to Your Body

It's normal to be sore the day or two after a workout, but if you're still feeling it a few days later, you may need extra rest or recovery mechanisms. Spano recommends tart cherry juice on occasion if you're extremely sore, as it "helps block some inflammation in the same way an NSAID (like Advil) would," and "use sparingly as some acute inflammation is needed for muscles to adapt and grow stronger."

Epsom salt baths can be helpful for aches and pains, and some people swear by massage or acupuncture. And they're an investment, but percussive massage tools, like Theragun or Hypervolt, can work wonders on larger muscle groups.

Finally, "the importance of hydration and sleep cannot be overstated," Dr. McDonald says. "The sleep factor is often overlooked by recreational athletes, as they're just trying to find some time to add exercise into an already busy routine. In general, seven hours in a night should be a goal."

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