What to do after a workout

DRINK UP: Try to drink at least one litre of water soon after an intense workout.
DRINK UP: Try to drink at least one litre of water soon after an intense workout.

You may have perfect form inside the gym, but it's what you do afterwards that can make or break your workout, say scientists who have studied the impact of exercise on the human body.

Given that the break-down of muscle tissue is the body's main response to strenuous physical effort, they warn that those with sloppy post-workout habits will likely suffer fatigue, pain, dehydration, lower immunity and may even risk serious injury.

"There are three Rs of exercise, the first being resistance - what you're lifting or how far you're moving. Then there's the repetition, how often you're doing things, and the final and most important one is rest. Seemingly most people don't give rest the credence it's worth," said Scott Howe, strength coach for the Sydney Swans and the founder of Exemplar Conditioning.

But there's more to rest than sprawling on the couch. Here is what science has to say about maximising your fitness after the heavy lifting is over.

Keep moving

Staying active for a few minutes after exercise will get your recovery period off to the best start, according to Dr Rebecca Sealey, an exercise physiologist and lecturer at James Cook University in Townsville.

A cool down doesn't have to be structured - walking back to the office after a lunchtime session or doing a lap of the gym before hitting the showers will help the blood flush out any waste products, such as lactate, that have built up.


In order to recover properly, your body needs the right fuel as soon as you finish exercising, said Oliver Bodak, a sports scientist and wellness coordinator with Kinetic Health.

"The most important thing is to get some simple carbohydrates into you in the 20 minute window post exercise. We're talking things like cordial and energy drinks. And if they're combined with protein, that's the most effective," said Bodak.

This will provide replacement glycogen, the carbohydrate that muscles burn during exercise, as well as amino acids, the muscle building blocks that are found in protein.

But although protein is important, it's important not to overdo it, he added.

"The male body can only absorb 1.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight, for women it's more like 1.2 grams. So if you're a 70 kilogram male, you're not going to be able to absorb more than around 126 grams of protein per day - the kidneys break down the rest."

You could also try a drink with added caffeine. Caffeine can increase blood flow and a 2008 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that drinking carbohydrates and caffeine together after exercise helped muscles recover more quickly.

Once the 20 minute window has closed, Bodak advises it's important to maintain a balanced diet of complex carbohydrates, protein and vegetables to heal your muscles.


Staying hydrated is also critical to the recovery process. Even a 2 per cent reduction of your body's fluid stops you from functioning properly, so Sealey suggests drinking at least one litre of water soon after an intense workout.

Howe said scientific research demonstrated that it was not just what you drank, but how you drank it. "Rather than big gulps, taking little sips will get the water into your system a lot quicker."

The importance of hydration also means you should avoid drinking alcohol within at least an hour of a gym session.

Active recovery

The most important part of recovery is rest. Your body needs time to build new muscle and bounce back from the stress of exercise - and it can take up to a month for the nerves, hormones and muscles to fully recoup, said Howe.

You should never repeat the same type of exercise within 24 hours and avoid back-to-back weight sessions or runs, but resting doesn't necessarily mean doing nothing. Howe said he had the best results with clients by scheduling active recovery a day or two after a high-intensity session.

His preferred recovery workout is circuit training using only the client's body weight, but activities such as swimming, walking, yoga and Pilates could all work as active recovery when done non intensively, he said.

Reducing soreness

According to Sealey, active recovery is also the only proven way to reduce the muscle soreness that builds up a day or two after exercise. This is known as DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) and is the result of little tears in the muscle.

DOMS is a normal part of increasing muscle mass but can be prevented by building your fitness level gradually. If you like to go hard, however, massage following exercise has been shown to reduce pain in some cases, as has icing and heating the muscle, said Sealey.

Sealey insists that it's important to differentiate between soreness straight after or during exercise - which can signal an injury - and DOMS, which shouldn't be felt until the next day. If the pain is intense, it is always worth having it checked out.

If you're competing or preparing for a very intense workout, wearing compression garments such as SKINS both during and after exercise has also been shown to reduce muscle soreness for some people, said Howe.

Treat recovery like a workout

Everyone is different, and the key to getting the best results from rest is to try different things, find what works for you and change your recovery routine to avoid getting bored, said Howe.

"It's really critical that you program rest and treat it the same way you would different workouts."

After around two to three days of taking it easy, active recovery and good food, your body should be stronger than ever and ready to get back into higher intensity training.

The next time you're feeling guilty for skipping a workout, rest assured that improving your fitness requires both exercise and recovery time - you won't get results if you're skipping either. And enjoy it, this maybe be one of the only times in life where doing less work will earn you better results.

Sydney Morning Herald