After you’ve completed your last set of squats or the cool-down after your HIIT routine, it’s not over yet. It’s time to recover and do it in such a way that it helps you reach your fitness goals. Are you guilty of devoting most of your time and energy to your workout and very little to recovery? How you recover matters and it’s a component of training that many people skimp on. In fact, successful recovery from exercise involves four main components. Let’s look at each one.
Exercise Recovery: Rehydration
Even if you drank fluid before you started your workout, you probably still have a fluid deficit. Not replacing lost fluids can cause you to feel tired for the remainder of the day. Even mild dehydration can produce other symptoms, including headache, brain fog, and a depressed mood.
How much fluid should you drink? Ideally, weigh yourself before your workouts and immediately afterward. Then, for every pound you’re down, drink 8 ounces of fluid. One clear sign that you’re dehydrated is if your urine is dark concentrated. Normal urine is clear to yellow in color. If you’re looking at deep yellow or brown urine, you’re in need of fluid replacement.
What should you drink? If you exercised for an hour or less, water is a suitable hydration beverage. Longer than that and you need a replacement beverage with electrolytes. Coconut water without added sugar is a good source of potassium, an electrolyte you lose when you sweat. If you’ve exercised for a long period of time, add a pinch of salt. Coconut water is a bit lower in sodium relative to a sports drink.
Exercise Recovery: Restore Glycogen
Your muscles use glycogen as a fuel source during exercise and after a workout, those glycogen stores are likely low. Time to refuel! You might think of high-glycemic carbohydrates as the enemy, but they’re less of an adversary after a tough workout. In fact, the insulin spike you get after a carb meal helps nutrients get into cells, including the amino acids your muscles need for repair.
Yes, you want to consume protein AND carbs after a workout, preferably in a 3 to 1 ratio. This is a time when your body responds best to high-glycemic foods since the rise in insulin pushes recovery nutrients into your cells. That doesn’t mean you should eat empty calorie food like a cookie or brownie. How about a higher glycemic fruit like a banana or pineapple mixed into yogurt?
The worst thing you can do after a workout is to eat nothing. When you deplete your glycogen stores and don’t replenish them, your body turns to alternative sources of fuel and goes into a catabolic state. As your glycogen levels dwindle, your body can break down muscle to use the amino acids to make glucose. That’s not what you want! Make sure your body doesn’t become catabolic after a workout by refueling properly.
Exercise Recovery: Help Your Muscles Repair
After a resistance workout, your muscles are hungry for amino acids to help them repair. With muscle repair comes growth. That’s why you need a carb and protein snack after a workout. Some studies suggest there’s a window period of around an hour where your cells are most receptive to post-workout nutrients. That’s why you don’t want to wait for hours to refuel. If you consume protein sources high in branched chain amino acids, so much the better.
How well do you know your branched chains? Branched-chain amino acids are essential amino acids, one of the eight that your body can’t make and you have to get through diet. Three amino acids – leucine, isoleucine, and valine – make up this family. Why are they so important? Research shows they activate muscle protein synthesis, especially leucine. Plus, they speed up recovery and reduce muscle fatigue. These amino acids have an anti-catabolic effect, meaning they diminish muscle breakdown, so they help you hang on to the muscle you have.
Some athletes take supplemental branched-chain amino acids before a workout to reduce fatigue. The theory is that branched chain amino acids reduce serotonin levels in your brain while you work out. One theory is that the buildup of serotonin during exercise contributes to fatigue. By taking branched-chain amino acids, athletes hope they’ll be more fatigue resistance and their performance will be better. Some research also suggests that branched chain amino acids reduce muscle soreness after a workout.
You don’t have to take a supplement to help your body recover. Just make sure you’re supplying your body with around 20 grams of protein after a workout is over. One excellent source of high-quality protein your body can use is eggs. In fact, eggs rank highest in terms of “biological value,” a measure of how easily your body can assimilate the proteins from a portion of food.
Exercise Recovery: Reduce Inflammation
When you exercise, you place your body under stress, a good kind of stress, but stress nevertheless. Weight training also damages muscle fibers, which ultimately causes them to grow. Yet you don’t want your body in a constantly inflamed state. You can help your body out by eating fruits and vegetables. The natural phytochemicals with antioxidant properties in veggies and fruits help calm inflammation.
At the other end of the spectrum, hard workouts can sometimes suppress your immune system and increase your susceptibility to infection. That’s why you need enough calories from whole foods to support the health of your immune system. Rest counts too! Make sure you’re getting enough sleep. Also, be sure you’re eating a balanced diet and eating enough whole foods after your exercise sessions.
The Bottom Line
Now you know why recovery is so important and what you need to do to recover properly. So, adapt your exercise schedule and your post-workout plans accordingly. Your muscles are crying out for nutrients and water when you finish a workout. Give them what they need.
WebMD. “Hydration: The Key to Exercise Success”
Am. J. Physiol.: 267, E1010, 1994.
Men’s Fitness. “Supplement Guide: Branched Chain Amino Acids”
Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition20129:20 DOI: 10.1186/1550-2783-9-20.
J. Nutr. February 2006 vol. 136 no. 2 529S-532S
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