Proper rest is critical to performing your best and staying healthy, says Dan Daly, a New York City–based strength and conditioning coach and endurance runner. Nailing the recovery process leads to increased muscle synthesis, a healthier central nervous system, and more balanced hormone levels. More important, it’s crucial to making sure your body can deliver when you ask it to.
But recovery doesn’t mean a weeklong date with your couch and a Netflix binge. It’s a deliberate process, albeit one that for many of us remains haphazard, with no real strategy.
No longer. We had experts outline a step-by-step guide for you to follow after a particularly vigorous workout or race in order to optimize your recovery, maximize your performance, and reduce the chance of injury.
Immediately After Your Workout
Roll It Out
Hitting the foam roller after a workout is crucial for relieving the tightness that forms in muscular connective tissue when your body is under the stress of a tough effort. According to research, rolling out your muscles after a workout can help reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness and up your game in subsequent workouts.
“Foam rolling is a great way to check in with the body to pinpoint where exactly you are holding tension. Just get your body onto the roller and follow the sore areas,” says Daly. When you hit a trigger point or tight spot, pause and work on it for a few seconds until it gradually dissipates.
Over time, this will help restore the muscles’ length and mobility while decreasing overall stiffness, says Dan Giordano, co-founder of Bespoke Treatments Physical Therapy. While the tightness and soreness of an athlete’s body on any given day should dictate how long you spend rolling, one to two minutes for each limb and your trunk is a good starting estimate.
Eat Carbs and Protein
The post-exercise window during which your food directly aids your body’s recovery is much larger than we once assumed. (Current research suggests it may last up to 24 hours.) That said, you should still focus on getting a balanced meal not long after you cross the finish line, before the rest of the day gets away from you with post-race festivities. While the specific carb-to-protein ratio will differ based on your specific workout, a good rule of thumb is to include more carbs than protein on your plate and to up the number of complex carbs after an intense effort like a race.
Protein helps to rebuild your muscles, while the carbs help you replete your body’s reserves of glycogen—carbs housed in the liver and muscles. Try oatmeal and eggs, Greek yogurt and fruit, or chicken and whole-grain pasta.
Get Some Zzz’s
“Sleep is the number one thing you can do for your body to improve performance and enhance recovery. It helps muscles rebuild, restores energy levels, and facilitates the body’s return to homeostasis—its most stable state,” says Daly.
A lack of sleep could seriously work against your training and, ultimately, your race performance. Without enough shut-eye, your muscles can’t recover, repair, or regenerate. While one or two nights of poor sleep might not affect your performance, consistently low hours of sleep will. Begin to prioritize getting six to eight hours the same way you do your weekly mileage.
The Next Morning
Eat a Good Breakfast
Recovery continues the following day, starting with your first meal. Again, focus on getting a mix of protein and carbs, and then add some healthy fats, says Valdez.
Don’t skip your regular wake-me-up cup of coffee. A study published in the Journal of Pain showed that exercisers saw an almost 50 percent drop in delayed-onset muscle soreness when they drank some joe. Apart from making your morning easier, caffeine has pain-relieving properties, which is why it’s an ingredient in many over-the-counter medicines.
Research shows that meditation can lessen stress and anxiety, reduce blood pressure, increase blood flow to the brain, and mitigate physical pain—all key contributors to full recovery.
Fortunately, meditating doesn’t (and shouldn’t) have to require a huge effort. Try spending just five to ten minutes visualizing your race or your favorite route, run, ride, etc. Get specific, suggests Daly, and focus on the positive outcomes.
During Your Next Workout
Learn to Love Light Cardio
The day after a tough workout or a few days after a race—essentially once you feel like you can walk normally—try a light run, ride, or swim. Your muscles are still in repair mode from the micro-traumas created within your muscle fibers during your latest effort. Gentle movement allows them to repair themselves and come back stronger for the next one.
Aim for something easy enough to prevent you from causing further damage to the muscle fibers, but also active enough to jump-start blood flow, which brings oxygen and nutrients to the targeted area and helps the body recover, Daly says.
This light cardio can be anything from a walk through the park to a three-to-five-mile bike ride around town to a ten-to-20-minute swim.
Try Some Yoga
The downtime after a race is a great time to work on restorative practices such as yoga and mobility, says Daly. These restorative practices not only improve circulation but also help to reduce future injury by correcting musculoskeletal issues through increased flexibility and mobility. “However, yoga can be a pretty intense workout, so I recommend a beginner’s hatha or restorative class for nonyogis,” says Daly.
The goal of going to a yoga class as part of recovery is to take each joint in the body through its full range of motion, Daly adds, not intensity. You want to move differently than you would doing a regular workout day, without overly taxing the body and muscles.