September 26·8 min read

Make every workout count with the right recovery approach

How do you spell the magic word for fitness success? Rrrrrecovery.

What do you think the secret to fitness and wellness is? Hitting every type of movement? Mastering proper form? Showing up consistently? Sure, all of those things matter. But just as important as how you approach physical activity is everything you do when you’re not active. Why? Because recovery is an essential component of a truly holistic approach to health and wellness. 

It might seem counterintuitive at first, but think of it this way: most of us spend way, way more hours in a day at rest than we do exercising. Unless you’re an iron-willed insomniac hiking the Appalachian Trail or the kind of badass ultramarathoner who refers to a 50-mile race as a “light jog,” you won’t be active for anywhere close to 24 hours of a day. And even those folks have to stop at some point. So if you want to pursue your fitness goals with gusto — or even just make it through a busy day without blowing your top — it pays to use that “downtime” wisely. 

Just like with weight loss, nutrition, and fitness in general, the world of recovery is full of wellness influencers promising maximal results with minimal effort. Sure, buying a cryotherapy chamber will definitely make you feel cool in at least one way. But these “hacks” and gadgets are more likely to max out your credit card and make your home feel like an abandoned Sharper Image than they are to give you any kind of meaningful edge when it comes to recuperating from exercise.

The good news is that a proper, sustainable approach to successful recovery from your workout or the workday relies on a few unsexy but certainly tried and true methods. Each plays a critical role in getting your body and mind right after a killer cardio session or a grueling round of lifting that pushes your muscles to the max. And unless you’re looking for an excuse to splurge on a memory foam mattress, all three can be done quite affordably.

Eat. Sleep. Move. Repeat.

As you’ll learn once we cover the “five R’s”, there are many different facets to the physical and mental process of exercise recovery. Luckily, success isn’t about doing five different things, but three. Even more luckily, successful recovery is just a matter of taking a mindful and intentional approach to three things you already do every day: eat, sleep, and move. Here’s how each of them aids in recovery, and how to approach them the right way.

Eat nutritiously and judiciously

Just as it’s harder to crush your workout on a completely empty stomach or with a belly full of junk food, fueling up the right way after training plays an equally vital role in the recovery process. Proper post-workout nutrition not only replenishes your energy supply, it starts the process of muscle repair and regrowth, boosts immune system functionality, and generally helps your body to adapt to whatever your training regimen is asking it to do. 

You might picture protein shakes when you think about what to put in your body after exercise, and it’s true that your muscles crave those long chains of amino acids after a tough workout. But carbohydrates and — yes — fats are just as important to ingest. Knowing when and how much to eat of each of the three is important, and can vary depending on who you are and how you define your fitness goals. If you’re feeling unsure about where to start, consult a nutritionist, or work with a personal trainer who can point you in the direction of a balanced nutritional strategy that can get your food habits and fitness goals working together.

Sleep on it

If you plug your phone in overnight, it’ll have a full battery and maybe even some updated software the next morning. Sleep more or less serves the same function for the human body. Hitting the hay may feel like you’re shutting down, but it’s really a time for major systems and organs in your body to work on some much-needed self-care. 

Physically, sleep promotes a powerful immune system, and it can help protect your heart by lowering blood pressure. A proper amount of sleep balances your metabolic state to keep your blood sugar levels in line, while also keeping your appetite on an even keel through the regulation of hunger hormones. 

As any parent of a newborn will tell you, the mind can be a mess without a good night’s rest. Sleep is an important brain booster, helping with cognitive functions like memory, learning, and decision-making. It also keeps your body from producing too much cortisol, a major stress hormone. 

To reap those physical and mental benefits, aim for seven to nine hours of good, restful sleep a night. If you’re falling short of that quantity or quality now, it might be worth thinking about your “sleep hygiene”. No, it’s not about taking a shower before bed, but making a concerted effort to wind down and create the right environment for dozing off. That starts with picking a consistent bedtime, winding down your use of blue-lit screens an hour before bed if possible, and avoiding large meals or caffeine too close to bedtime. The good news? Incorporating physical activity into your day can make it easier to fall asleep. That means adopting good exercise habits can reinforce good sleep habits, and vice versa.

Workin’ on your light moves 

You might think that finishing a workout means you’ve fulfilled your movement quota for the day. In fact, keeping your body in motion (at least in a lighter, lower-impact way) is one of the best ways to promote recovery. Light movement facilitates blood flow and circulation, which delivers those post-workout nutrients to muscle tissues and the brain. It also helps your body remove the waste that accumulates after exercise, and can reduce the soreness you might otherwise feel if you simply slammed on the brakes after strenuous movement. 

Flexibility movements like static stretches after your exercise are generally a good idea to transition from revved-up to recovery, but they’re not your only option. If it’s feasible, consider walking home from the gym, or even taking a leisurely (stationary) bike ride to end on the right note. If home happens to be your gym, those same activities offer a great way to break up the day and get some fresh air. And no matter where you are, a little bit of restorative yoga can work wonders, whether it’s the morning after a hard workout, or to wind down from a stressful day.

How to master each of the “Five R’s” on your recovery checklist

A good workout takes a lot out of us. As we look at sleep, movement, and nutrition through a recovery lens, it’s worth investigating how these techniques actually address what exercise does to the mind and body. Because once you know how to counteract some of the unpleasant, inevitable after-effects of the hard work you put in, it’s much easier to maximize your progress and seize the rest of your day.

That’s where the “five R’s” of recovery come in. Think of them as a handy checklist you can run through during your cooldown to really lock in the progress you just made. Here’s a closer look at each of them, with an eye towards how those three key recovery components can shift us from feeling depleted at the end of a workout to determined and ready to go in time for the next one. 

Replenish energy stores

Glucose is a carbohydrate which, along with other nutrients, serves as a key component for making adenosine triphosphate (ATP). In plain language, glucose forms the energy your muscles need to contact, and it probably won’t shock you to learn that exercise depletes the body’s reserves of the stuff. To both prevent fatigue and start your next workout on the right foot, replenish your supply of glycogen (stored form of glucose) soon after exercise through a healthy source of carbohydrates (i.e. definitely not soda). The amount you’ll need will depend on the duration, intensity, and type of exercise you just finished, but consider throwing oats, bananas, beets, or any other number of fruits and vegetables that don’t start with a B into your post-workout protein shake and you’ll be headed in the right direction.

Repair Damaged Tissue

Even if weight loss is your goal, fitness is about building your muscles up. But to get there, you have to break them down a bit first. Muscle tissue gets broken down by mechanical stress from weightlifting or other forms of training, as well as by the hormones your body releases as you work out. This puts your body in a catabolic state. In the short term, that state of breakdown is essentially inevitable, but it can wreak short and longer-term havoc if you don’t take proper steps to repair that tissue damage. On the day of a workout, that can mean fatigue, soreness, and even sleeplessness — making for the truly crappy combo of a body that craves sleep and a mind that can’t shut off. Over time, an inability to rebuild muscle tissue can increase your likelihood of both injury and illness, both of which can knock you off your fitness routine and stall your progress.

To get your muscles to stop breaking down and start building back up, get some protein into your system. That’s a good way to stock up on essential amino acids like leucine. When paired with proper rest, those amino acids kickstart production of the hormones that get you from a catabolic state back into an anabolic state. If you followed baseball in the early 2000’s, you might’ve already guessed that an anabolic state is all about muscle repair, and, yes, growth. But it doesn’t take steroids to heal the muscle tissue damaged by exercise and help your body adapt to a heavier workload. A good night’s sleep and proper nutrition are the only performance enhancers you need.

Remove metabolic waste

No, you don’t have to get a job at your local department of sanitation to recover from a tough workout. But as your body’s cells turn oxygen and nutrients into the energy you use to power through your lifts and cardio, metabolic waste is a byproduct. While that buildup is inevitable, letting that metabolic waste linger can throw certain systems of your body off balance and lead to sore muscles.

This is where light, low-impact movement is at its most useful as a recovery technique. Walking or biking are among the ways you can promote blood flow and kickstart the circulatory action that moves metabolic waste away from where it doesn’t belong. You don’t have to go from point A to point B to get things moving in the right direction, either. A little bit of yoga, a thorough foam rolling session, or splurging on a sports massage can keep things flowing. Who said recovery wasn’t about treating yourself?

Restore fluids and electrolytes

Sweat is the surest sign of a satisfying workout. But that hard-earned perspiration comes at the cost of water and electrolytes, both of which you rely on to keep everything from your brain to your basic cells running smoothly. If you’ve ever woken up feeling like you got hit by a bus after a few too many drinks, you’re all too familiar with the crushing physical and mental impact of dehydration and a lack of electrolytes.

And if you’ve ever turned to a greasy breakfast sandwich after a night out, you’ve taken a step towards restocking your sodium supply. Alongside calcium, potassium, and magnesium, it’s one of the key electrolytes we lose through sweat. So in addition to drinking water to avoid the muscle cramps and lightheadedness associated with dehydration, tap into a source of electrolytes to get up and running again. Sports drinks (especially the emerging market of electrolyte-saturated options increasingly marketed to hungover adults) can be useful, but are far from your only drinkable source of electrolytes. Both dairy and plant-based milk can fit the bill, along with coconut water. In terms of healthier alternatives to that breakfast sandwich, nuts, bananas, certain seeds, and even broccoli can help you eat your way to electrolyte excellence.

Reduce Physical and Mental Fatigue

The stress of a long day and the strain of exercise can both take a toll. In the case of working out, that fatigue has a purpose: making you stronger in the long run. But if you don’t take proper steps to fight it, you’ll feel physically worn down for longer than you have to. Not only that, but everything from memory and learning to mood and decision-making can suffer — which can definitely cancel out any exercise-induced endorphin rush. Adequate sleep and good nutrition help fight off fatigue by giving your body the fuel it needs to re-energize and the proper time to recharge.

Reach out to a personal trainer

Alright, fine, this isn’t really one of the five R’s of recovery. But if you want to combine a customized training plan with on-demand recovery wisdom in order to move more efficiently towards your fitness goals, look no further than a Future coach. Not only do they create workouts that work around you, they have a keen sense of what it takes to physically recover from each one — and it’s all matched by the motivational skills to get your mind right for whatever comes next. 

The best part? The relationship with your Future coach isn’t limited to one specific hour a week. While they deserve seven to nine hours of good sleep just like the rest of us, your coach is otherwise just a call or message away whenever a recovery question pops into your head. It’s all a part of how hard they work to give you the confidence and consistency that breeds results.

Ready to recover your love of fitness? Don’t sleep on your chance to get a big discount off your first month.

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