It is the bane of my existence to witness so many of my classmates finish up a brutal workout—or any workout, for that matter—say their farewells to everybody, and head out the door without a moment’s pause. I just don’t get it. Don’t they realize that they’re missing out on an opportunity to maximize their recovery and as a greater result their overall development as an athlete? I understand that people are busy with things to do and people to see, but there are a few things that you should absolutely include in your immediate post-workout routine in order to grow and progress in this sport.
1. Don’t Skip the Cool Down & Stretch
The recovery process should begin before you leave the box. During an intense training effort, metabolic waste products are lodged in your body all the way down to the individual muscle cells. The fluid that surrounds them—as well as the capillaries, veins, and lungs—needs to be flushed out before you rest. As soon as you finish exercising and pick yourself up off the floor, your first thought should be to keep moving at a gentle pace. Doing so will allow your heart rate to come back to its resting level. If you stop exercising suddenly and don’t take the time to cool down, your heart rate slows abruptly and the additional blood that was brought into your lower body (as a result of your blood vessels expanding during the workout) will just sit there. The effects of this blood pooling include dizziness and even fainting.
Once you’ve gotten your heart rate down, you can get to work on mobilizing your body. Stretching immediately after a workout is optimal as your muscles are warm and pliable, making them easier to stretch and reach new levels of flexibility. Stretching is often underrated for the role it plays in muscle growth, as having more limber muscles and joints will allow you to perform better in movements. For example, if you frequently mobilize your hips and ankle joints after every workout, you’ll be able to squat lower and reap the maximum benefits from such a crucial strength-building movement. It’s also a good opportunity to work on your myofascial release and stay on top of the fascia that if left unattended can cause knots to form and hamper your posture and mobility.
Finally, cooling down and stretching is key to reducing the effects of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). We are all familiar with the effects of DOMS—muscular pain, swelling and stiffness—and while there is still a debate on what the main cause of DOMS is, it is widely believed that it comes about due to connective tissue micro trauma, which occurs when muscles lengthen and stretch during exercise. Sadly, you can’t get rid of DOMS completely, but you can soften the blow by actively cooling down and performing dynamic stretching. Post-WOD low intensity exercise can enhance the clearance of enzymes responsible for muscle damage and residual fatigue, and dynamic stretching activates the muscles and increases body heat and blood flow, which helps to provide your muscles with nutrients that can reduce soreness.
2. Drink Plenty of Water
As humans, we need water to survive (our bodies are roughly 60% water), and we need to drink enough of it throughout the day to avoid dehydration. In one hour of exercise the body can lose more than a quart of water, depending on exercise intensity and air temperature. So it’s important to make sure you replenish your stores as soon as you can. Getting enough water into our system helps to improve our recovery time, as it helps to bring the electrolyte balance in our body back to normal. As the body loses electrolytes through sweat, the imbalance can result in symptoms like muscle cramps, fatigue, nausea, and mental confusion. And if the electrolyte supply stays low, muscles may continue to feel weak during your next WOD—hence why you need to get plenty of water in your system when you’re done at the box.
In addition, water also helps to prevent the breakdown of muscle proteins and increases the amount of nutrients absorbed from food. Oh, and it also plays an important role in cushioning and lubricating joints and tissues so that they remain elastic, which helps to reduce joint and muscle pain and increase your flexibility.
3. Drink a Post-Workout Protein Shake
Specifically, take your whey protein. Now, there’s nothing wrong with waiting till you get home to make a meal that’s hopefully packed full of protein, but I highly advise you to invest in a whey protein supplement, and here’s why:
Whey protein is considered to be a “fast-acting” protein because the body can digest it and absorb the nutrients it contains quickly. When you ingest whey, the amino acids from the protein will go through their metabolic functions—one of which is protein synthesis (where cells generate new proteins). This is important because muscle growth depends on protein synthesis being greater than the breakdown of muscle protein. The faster protein can be absorbed and metabolized by the body, the more your muscles will develop as a result. Following a workout, your muscles will be aching, sore and crying out for some fast-acting protein to help feed them. To counteract the breakdown of muscle protein that is currently underway, look to take whey protein immediately after a WOD (up to 30 minutes post-WOD for full effect) to maximize protein synthesis and muscular development.
4. Eat Carbs Too!
It’s useful to get carbs into your system following a workout as they replenish your glycogen stores. Glycogen is the chemical form of carbohydrates that is stored in the muscles. As you train, your body utilizes glycogen as its main fuel source. Glycogen is needed in order to generate ATP—adenosine tri phosphate—which transports chemical energy and is crucial for muscle contractions. It also helps to increase muscle cell volume and muscle fiber fullness. As such, don’t assume that there’s nothing to be gained from munching on a sweet potato, some brown rice or a banana (more on these below) post-WOD.
5. Get Potassium & Sodium Into Your System
Potassium is a vitally important mineral in our body, helping our heart, kidneys and other organs to function properly. It also helps our muscles regularly contract and relax, seeing as most of the potassium ions in the body are located in the muscle cells. On top of that, potassium is useful for ensuring the growth of muscle tissue, as well as facilitating the correct utilization of the energy that’s released during metabolism, which contributes to muscular strength. If you have low levels of potassium in your blood, then you could be prone to muscle cramps and fatigue after exercise. Bananas are rich in potassium, so it’s pretty easy to get the mineral into your body quickly as long as you pack the fruit in your gym bag!
Sodium, much like potassium, is an electrolyte that helps to regulate water levels in and around the cells in our bodies. We need the right amount of sodium in order to transmit nerve impulses, maintain normal blood pressure and allow our muscles to function properly. If we don’t have adequate sodium balance in our bodies, problems can start to occur—one of which is a dangerous condition called hyponatremia. We typically lose sodium through sweat, so after a tough workout the sodium levels in our body can become depleted (though it varies from person to person). Low sodium levels—when combined with low fluid levels—can lead to hyponatremia. The effects of this condition include nausea and vomiting, difficulty concentrating, confusion, agitation and headaches. This is why it’s so important to not only get water into your system after exercise, but sodium as well.
You need a good balance of both to ensure that your body can recover well and avoid the nasty effects of hyponatremia. Consider this study from the European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology. In the study, six male volunteers were ‘dehydrated’ by performing intermittent cycling exercises in a warm, humid environment. Thirty minutes after performing the exercise, the subjects were given one of four drinks that had varying amounts of sodium. The researchers discovered that the amount of fluid that the men were able to retain in their bodies was directly related to the amount of sodium present in those drinks. As Kathryn Vera writes, “to achieve optimal results when it comes to restoring depleted sodium stores, the American College of Sports Medicine encourages exercise enthusiasts to consume 500 to 700 milligrams of sodium for every 32 ounces of fluids consumed during or after physical activity.”
You can get sodium from beets, spinach, and other foods high in salt: like BACON.
Just another reason to eat the best friggin’ food on the planet.
Author: William Imbo is an Associate Editor at BoxLife magazine.
Credentials: CrossFit Level 1 Trainer and holds an MPS in Sports Industry Management from Georgetown University.