Most fitness enthusiasts, even novices, understand that one of the best ways to improve your health and fitness is to put more energy into your workouts. You have to push yourself further along whichever axis is most important to you; it could mean running further, lifting heavier, or just challenging yourself with a variety of new exercises.
In any case, your toughest workouts are your most rewarding sessions, both mentally and physically. But don’t forget, your recovery is just as important as your in-workout effort.
So what’s the best way to recover from your toughest workouts?
Prepare to Relax
If possible, it’s best to spend time relaxing for the rest of the day. If you pushed yourself hard, there’s no reason to stack on additional physically exhausting tasks. Too many people would be willing to run a marathon, then try to help a friend move or join a volleyball game on the beach; it’s much better to give your body time to recover. This also functions as an earned reward for yourself that will incentivize you to have better workouts in the future.
Note that there’s both a physical and mental component to this. Curling up next to a fireplace with a good book, for example, provides you with warmth, physical relaxation, and a mental sense of coziness. By contrast, lying down on the couch and arguing with a sibling over the phone may be physically relaxing, but it’s stressful and mentally difficult.
It’s best to set yourself up for a relaxing evening before you commit to an exceptionally tough workout. This isn’t always possible, but it could tremendously assist your recovery.
Write Down Your Accomplishments
Physically writing down even small achievements can make us feel good; it’s why we get a small mental thrill whenever we check something off a to-do list. In the case of a tough workout, this serves several functions.
First, it gives you an immediate feeling of success; just writing down what you did will help reinforce your positive feelings. Second, it allows you to track progress; if you’re just starting out, your toughest workout will seem like nothing in a few months. Third, it gives you motivation; when you don’t feel like going to the gym, you can look at your past efforts and (hopefully) rekindle your motivation.
Get the Right Nutrition
It’s vital to give your body proper nutrition following a tough workout, or you won’t be able to recover properly. Though nutritional needs will vary, depending on individual goals, body composition, and special considerations, there are two primary goals you’ll want to achieve:
- Replacing glycogen. Expending physical effort utilizes glycogen, the stored energy in our muscles. If your glycogen is fully depleted, your body will rely on fat and/or muscle tissue to fuel its movements and functionality. While fat burning may be part of your goal set, it’s still a good idea to replace glycogen by consuming foods rich in complex carbohydrates—especially if you’re going to try and work out tomorrow.
- Ingesting protein. The body needs protein to repair the muscle tissue you inevitably damaged during your workout. Whether your goal is to build muscle or just improve your stamina, you’ll need some food rich in protein to recover properly.
Stretching after a workout is one of the best ways to prevent injuries, both now and in the future. Make sure you stretch your entire body, including any areas that weren’t involved in your workout; this allows you to stay limber, making you more resilient to injuries in future workouts. This is also a good way to guide your body through a cooldown. Your heart rate will gradually return to normal, and your blood circulation will improve.
Reflect and Prepare
This is also a good chance to reflect on what you did and brainstorm how you could improve in the future. For example, was there a certain condition that allowed you to do more than usual? Was there a certain state of mind that allowed you to power through those last few miles or those last few reps? Conversely, do you think you could run faster or lift more in your next workout if you did something differently? You don’t need to be overly formal with this step; just thinking about your workout and considering it critically is enough to see the results.
Depending on your current condition and the relative intensity of your workout, you may need several days to fully recover. There isn’t a single “right” approach to workout recovery, so it’s important for you to listen to your body and adjust as necessary. For example, if your muscles are still sore, it’s a good idea to skip your next workout (or at least go lighter than usual).