If you're the kind of person that leaves the gym immediately after a tough workout (and who among us hasn't done that at least once?), listen up! What you do after your workout matters as much as the hard work you put in during. Your after-workout actions can be the difference between seeing results and plateauing.
Here, the experts break down a step-by-step post-exercise plan that will complement those hours logged at the gym — and get your body ready for your next sweat session.
1 Minute After Your Workout: Stretch
Abruptly ending your workout is one of the worst things you can do for your body. So save some time for stretching so you can optimize your recovery. Focus on areas of increased tension and lack of flexibility, especially those you just worked, says Austin Martinez, director of education for StretchLab.
For example, if you just wrapped up leg day, stretch your quads, glutes, hamstrings and calves. Martinez recommends a mix of static and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF), which involves both stretching and contracting the muscle being targeted, for improving both recovery and performance.
Read more: 9 Post-Workout Stretches You Need ASAP
5 Minutes After Your Workout: Calm Your Body
Working out elevates your heart rate and activates your "fight or flight" response. And while most people are pretty skilled at getting amped up, many don't take the time to properly cool down to get back to that "rest and digest" state, says Luke Jones, movement coach and content creator at HERO Movement.
Kickstart your recovery process with breathwork. "Something as simple as three-to-five minutes of box breathing is perfect for helping the body down regulate and return back to center," Jones says. To do this, inhale through your nose for a count of four, hold your breath for four, exhale through your nose for four and hold for another four. You can either do this while you stretch or in the shower after your session, Jones says.
10 Minutes After Your Workout: Rehydrate
Even if you drank a ton of water during your workout, you need to continue to do so after, says yoga teacher and YogaSix master trainer Zac Armstrong. "Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate — especially after intense cardio sessions and heated classes," he says. If you've been especially sweaty, add in some extra electrolytes and minerals.
Don't stop there! Keep drinking water for the rest of the day, says Nick Rizzo, training director at RunRepeat. "Water supports the delivery of nutrients throughout your body and literally every metabolic process," he says.
15 Minutes After Your Workout: Have a Snack
Eating soon after your workout is important for recovery and replenishing your body's energy stores. "Refuel your body with a 150- to 250-calorie snack consisting of protein and carbs," says exercise science expert Stephanie Blozy, owner of Fleet Feet in West Hartford, Connecticut. After longer, more intense workouts, go for a 1:1 protein to carb ratio, and for shorter workouts, you can do up to a 1:3 ratio, she says.
If you're training hard, you should consume some sugar post-workout as well, says exercise physiologist Omega Zumpano. "After a hard workout, your muscle glycogen — stored muscle sugar — is depleted," she says. "Having another intense workout the next day requires glycogen, so you'd be smart to replace it." She suggests a simple sugar source — like a banana or goo pack — within 20 minutes after your workout.
30 Minutes After Your Workout: Keep Moving
After a grueling workout, you might be tempted to kick back and relax. "But you need to make sure you are getting up and moving often," Rizzo says. "Moving will keep the blood flowing, make sure nutrients are delivered to your muscles and help your muscles get rid of waste."
Blozy agrees, noting that continued movement also helps your body process lactic acid. So if you're going to the office post-workout, get up and take a lap every so often. Or if you're heading home to Netflix-and-chill after the gym, make sure to engage in some active stretching while you binge-watch. "Remember, motion is lotion for your muscles," Blozy says.
1 to 2 Hours After Your Workout: Refuel With a High-Quality Meal
Don't skip a meal post-workout — your body needs the calories and macros. "Aim for a good serving of lean protein, some healthy fat and carb sources and plenty of micronutrients in the form of fresh vegetables," Jones says.
If you're pressed for time and don't have a ton of options, Armstrong suggests grabbing a cup of oatmeal and an egg, a turkey sandwich or a protein smoothie — just watch your sugar intake.
This is also a good time to take supplements if you want. However, whatever you're taking should be a scientifically-backed and safe product, like creatine monohydrate, beta-alanine and betaine anhydrous, Rizzo says. "These can not only improve your workouts but also your recovery, strength and muscle growth."
3 Hours (or More) After Your Workout: Relax and Reset
As you wind down for the day, maximize your muscle recovery with some yoga poses. "Some key poses to help alleviate soreness are runners' lunge, half pigeon and seated or standing forward folds," Armstrong says.
"As you hold each of these poses, take notice of your breath and try to slow it down to the point that your exhale is a touch longer than your inhale. This will help reset your nervous system, and lower your heart rate."
Then, get a good night's sleep. "When you sleep, your body heals itself," Blozy says. "Try to get eight hours of sleep — or more if training is intense." If needed, modify your workout schedule so you can log the recommended number of Zzzs and ensure your body gets that necessary reset.
Read more: 10 Yoga Poses for a Better Night's Sleep