Is there any better feeling than just completing an amazing workout? There you are, dripping with sweat, swimming in euphoria, and savoring the satisfaction that results from pure hard work and accomplishment. But before you pat yourself on the back, call it a day, and head for the showers, it's important to remind yourself that your work isn't actually done. After all, if you head straight from the bike seat or yoga mat directly for the showers, you'll be doing your body—and your health—a big disservice. We reached out to scores of fitness pros to learn all of the things you need to do after exercise, and we've compiled their answers right here. So read on for your ultimate post-exercise, pre-shower checklist. And for more on the benefits of recovering properly, see here for The #1 Worst Thing You Can Do if You Have Sore Muscles, Say Experts.
You Need to Be Kind to Yourself
Let's say you just had a subpar outing at the gym or on the track. The last thing you should do is beat yourself up about it. "We are not going to be at our physical best every day," says Kate Meier, PT, a Certified USA weightlifting level 1 coach, a Certified CrossFit level 1 coach, and a senior editor at Garage Gym Reviews. "Some days we're tired or stressed, haven't eaten or slept well, dehydrated or maybe just unmotivated. Everyone has those days, even the super fit people."
So what should you do? Practice self-compassion. "When you're having a rough day the important thing is to just get through the workout and move on," says Meier. "Don't go home and be upset at yourself because you lifted less weight, ran slower, or burned fewer calories. Once the workout is over, it's over. Negative self-talk is not productive and does not help anyone to get closer to their goals." And for more great exercise advice, don't miss The One Major Side Effect of Walking Every Day, According to Science.
You Need to Stay on Your Feet
"One of the worst things you can do after a long run is hop on a plane or sit for long periods," says Beret Loncar, RMT, an orthopedic massage therapist, personal trainer, and RRCA run coach who owns and operates Body Mechanics NYC. "It is very tempting, especially when you are tired or you have flown to a location for a marathon or half-marathon. Almost always this results in the muscles around the hips and [connective tissue] tightening up into a painful position. (We usually advise our distance runners to wait a day or two before flying back home.)"
It's important for you to recover properly and gently move around. (For more on that, keep reading.)
You Need to Record Your Progress
Are you exercising for a specific goal? Are you trying to get stronger? Faster? Improve yourself in some meaningful way that is gauge by a meaningful metric? Then you should take note of it, and record your progress.
"Never forget to record your progress," says Jake Maulin, a master instructor and co-owner of CycleBar Naples. "This step doesn't have to do with any physical action but it's key to providing your motivation for future workouts. Your post-workout habits can be just as important as the workout itself to maximizing your physical and mental benefits."
Matthew Paxton, founder of Hypernia, agrees. "I think not taking pictures [after a workout] is a mistake," he says. "We don't really notice the difference [to our bodies] over time. Either we overestimate or underestimate the changes we're experiencing. Knowing how you progress [by referencing visual evidence] helps you keep motivated in the future. If you're not feeling it, you can just look at the photos and you'll think: 'I don't want to end the momentum.'" And for more great exercise advice, make sure you know why Science Says This Abs Exercise Is the Single Best You Can Do.
You Need to Change Out of Your Clothes Quickly
"First, get out of those clothes!," says Maulin. "It's not cool to hang out in sweaty, sticky clothes, no matter how fashionable they are. Plus, they can cause chafing and other skin issues as well as put you at risk for compromising your immune system."
He's right. For more on this, see The Ugly Side Effects of Not Showering After Exercise, Says Science.
You Need to Cool Down
Of course, this is the most important tip of all. "The biggest mistake anyone can make post-workout is not setting time aside to cool down, stretch, and recover," says Cathy Spencer-Browning, VP of Programming and Training at MOSSA. "A workout creates both mechanical and metabolic stresses to the body which in excess, and without adequate recovery, can lead to a state of under recovery. This is often linked to unfavorable physiological and psychological performance outcomes."
Others agree. "You do not want to go from full intensity exercise to a complete standstill," says Jenna Greenfield, M.D. "Keeping the muscles moving, with light stretching or walking, helps to move blood and lymph through the muscles and tissues, helping the immune system to repair the fibers." And for more great exercise advice, don't miss The #1 Best Exercise for Reducing Love Handles, Say Experts.
You Need to Stretch While You Cool Down
"Most individuals jet out of the gym after a workout to head back home or run errands," says Austin Martinez, MS, CSCS, ATC, Director of Education for StretchLab. "What they might not know is that they are missing out on a crucial process, recovery. It is great that they had an effective workout, but that's just one piece. Working out involves breaking muscle down, with the intention to build it back up. A few issues can occur if processes aren't in place to facilitate muscle recovery. The first being, that injuries can occur due to overuse of muscles. Second, when muscles don't have the chance to recover properly then this can lead to less optimal workouts and precipitate early fatigue."
You Need to Avoid the Booze
"One thing that would be wise to avoid after a workout is alcohol," says Ashlee Van Buskirk, a former competitive bodybuilder and owner and operator of the Denver-based fitness and nutrition coaching business Whole Intent. "Whether it's beer, liquor, or wine, alcohol will unfortunately slow your recovery and reduce the benefits of your workout. Not too mention that certain types of alcohol, like beer, have tons of calories, which could offset the calories your expended during your workout."
As always, you need to hydrate your body properly after a workout to restore yourself and expedite your recovery.
"The best hydration happens before, during and after exercise," says Deb Averett, NASM-CPT and Master Coach for Row House. "Water helps your body transport nutrients to the rest of our body so that we can feel our best at all times. If we're dehydrated, it's possible that we will have low energy and our performance will suffer. Try drinking about 20 oz. before a workout, 20-30 ounces during a workout and 10 ounces within a half hour of working out. This will help you replenish the fluid you lost during you workout and help you stay hydrated throughout the day."
You Need to Fuel Up With Protein
"Ingesting protein after a workout will give the tissue the necessary building blocks to rebuild, and has been shown to speed recovery," says Greenfield.
Averett agrees. "Ideally, it's best to eat within 30 minutes of a work out with a good combination of carbs and protein. The body just worked out and used a lot of its available energy, and it's ready to take in nutrients to help repair the muscles and give you more energy for the day. When we miss our 30 minute window, a likely slump in energy will happen as well as muscle soreness. I know we're all busy, so some great quick snack ideas are protein shakes, clean protein bars, cottage cheese, or some fruit with Greek yogurt." Now, want some great workouts to try? Be sure to read 3 Workouts Proven to Change Your Body Shape, Says Exercise Expert.