After exhaustive exercise, don’t stop and rest immediately. You can speed up the removal of lactic acid from your muscles by continuing to exercise at a low intensity for 10-20 minutes. Cooling down can help reduce the feeling of stiffness that often occurs after a workout and is especially important if your next training session or event is scheduled a few hours later.
Static stretching before exercise puts you at risk for damaging the very tissues you are trying to protect and as such should be avoided. Research has shown that stretching causes lengthening of the tendinous fibers within the muscle-tendon unit. Such lengthening causes the tendon (or passive) component to lose much of its shock absorbency, thus, placing the muscle fibers at greater risk of trauma. However, stretching after exercise may help minimize muscle soreness and may even help prevent future soft tissue injuries. Thus, before activity, more active-type stretching routines that promote range of motion and increased blood flow are recommended. Conversely, after exercise, the emphasis should be on passive or static stretching to allow the muscles to relax and return to their resting lengths.
The muscles are primed for quick restoration of their carbohydrate fuel reserves (glycogen) immediately after exercise, so don’t wait too long to start eating foods and drinking beverages rich in carbohydrate. Fruits, energy bars, and sports drinks all contain large amounts of carbohydrate. From a nutrition standpoint, post-exercise is one of the only times where you want to be consuming high-glycemic index foods for they will stimulate a quicker release of insulin and, thus, carbohydrate storage in the muscles. Ideally, these fuels should be consumed as quickly as possible upon finishing your exercise session.
Most forms of exercise lead to the breakdown of proteins within the muscles. This breakdown-repair process stimulates the muscles to rebuild and become stronger. Moreover, some of our muscle proteins continue to be broken down during the recovery phase after exercise. For a faster buildup of muscle proteins during recovery, include a small amount of protein in the foods you eat. Milk, cheese, eggs, whey protein shakes, sandwiches, nuts (almonds, walnuts) and energy bars provide carbohydrate and protein. Look for easily digestible protein sources (such as the ones listed above) following strenuous exercise. Avoid saturated fats.
Replacing lost fluid is crucial to the recovery process. Having adequate fluids within your body promotes the removal of toxins and waste from your muscles. Top off your supply of fluids by drinking before exercise, continue to hydrate every 15 or 20 minutes during a workout, and replace any body weight lost during exercise by drinking while you recover. Remember, 1 L of water is equivalent to 1 kg of body weight. Therefore, if the difference between your pre- and post-exercise weight is 1.5 kg (3.3 lbs) you would want to rehydrate with 1.5 L of water to bring your body fluid back to homeostasis. Before, during, and after exercise, the rule of thumb is that if you’re thirsty, it’s too late! Therefore, be sure to have a water bottle throughout the day to sip on. On a daily basis (at rest), the number of ounces of water you should be consuming should equal half of your body weight (in lbs). Thus, if you weigh 200 lbs, then you want to be drinking 100 ounces of water (almost 3 L).
Your body loses water and minerals – mostly sodium chloride, some potassium – when you sweat. Drinking water alone during exercise and recovery will make it difficult to replace body fluids rapidly because much of it will pass through the kidneys to become urine. Replace the salt along with the water to counteract dehydration. If you have to compete again within a few hours, consider sports drinks that contain water, sodium chloride, or fruits such as bananas which are high in potassium. Add extra salt to foods at mealtime if you are susceptible to cramps. Consider using condiments, sports drinks, and fitness waters instead of salt tablets.
Inflammation, swelling, and muscle soreness are possibilities following strenuous exercise. To minimize the effects, consider cold packs around joint areas, alternating cold and hot whirlpool baths, and the use of specially designed magnets to speed the recovery process. Light massage is also a good option for promoting toxin removal from the tissues and reducing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). A study by Hilbert et al. showed that a 20 minute massage 2 hours following exercise helped to reduce the intensity of soreness 48 hours post-exercise in subjects who underwent 6 sets of maximal eccentric hamstring contractions. Minimize foot contact with the ground. Engage in light activities that increase blood flow while not taxing the nervous system. Swimming, cycling, walking, and light jogs are alternatives, but minimize foot contact with the ground.