How To Recover After An Intense Workout

The recovery process is as crucial to the effectiveness of your exercise as the actual workout can be. Even with an intense and lengthy workout, it can all be for nothing if everything else you do is wrong. An exercise routine needs proper rest, nutrition, and care for your body or you are only accomplishing all pain with no gain. Here is how you properly recover from an intense workout.

Don’t Overdo It

One big mistake people make in their workout routine is they don’t know when to quit. There is a delicate balance between too much, too little and just right. If you hit the gym and just do a few reps of light weights, a couple minutes on a treadmill and spend the other half of the time with 10 minute resting periods checking yourself or everyone else out, you are wasting your time. Likewise, it is a waste of time if you do the opposite and exercise too much. Push yourself to do that one more rep you are struggling to finish. When you hit your time on the treadmill, tack on an extra intense minute until you are out of breath. What you do not do is push yourself until you can’t move.

When you are wearing down, do another rep or two, not another set or two. If you push yourself too far, you are only hurting yourself. “Overexercising often contributes to pain, dehydration, or electrolyte imbalances, all of which can lead to an increase in heart rate,” says Kathryn Berlacher, MD, a cardiologist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

If you go too far, you will not have a productive recovery. You want to have a recovery day, not a recovery week. If you push yourself to the point you are sore for the next four days, you are losing future productivity. And if you do this too often, your body will resort to extensive damage repair, rather than strength and tone gains.

Pre-workout Nutrition

Most people should know that diet provides a large part of recovery. It isn’t just a Muscle Milk after your workout to speed up the recovery. Your entire day needs to have the proper nutrition at the right times for the best recovery. Before your workout, you want to keep digestion and energy in mind.

Try to not eat a large meal immediately before working out. You do want to make sure you are not working out on an empty stomach. For most workouts, some lean protein and complex carbohydrates to provide fuel for the exercise are what you need.

While no carb and low carb diets seem to be popular these days, there are conflicting studies on whether this is good for your body. Low or no carb diets are horrible for you over a long period. These diets are especially dangerous for people who live an active lifestyle. Your carbs provide the energy for an effective workout, keep them in your diet even if your goal is weight loss.

how to recover from an intense workout stretch


Stretching may be one of the most neglected workout recovery boosters out there. Stretching is good both before and after a workout. In particular, after a workout, a good stretch helps maintain range of motion. A post-workout stretch also is good for relieving muscle tension causing soreness later. Remember, you can and should also incorporate stretching into your workout by using the full range of motion in your exercises. If you have bands or poles, use them to increase your stretches and maintain a proper posture.

Finally, remember, like working out, there are wrong ways to stretch and know you can overdo it in stretching as well. Doing things wrong can be worse than not at all.

Make sure you plan stretching time into your workout. If you do not allocate time for stretching before and after, there is a good chance you will skip it.

Post Workout Meal

Ok, we are sorry we joked about drinking a Muscle Milk earlier. The reality is a post-workout protein shake is an excellent way to deliver fast absorption nutrition. A workout shake offers what few other things can provide. A quick nutrition boost is vital for a speedy recovery, especially on an empty stomach. Make sure you look for what meets your needs in a post workout drink above price or taste. If you are not adding nutrients that meet your requirements, you just wasting money. Look for a shake with quality ingredients that offer fat burning, weight gain, or any other goal you have.

Also, you want a small meal after a workout. A banana is perfect, it is light and packed with natural nutrients. Bananas have potassium, sodium, and calcium, which are all vital for muscle wellness. These are nutrients that become depleted from your workout routine. You want a post-workout meal to be light, but enough to replace needed vitamins. You do not want to go immediately out to eat a large, fattening meal. A high-calorie meal completely negates all the hard work you went through. Here is a handy list of some post-workout recovery meals to keep in mind when you get ready to eat.


Get some quality rest. Sleep might sound obvious to some, but it is something you need to consider after your workout. Lack of sleep alone can completely halt your recovery. Sleep deprivation increases your chances of injury, both in the gym and in life. If you are not getting a full nights sleep after your workout, you are depriving your body of crucial recovery time needed to recover.

For an average adult, you need to get at least six hours of sleep. But, if you are working out, you will still need the full eight. If your workouts are especially intense as if you are a pro athlete, you may need even more than that. Many people have a problem doing this. The plan is to give yourself a wind-down period at night. Read, relax, turn off the television and try to get yourself to bed earlier if you have to.

Additionally, if you can, a quick power nap an hour or two after your workout helps get your body into restore mode after a workout. Of course, this is not possible for most people, but if you can get a power nap in after a workout, it is a good plan to assist recovery. Remember, if you are going hard and wake up especially tired, listen to your body. You may need the rest. It is ok to sleep in one day if it means your body is getting the rest and recovery it needs.

Off Days

While on the topic of rest, your body needs off days. If you are always pushing yourself, you never give your body time to recover. No matter how hard you want to push yourself, there is still some amount of recovery needed. Some people only work out three days a week. Others take one day off and alternate upper and lower body, and there are others who hit it every day, seven days a week.

No matter what your schedule is like, there are ways to get some recovery time. If you are hitting the gym every day no matter what to meet a goal, have one or two active recovery days. You can make time for some active recovery and still exercise. Rather than heavy lifting, take a jog or a bike ride. Even a walk around the neighborhood is an excellent active recovery day, and you can still get some movement and calorie burning in.

Light cardio is excellent between heavy lifting. There are plenty of in-between options besides heavy weight training every day. Cardio, kickboxing, or even yoga and Pilates is a unique way to spend a day off from weights.

Some experts even recommend an off week. About once every month, have a down week where you keep the workout to a minimum, do a routine with only half the reps, or stick to cardio for a week. This way you are continuing your progress but avoiding too much fatigue. No breaks can add to more and more fatigue, which can have serious long-term consequences.

how to recover from an intense workout

Stay Hydrated

Again, another no-brainer here, but you want to make sure you are staying hydrated.  Before, during and after a workout it is crucial to maintaining hydration. In particular, you need to remember to keep your hydration levels up for several hours after your workout. When you finish your routine, your body is still in burn mode for an hour or more. While the burning phase continues, your body is sucking up lost fluids.

Burning water off happens while remaining in workout mode. Water loss continues burning off more liquids throughout the day while in recovery. You want to make sure you are working to stay hydrated throughout the day for hours after your workout. Also, remember hydration is not just for workout days. You want to always maintain plenty of fluids for your body, even on off days.

It is important to note that in most cases water is all you need to stay hydrated. A sports drink such as Gatorade or Powerade won’t hurt you during a workout. However, many people make the mistake of drinking copious amounts of sports drinks thinking it is better than water. Not only is it more costly and unnecessary, but unless you are working out at a pro athlete level, such beverages are unnecessary. Too much is potentially damaging in large amounts. Keep it simple, stick to water.

The American Council on Exercise recommends the following:

  • 17 to 20 ounces of water 2 to 3 hours before exercising.
  • 8 ounces of water in the half hour before exercising and warm up.
  • 7 to 10 ounces of water every 10 to 20 minutes during exercise.
  • 8 ounces within 30 minutes of completing your workout.


A massage after your workout is a great way to help speed up your recovery. A massage works out the tension in your muscles while also promoting the circulation of blood and oxygen throughout your body. Blood flow and reduced pressure are vital in helping speed up recovery. A massage can be painful in some areas after a workout, but it is often beneficial for reducing long-term pain. Also, a massage helps you relax and stretch out. A massage loosens tense muscles, all which aid in lowering recovery pain and speeding up the healing process.

And again remember, be careful and do it right or not at all. A deep tissue massage or other types can injure you. Make sure you are getting a massage that fits your post workout needs.

With many of the above recommendations comes lower stress. The act of exercising lowers stress, as does staying hydrated and eating right and good nights sleep. However, it is worth noting that stress does affect your recovery. All in all, the key to an improved recovery is overall body care and health. The healthier, less stressed and more mindful you are of your bodies needs and addressing them will create a more harmonious and beneficial recovery.

The post-workout recovery process is vital to improvements. If you are spending a lot of time in the gym and not paying attention to anything else, you will not see the results you hope for. Working out and exercise is a lifestyle, not an activity if you want to get the most out of it.

About the Author

As an athlete, coach, parent, and sport psychology consultant with over 20 years experience in youth sports, I created BaxterSports youth sports camps to continue my work and provide a great environment for athletes to learn and grow in all aspects of life.