What is exercise recovery?

Exercise recoveryExercise is an essential part of maintaining a happy and healthy lifestyle, but it is not without risk of injury. To minimise these risks and perform optimally the next time you exercise, you must allow your body to recover. Exercise recovery involves a number of post-exercise steps that are essential for any exercise regime, regardless of fitness level, the type of physical activity or the exercise intensity. Exercise recovery does not take long or require much effort, but it is often neglected. If you schedule recovery into your fitness routine, it will soon become second nature, and you will be helping yourself get the most from your exercise.

Benefits of exercise recovery

Allowing your body to adequately recover from exercise will aid in:

  • Tissue repair
  • Function restoration
  • Muscle recovery
  • Psychological recovery (contemplation, relaxation and rejuvenation)

What is involved in exercise recovery?

Exercise recovery involves actions carried out immediately after exercise, such as stretching and warming down. It also involves certain drinking and eating patterns, as well as therapeutic actions.

Active exercise recovery

Warming down after exercise

Warming down involves 5–15 minutes of extra exercise after the main exercise is completed. The warm down should be low intensity to allow your heart rate to drop gradually. Warming down also prevents muscle stiffening. The warm down does not have to be the same type of exercise as the main activity.

Post-exercise stretching

Stretching after you have exercised is very important. During exercise, a lot of pressure and strain is put on our muscles, tendons and joints. Your muscles will become knotted if you do not stretch out these tender spots. After awhile, these knots become worse and start affecting other muscles. Knots may not pose too much of a problem in the short term, but may eventually result in a muscle injury that will prevent you from further exercise. Stretching after exercise will improve the flexibility of the muscles and will reduce any soreness from the exercise.

Stretching should begin within 10 minutes of finishing exercise, before your muscles have a chance to tighten up. Some important points to remember while stretching are:

  • Stretch until you feel a “stretch” or tension. Muscles should never be strained to the point where they feel pain;
  • Hold post-exercise stretches for at least 30 seconds per stretch;
  • Stretch slowly; and
  • Breathe out at as you ease into the stretch.

For further information on stretching and examples of some stretches, see Exercise Stretches.


Rehydration after exercise


Exercise and rehydrationIt is very easy to become dehydrated during exercise. Dehydration can lower your blood pressure and heart rate, which can make you feel quite unwell. It also increases the risk of developing exercise-related health conditions such as cold stress and heat illness. Therefore, it is very important to drink enough fluids before and after physical activity.

When we sweat during exercise, we lose electrolytes. Electrolytes are dissolved particles that exist in bodily fluids. They play a very important part in modulating water balance within your body. If your electrolyte levels are low, your exercise performance will be impaired and you will be more susceptible to exercise-related injury and heat illness. Rehydration is the replacement of water and electrolytes.

The following fluids replenish and hydrate most effectively:

  • Water: Essential for maintaining your body’s water balance and replacing water lost when sweating.
  • Milk: Milk has been shown to provide sufficient hydration for athletes and recreational exercisers. It also helps to build lean muscle and speed up recovery. One study compared the effects of three beverages on performance in a cycling endurance test: chocolate milk, a commercially available sports drink, and a commercially available fluid replacement drink. The researchers noted that participants cycled longer after drinking chocolate milk than after sports drink, despite the beverages having very similar calorie contents. They said the difference could be due to differences in carbohydrate type and/or fat content between the beverages.
  • Sport drinks: Useful for people partaking in intense exercise, but not for low intensity exercise (e.g. walking). The purpose of sport drinks is to replenish blood glucose, glycogen and electrolytes depleted during intense exercise. The average sport drink contains 250 kilojoules of carbohydrate per serve (mainly in the form of sugars). If the energy supplied by the sport drink is not worked off during the exercise, weight gain will result. To maintain your current weight, the energy from the foods you eat must be equal to the energy you burn.

The amount of fluid consumed after exercise should equal or exceed the amount of sweat lost. Intense athletes should drink fluid that will replace electrolytes (e.g. milk or a sport drink). For moderate intensity exercisers, water will be adequate.



Food for after exercise


Exercise recoveryIt is very important to replenish energy stores within the body within 4 hours of finishing the exercise. This will help recovery and increase metabolism. The best foods to eat after exercise are high glycaemic index (GI) foods. These foods are more quickly digested by the body and therefore will replenish energy faster.

Some examples of high GI foods include:

  • Ripe bananas
  • Rice
  • Cornflakes
  • Watermelon

Note that low GI foods are recommended for before exercise, as the main aim is to maintain energy for a prolonged period.

Excessive alcohol consumption after exercise can impair muscle energy storage, and should therefore be avoided in the recovery period.


Therapeutic recovery


Therapeutic recovery is essential for a healthy post-exercise mentality. It helps people to wind down after exercise. For competing athletes, it gives them the chance to assess their performance. Therapeutic recovery is very relaxing and rejuvenating. After exercise, you deserve to take a few moments just for yourself – your body will thank you for it!

Therapeutic recovery can include:

  • Deep or soft tissue massage from your physiotherapist, sports trainer or coach
  • Using an ice pack on sore and stressed muscles
  • Meditation
  • Rest and sleep

The amounts of rest and therapeutic recovery needed will vary widely between people with different fitness levels. For most people, tissue massage and ice packs will not be needed after every exercise session, and perhaps not at all. One thing that is essential, however, is a sufficient non-exercise period between sessions. For people new to exercise, at least 48 hours separation between intense physical activity is recommended to give your muscles a chance to heal. A low intensity workout will not need a recovery period greater than 24 hours.

The importance of hygiene after exercise

Hygiene and exerciseRegular exercisers are more prone to infection, especially of the skin. This is because regular exercisers tend to have more cuts, abrasions and blisters due to the equipment, clothing and footwear required for their exercise. In addition, sweating and chafing provide the perfect environment for infections. In many instances, infections may need treatment with antibiotics.

It is very important to develop hygienic pre- and post-exercise habits to help prevent infections. Some hygiene habits include:

  • Shower after exercise
  • Thoroughly and regularly wash sweaty clothes, towels and mats
  • Cover up all abrasions before using equipment such as weights, yoga mats and weight benches
  • If a blister or chafing develops, immediately wash the area and apply antiseptic cream or lotion
  • Do not pop blisters
  • If a specific pair of footwear is continuously rubbing and forming blisters, change your footwear
  • Wear thongs in communal showers
  • Try to remove as much water from the ear as possible by shaking the head slightly on each side. Never put anything inside the ear to remove water.
  • Wear gloves when using communal weights
  • Remove bathers once you have finished exercise, and wash them thoroughly

If you do not allow yourself to sufficiently recover from exercise, your body’s defence system (immune system) becomes fatigued, your risk of infection increases. Therefore, important hygeine and rest periods are essential after exercise.


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