By now you know working out comes with loads of benefits—it puts you in a better mood, helps prevent disease, improves sleep, and sharpens your memory. But exercise also takes a lot out of you, making recovery just as essential as the workout itself.
That’s why we partnered with the pros at BODYARMOR to figure out the optimal way to recover after exercise. They make sports drinks and water that hydrate better, which is why they’re the preferred sports beverage of the UFC and a top choice for pro athletes like soccer star Megan Rapinoe.
If you’ve ever wondered what happens to your body post-workout, here’s a breakdown of the major losses—and healthy ways to recoup.
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This probably isn’t a shocker, but when you work out, you lose water through sweat, which can lead to dehydration and cause symptoms such as cramping, increased fatigue, and muscle degeneration. Dehydration can also reduce your aerobic endurance, meaning you feel tired more quickly (a notoriously fun experience mid-workout).
“Our bodies are mostly water, so hydration is extremely important,” says Rapinoe, a midfielder and winger for the Seattle Reign FC. “That’s not just during exercise but also in the days leading up to a game [or a hard workout].”
Felipe Lobelo, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of global health at the Emory School of Public Health, says it’s especially important to drink water when you work out to keep kidneys working well. That’s because exercise increases blood flow and filtration, making the kidneys work harder.
How much water you sweat out varies from person to person, but it’s not a bad idea to incorporate additional water-heavy snacks, such as melon and leafy greens, into your pre-gym routine. And, obviously, it’s important to drink plenty of actual water too. One study recommends 100 or so ounces per day when exercising, while Lobelo’s rule of thumb is to consume at least 16 ounces of H2O for an hour-long workout. You might also consider reaching for an electrolyte-enhanced drink like BODYARMOR SportWater, which is also alkaline (pH 8+).
“When people think of hydration, they think of water and just having a lot of [it], but that’s not the whole picture,” Rapinoe says.
When you sweat, minerals known as electrolytes (sodium, magnesium, potassium, iron, calcium) also come pouring out. Typically, people who are most affected by this are endurance athletes, those who exercise in hot climates, and “salty sweaters.” If you develop salt crystals or white film on your skin when exercising, that means you’re sweating out extra salt and should replenish accordingly with a sports drink or a salty snack, says Kelly Pritchett, Ph.D., R.D., C.S.S.D., from TRIDimensional Consulting.
Electrolyte deficiency can cause muscle cramps and a host of other problems, but electrolytes are also easy to replenish. Rapinoe recommends BODYARMOR LYTE, a potassium-packed sports drink made with coconut water and natural sugars.
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3. Muscle Tissue
If you’ve ever had to crawl out of bed the day after a grueling gym sesh, you know how much sore muscles can suck. When you do moderate- to high-intensity exercise, your muscles break down, Lobelo says. You gotta spend muscle to make muscle, right?
On a microscopic level, this means muscle fibers get shaken up and proteins break loose and leak into the blood. In response, the muscle rebuilds itself and—over time—increases in size and quality, allowing for more blood flow, increased nerve activity, and strength. It’s this breakdown of muscle fibers, coupled with the resulting inflammation, that causes post-workout soreness.
“A good stretch is important because it helps reduce the next day’s pain, moves toxins, and gives a range of motion to a muscle that might be sore,” Lobelo says.
And remember the old adage you are what you eat? Lobelo says what we consume post-workout can play a direct role in how we recover.
“You’ll want your next meal to have a mix of good proteins and fats, which are necessary for muscle growth,” he says. Try to incorporate ingredients such as avocados and olive oil, which are excellent sources of healthy fats; lean meats like fish, which contains omega-3 fatty acids that have been shown to ease muscle soreness; and nuts and dairy for protein.
Rapinoe swears by her daily post-workout protein shake: 1 cup almond milk, 1/2 cup orange juice, 1/2 cup frozen strawberries, and protein powder.
“Not only does it get nutrients back into my system to start rebuilding right after the workout, it’s a nice treat to look forward to,” she says.
Breaking news: Workouts take a lot out of you (JK, we know you already figured this one out). But why? Well, it takes energy to expand and contract your muscles, which drains the energy stores in your body and makes you feel tired. But in a world filled with work, relationships, hobbies, Netflix, and other commitments, we don’t have time to be tired, so it’s only natural we end up committing cardinal sin No. 1—skimping on sleep.
Pritchett says rest and relaxation are essential parts of the recovery process. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society both recommend a minimum of 7 hours per night.
“Think of [your body] like a gas tank,” Rapinoe says. “You’ve expended all [your energy], and the only way to get the full benefits of your workout is… to fill it back up.”
While it’s tough to clock in those hours, try to approach it as a critical part of your health routine. Sleep is a key aspect of the recovery process and gives the body time to rebuild what gets broken down in exercise. The good news is exercise actually helps you get more restful sleep—so it’s a win-win situation.