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Recover Like the Pros

Four simple steps to make optimal recovery easy for everyday athletes.

Fitness Expert, Barrington, IL


  • Recovery is the first step in preparing for your next workout and is essential to preventing injury.
  • The four essential elements of recovery are cool-down, icing, nutrition and rest.
  • Stretching is an essential part of cooling down and is designed to bring your muscles to the resting length.
  • Icing is one of the best post-exercise recovery tools for maintaining overall fitness and wellbeing and for decreasing aches and pains after a workout.
  • It is critical to refuel your muscles of depleted glucose/glycogen stores by refueling and rehydrating.
  • Rest is often an overlooked component of the recovery cycle. Sleep is especially important for recovery.


There are legions of professional athletes who peak in their mid-20s, decline soon after, and find themselves retired by age 29. There are athletes who make it a bit longer and are productive into their early to mid-30s. Then, there are the rare pros – Karl Malone, George Foreman, Gordie Howe, Martina Navratilova – who thrive into their 40s, well past the time that most of their teammates have moved on.

What these older athletes have in common is not just good luck or great genetics, though these are critical factors. What has kept them going is meticulous attention to recovery — what they do with their bodies after each workout, practice or game. The most successful athletes know that recovery begins the moment a workout or game ends.

Recovery is the first step in preparing for your next workout and is essential to preventing injury and burnout. After a workout or game, you have depleted energy and nutrition stores and stressed muscles and other soft tissue. Proper recovery allows you to bring your body back to a state of readiness for your next workout.


The four essential elements of recovery are:

1. Cool-down
2. Icing
3. Nutrition
4. Rest


The cool-down phase is generally a 5 to 10 minute period where you slowly decrease activity in order to bring your heart rate and respiration (breathing) rate closer to pre exercise levels. If you are biking, slow your speed; if you are jogging, slow to a walk. By slowing the intensity of your exercise, you will prevent dizziness and assist in removal of waste products in the blood, such as lactic acid. This is also a good time to start stretching.

A more intense workout may call for an extensive cool-down period. For example, cooling down from a six-mile run may take longer than cooling down from a 30-minute brisk walk.

Stretching is an essential part of the cooling down phase of recovery. Exercise is a stress, which depending upon intensity and duration, can shorten muscles and increase tension. Muscles and soft tissue that remain short and tight can increase the possibility of post-exercise soreness and inhibit future performance.

Stretching is designed to bring your muscles to their resting length, as well as to enhance circulation and blood flow. Foam rollers are excellent tools to assist in the stretching process, work out knots and release muscle tension.


Icing is a vital and frequently overlooked aspect of recovery. Most people view icing as something that is used only post-injury or post-surgery. In fact, icing is one of the best post-exercise recovery tools for maintaining overall fitness and well-being and for decreasing aches and pains after a workout.

Exercise related pain is partly due to microtrauma – tiny injuries to muscle fibers and sheaths, connective tissue, tendons and bones. Natural byproducts of microtrauma include fatigue and low levels of inflammation, which can lead to swelling and pain. This inflammatory response is why college and professional athletes, whether or not they are injured, have their knees, shoulders and other stressed body parts wrapped in ice bags following practices and games. The ice reduces pain, speeds muscle recovery for the next workout or game, and may also minimize the likelihood of chronic injuries such as tendonitis.

While you probably don’t need to ice after a 20- minute walk, most extended exercise sessions that challenge the body call for icing. Icing should last 15-20 minutes and should be combined with moderate compression to maximize effectiveness. Since frostbite burns are a risk when applying ice or gel packs directly to the skin, it is recommended that athletes use a safe and effective engineered system that provides a consistent cooling temperature for 15-20 minutes.

Ice is also used to reduce pain associated with Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). DOMS is stiffness, swelling, pain and/or loss of strength that typically occurs 24-72 hours after an unusually tough bout of exercise. It is a common occurrence for weekend warriors or others don’t exercise regularly or those who increase their exercise level too quickly.


Studies have shown that it is critical to refuel the body’s glucose/glycogen stores within the first hour after exercise. If an athlete delays refueling, the next exercise session will be more challenging and less comfortable because the body will not be ready to perform. High quality, complex carbohydrates are most important to consume because they are the body’s primary source of fuel, along with high quality, lean protein. Natural fruit juices, pretzels, bananas, fig bars, power bars and yogurt are good post-exercise fuel sources. A fruit smoothie with whey protein, water and ice is a great post-workout choice – it is refreshing and easy on the stomach.

Rehydration is another important component of nutrition. It is crucial to replace the fluid lost during exercise. A really heavy “sweater” can lose several pounds of fluid while exercising. Dehydration can cause many problems, including muscle cramps, kidney issues and gastrointestinal distress, as well as negatively impacting performance. Weigh yourself before and after a workout to gauge how much fluid to replace. If you exercise for an hour or less, drink water throughout the workout; if you are exercising longer, choose an exercise-specific drink with electrolytes. Don’t wait until you are thirsty to drink, and be sure to start the session properly hydrated. Rehydration throughout the day is also a critical part of recovery.


Rest is another often-overlooked component of the recovery cycle.

Active Rest
Active rest is performing a physical movement at a very low intensity, such as gardening, a slow walk, riding a bike with kids, or a slow, lazy swim. The purpose of active rest is to aid in waste removal of chemical built up in muscles during workout, to improve blood circulation, and to keep the muscles from shortening and tightening.

Passive Rest
This is staying off your feet and giving your mind a break, too. Watching TV, reading a book, or sleeping are great examples of passive rest. Staying on your feet after a workout prolongs the recovery process. Sleep is especially important for recovery.


While exercise and physical activity are critical to living a healthy life, avoiding injury and burnout becomes an even greater challenge as we age. By paying attention to the four stages of proper recovery — cool-down, icing, nutrition and rest — casual to serious athletes can refresh and refuel the mind and body, optimize the benefits of physical activity, and greatly increase their chances of working out for a long time to come.


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