When I first started training, the post-workout window was gospel. We all knew that if you didn't drink that recovery shake—with exactly a 1:4 protein-to-carbohydrate ratio—within 15 minutes of your workout, you were losing all the gains. OK, maybe not all of them, but most of them.
While the "anabolic window" may not be as important as we once believed, you can still do things after your workout to maximize your progress.
Why Is the Post-Workout Period Important?
In my gym, we use a system we created called "R7" to write our programs. It looks something like this:
- R1: Release (foam roll)
- R2: Reset (breathing and mobility optimization)
- R3: Readiness (warm up)
- R4: Reactive (power and explosive work)
- R5: Resistance (strength training)
- R6: Resiliency (conditioning)
- R7: Recovery
The last R in the system is recovery, and I often tell my coaches—as well as the clients and athletes that I train—that it could be the most important part of the workout.
Recovery starts the moment your workout stops, and it doesn't end until the next time you hit the gym.
Imagine two different scenarios:
- Scenario 1: You had a pre-workout drink and absolutely crushed your workout. Your heart rate is up, the endorphins are flowing, and you're feeling great about yourself. After your workout, you head out the door to go about your day.
- Scenario 2: Imagine the exact same scenario, but before you walk out the door, you lie with your feet elevated and breathe deeply for 3-5 minutes.
In which example will you recover faster? I strongly believe that kick-starting the recovery process prior to leaving the gym will boost your results.
It's limiting to consider the post-workout window as just the 3-10 minutes after a session. In reality, the post-workout window starts when you finish a session and doesn't "close" until you start your next one.
When you start thinking of recovery on this macro level, you begin to realize that everything you do in between workouts either positively or negatively influences your training sessions.
3 Ways to Improve and Expedite Recovery
1. The Nervous System
As I mentioned in the first article in this series, "How Long Should You Rest Between Workouts?" it's limiting to think of recovery solely from a muscular perspective. You need to begin by thinking about the nervous system first, because it's the one running the show.
In Scenario 1 above, that person is stuck in sympathetic overdrive. The goal is to find a balance between the sympathetic "fight or flight" nervous system and the parasympathetic "rest and digest" nervous system.
Being sympathetic when you're working out isn't a bad thing. It's what primes your system and enables you to push those heavy weights. The problem is when you don't have an off switch and you can't tap into your parasympathetic "rest and digest" mode, which is what you need to recover.
So, what do you do to switch gears? There are tons of options, but my personal favorite is to take 10 deep breaths. It doesn't have to be anything fancy. You can simply to lie on your back with your feet elevated and breathe for 3-5 minutes. Here's a step-by-step guide:
- Inhale through your nose for 3-5 seconds.
- Exhale fully through your mouth taking roughly twice as long.
- Pause for 3-5 seconds before inhaling again.
- Follow this pattern, attempting to extend each breath longer than the previous one.
When you're just coming off a grueling workout, those first couple of breaths will be short and shallow, but as you work to slow your heart rate and control your breathing, you'll find it gets easier.
2. Post-Workout Nutrition
Getting the right post-workout nutrition is the second step in the recovery process. The parasympathetic nervous system is called the "rest and digest" system for a reason—emphasis on "digest." If you want that post-workout fuel to be absorbed and get where it needs to go, you have to chill out your system first!
While there may not be one magical time after the workout to ingest nutrients, it's undeniable that you need to get enough protein throughout the day to maximize your gains. In other words, don't think solely about the post-workout window, but instead think about balancing protein across the day. This means consuming protein right after your workout is no more (or less) important than any other time.
Whey protein is low cost, fast digesting, and an easy way to get the protein you need all day long.
In a study done on dietary protein distribution, two groups of subjects were assigned different diets that contained the same total protein and energy intake. Group 1 ate a balanced protein intake across breakfast, lunch, and dinner, while group 2 ate a skewed menu with roughly 2/3 of the protein intake coming at dinner. Protein synthesis was reviewed in both groups 24 hours afterward, and it was 25 percent higher in the group with the balanced approach.
Another similar study seems to corroborate this need for a more balanced approach to protein intake while giving some guidelines as to how much protein you should be looking to take in on a daily basis. The researchers recommend a minimum of 0.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per meal for four meals in order to reach a minimum of 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.
While many people don't think of sleep as part of the post-workout equation, I would argue it may be the most important of all.
Chances are you're going to sleep at least once—if not twice—between training sessions. When you sleep, protein synthesis goes up, human growth hormone is released, and you give your body the rest it needs to recover and prep for that next session.
On the flip side, if you aren't getting adequate sleep—or enough deep sleep—it's going to impair your recovery and you won't reap all the benefits of that awesome training session.
The emphasis on sleep may require a shift in mindset. Think of it this way: Your workout isn't over until you've gotten a great night's sleep. It may sound kind of corny, but when you start to place as big an emphasis on sleep as you do your training, you'll be shocked at how good you feel during your sessions.
The Complete Recovery Process
While the original idea of the "anabolic window" may be dead, that doesn't make the post-workout period any less valuable. Start thinking of recovery in a more global fashion, using breathing, nutrition, and sleep as a three-pronged approach to maximize your success both in and out of the gym!