The perfect post-workout routine

5 steps to the most time-efficient recovery

After a tough workout, it can often feel like a race to the showers so you can get on with your day. Athletes know it's important to stretch, refuel, and get out of their sweaty clothes ASAP. But, skipping steps, doing them out of their (surprising) order, or trying to multitask sets you up for recovery failure and possibly even injury. In fact, trying to do two things at once increases the likelihood you’ll make a mistake performing one or both of the tasks, suggests a study of emergency room doctors published last year. In a gym setting, that could mean that if you're checking your email while lying on a mat in a spinal twist or trying to simultaneously foam roll and sip a protein shake, you're not maximizing your recovery time.

The bottom line: it pays to leave enough time to really focus on each individual post-workout task. Here are the five steps, in order, to an effective cool-down. Plus, time-saving tips.

1. Foam roll before your stretch.

“While rolling is also beneficial before a workout, it should be the first step afterwards, since it primes your muscles before stretching," says author and London-based trainer Jon Denoris. And you should still roll out even if you're in a rush since it cools down your core by redistributing blood flow away from your skin and back to other muscles and your heart, according to Los-Angeles-based trainer Michelle Lovitt. "Foam rollingis also important for posture, preventing injury, and helping with fascial release, which improves joint and muscle tendon health,” adds Denoris.

2. Then, work through an optimized stretching routine.

"If you worry that post-workout stretching is too much of a time suck, seek the help of a trainer to help you customize and streamline a routine," says David Harris, vice president of health and human performance at Equinox. Or, try this 10-minute stretching routine. Now that you know that you're making the most of your time, keep your phone in the locker and focus on your breath. It's a simple trick that helps reduce stress and actually deepens stretches, says New York City psychologist and certified trainer Damon Bayles, Psy.D.

3. If you have time, regenerate in the sauna.

It's not always practical time-wise, but if you have 10 minutes, a quick steam is well worth it. Studies have shown that steam will relax your muscles, lower blood pressure, and purge toxins from the body, helping you recover faster. Plus, frequent sauna use is also great for the brain: research has found it helps prevent dementia and Alzheimer's.

4. Make the most of your shower.

Though not the most relaxing, a cold shower can boost circulation after sitting in a steam, enhancing the recovery benefits even further. Alternatively, try taking a contrast shower where you alternate hot and cold water every other minute for 10 minutes, finishing with cold, suggests Alex Zimmerman, director of Equinox’s Tier X program. “This could cool your core temperature and increase recovery,” he says.

5. Save your meal or snack for last.

There's a common belief that you must eat immediately—or within 30 minutes—after finishing a workout, but Harris says you really have up to three hours. So, don't stress about this step until you've fully recovered and showered. "After a challenging workout, consuming a small protein snack of around 150 calories within a two to three hour window is optimal as it aids muscle repair," says Harris. What you eat, of course, depends on the type of workout you did and how long and hard you went.

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