The first 30 minutes following a sweat session are crucial. Here’s exactly what to do after a workout to fully recover.

By Molly Ritterbeck
Updated June 24, 2020
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In a perfect world, I'd end a workout feeling energized, my face glistening with a kiss of dewy sweat. Because my life isn't busy or stressful at all, I'd have plenty of time to cool down and zen out with a few yoga poses. Then I'd sip on a delicious, blended-to-order smoothie with just the right balance of protein and carbs, and waltz straight into an open shower stocked with all my favorite bath products so I'd never need to haul them along in my gym bag.

In reality, I immediately start stressing about all the stuff I have to do post-workout, so I fake-stretch on the mats for roughly 34 seconds and sprint to the locker room to nab a shower, where the wait is longer than at the DMV. So instead of using the generic bath products that make my hair and skin drier than the Sahara, I trek home in soggy clothes, eat nothing, and rush to get on with my day.

The perfect post-gym routine is easier said than done, and you're left wondering what to do after a workout. But how you handle those 30 minutes immediately following a sweat session is just as important as the workout. Since it's impossible to snack, stretch, and shower all at once, three top experts are weighing in on what to do after a workout—so you don't need to try to become a wellness superhero.

Exactly What to Do After a Workout, According to the Pros

0:00-10:00 Minutes: Stretch and Roll

Step 1 of your "what to do after a workout" agenda: Stretch while your muscles are still warm. "You need to stretch before the muscles have time to cool down, which takes 30-40 minutes," says Jordan D. Metzl, M.D., a doctor of sports medicine at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. "When the muscle cools, it contracts, and if you try to loosen it up, you can cause injury," he says.

Metzl recommends at least five minutes of stretching after a workout followed by five minutes of ironing out the kinks with a foam roller for proper recovery. "Ten minutes total is realistic for most people." Try the Trigger Point Therapy GRID Foam Roller (Buy It, $35, dickssportinggoods.com).

10:00-20:00 Minutes: Shower After Exercise and Change Your Clothes

Next up on the list of what to do after a workout: Ditch your soggy sports bra and tights. But should you shower after working out? If you're able to, it's a good idea to hop in. All that sweat from your workout will cause bacteria and yeast build up, so if you don't shower, you don't rinse those bugs off and may have an increased risk of irritation and infection, Deirdre Hooper, M.D., a dermatologist at Audubon Dermatology in New Orleans, LA, previously told Shape.

But all is not lost if you can't shower after exercise. "If you can't wash, get out of wet clothes as soon as you can," says Neal Schultz, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City and the founder of BeautyRx Skincare. "They trap moisture that encourages the growth of germs, bacteria, fungus, and yeast, which could invite a skin infection or cause breakouts," says Schultz. It won't make a difference whether you change within two, five, or 10 minutes, but don't wait longer than a half hour.

If for some reason you can't shower or you forget extra clothes, Schultz suggests dampening a towel with water and patting your body, then pat with a dry towel to soak up as much moisture as possible in a pinch. "Bacteria doesn't stand a chance of multiplying if you remove the moisture," he says. (In those cases, make sure you're wearing athleisure that's perfectly acceptable to wear to the office, too.)

If you're especially worried about breakouts, it's much more important to cleanse your face before exercise rather than after. Schultz suggests removing your makeup and washing your face or swiping with a cleansing wipe. Try tossing something that's easy to use on-the-go in your gym bag, like Sweat Skin-Balancing Cleansing Towelettes (Buy It, $7, anthropologie.com). (BTW, if you want to wear makeup during your workout, use these sweat-proof makeup products.)

20:00-30:00 minutes: Refuel for Recovery

Last—but certainly not least on your plan for what to do after a workout—make sure to take in some food within 30 minutes. "That will optimize recovery, help reduce muscle soreness, and help you perform better during your workout the following day," says Mitzi Dulan, R.D., author of The Pinterest Diet: How to Pin Your Way Thin. "The 30-minute window is the peak time for potential to start rebuilding and replenishing muscles," she says.

Pack a snack in your gym bag that aligns with your goals. Dulan suggests aiming for about 200 calories with about a 2:1 or 1:1 ratio of carbs to protein if you are trying to lose weight. If you're training for an event or wanting to maintain your current weight, aim for 300-400 calories with a ratio of 3:1 carbs to protein. Some options include two Setton Farms Pistachio Chewy Bites, an Organic Valley Organic Fuel High Protein Milk Shake, or GoodFoods' Cranberry Almond Chicken Salad.

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