Team USA is crushing it in Rio—but we all know that the path to gold starts long before they set foot on the Copacabana beaches. The grueling hours of workouts, practices, and training add up to a lot of valuable time and a lot of beating up on their bodies. And when it comes to serious training, recovery is just as important as those early-morning workouts.
You might be far from Olympic-level, but if you work out on the reg and train for races and events, you should consider yourself an athlete too. And if you train like one, you sure as hell should know how to recover like one.
That's why we caught up with the man in charge of recovery for Team USA: Ralph Reiff, executive director of St. Vincent Sport Performance and the head of the Athlete Recovery Center in Rio de Janeiro. Since he's the go-to guy for taking care of recovery for the best athletes in the country, we knew he'd have some tips for acing our workout recovery as well.
"I'm a big believer in creating and following a plan," says Reiff. "In this plan, you're thinking about moving fluids and waste products out of the muscles—that's what creates soreness and stiffness, and sort of bogs the muscles down the following days."
Here are his athlete-tested tips that even mere mortals can use to flush out their muscles and amp up the recovery process after a tough workout (no fancy equipment required).
Pro athletes might hop into an ice bath or a cyrotherapy chamber post-workout (like U.S. gymnast Laurie Hernandez, below), but there's no need to send your ice machine into overdrive or invest in a fancy device. Cooling your muscles after a grueling gym sesh is as simple as dropping your body temp. Step one is to estimate your body temperature. Running outside in 90-degree weather? You probably have a higher body temp than the normal 98.6 degrees. Doing slow, heavy weight training in an air-conditioned gym? It's probably closer to the baseline, says Reiff.
Step two is to cool your muscles down from that temperature. How? Cold water is the easiest way, says Reiff, but you can think outside the tub:
"If you're running in, say, central Indiana in heat and humidity, and you're next to a lake, just getting into a lake that's 70 degrees is going to cool your body some 30 degrees," he says. "It doesn't need to be ice-cold water; it just needs to be cooler than your body."
A cold shower can do the same thing. Start with a temp that's comfortable for you, then eventually cool it down, says Reiff. "And really focus on parts of your body that have a lot of blood flow—behind your legs, behind your knee, under your arms."
You might be familiar with compression as a way to reduce swelling in the event of injury, but it's key for workout recovery and avoiding DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) too. In this case, we're not talking about a basic ACE bandage.
"Compression can be done a number of ways, like massage or a number of products like NormaTec," says Reiff. BTW, NormaTec is a company that makes crazy compression sleeves that Olympians like Simone Biles, below, swear by for recovery. But starting at $1,500 a set, they're not exactly accessible for the average gym-goer.
Another option? Taping sore muscles and joints with kinesiology tape, which Reiff says can be used to help remove fluid from an area and only costs about $13 per roll.
"Let's say your calves are always tight or sore. You take a kinesiology tape like KT Tape, put a couple of strips on the calves, leave that on there for 12 hours, maybe 24 hours," says Reiff. "The tape is basically lifting layers of the skin, and allowing more freedom of fluid movement underneath, so it gets to the lymph nodes."
The best part about kinesiology tape is that you can put it on yourself. Don't want to put in that much effort? You can also try compression clothing, which may also help during and post-workout for soothing muscle inflammation.
You probably already know that you can't just exercise your way to a better body—it's about what goes inside your body too. Well, same goes for recovery.
"Hydration needs to be part of your recovery plan," he says. Skip the wine, beer, smoothie, etc. and grab a water first. Before defaulting to a high-calorie sports drink, Reiff says to reach for water. And if you're worried about electrolytes, you should know that everyone has a different electrolyte need. If you want to get fancy like an Olympic athlete, you can get a sweat analysis to find out your personal electrolyte prescription.
A good rule of thumb for those who don't want to get tested? "If you're going to consume five bottles of liquid throughout the day, make one an electrolyte and four water," says Reiff. That could be a Powerade or Gatorade, or one of Propel's unflavored electrolyte waters that replace the electrolytes lost in sweat, but don't come with the added sugar of other sports beverages.
An important thing to know about hydration? Timing is key. The optimal window of time to re-hydrate is the first 20 minutes after your workout. (You could also kill two birds with one stone like Sarah Robles, Rio bronze medalist in weight lifting, who drinks up a protein shake with water after her lifting sesh, below.)
Because the best time to re-hydrate is within 20 minutes post-workout, that's first priority—so swig your water before you go searching for snacks. When is comes to food, you have about a 60-minute window to feed your muscles.
"You worked out, you drove your car, and now you've got to put more fuel in your car so it works again tomorrow," says Reiff. "Don't wait three hours before you refuel, because the body's going to continue to metabolize and struggle following that workout, whether it's weightlifting, CrossFit, other high-intensity exercises or just a walk through Central Park."
The biggest push is for protein after a workout, Reiff says. Try these five dietitian-approved snacks that meet the guidelines of staying under 200 calories but also give your body enough fuel to refill its energy stores. (Or, if it's time for dinner, try a meal filled with healthy carbs, protein, and veggies like Rio steeplechase bronze medalist Emma Coburn, below.)