You know it’s important to fuel up properly before a workout, but it’s actually equally important to re-fuel after you exercise. The right post-workout nosh makes all the difference in how your body recovers, builds strength, and boosts cardiovascular health. If you’re like a lot of people, you probably have a powerful hunger built up by the time you step out of the gym, but it’s important not to blow all your good work on a huge junk food meal. Stay with us for advice on the best nutrients, foods, and portions to get the best out of your post-exercise meals.
How the Body is Affected by Exercise
To help provide a foundation for post-exercise meal planning, it is useful to understand what happens in your body when you work out. During physical exertion, your muscles use up stored glycogen as power. Some of your muscle proteins also get broken down – the rebuilding process is actually what strengthens and builds your muscles. In order to effectively rebuild muscle proteins and replenish glycogen stores, you’ll need to take in both carbohydrates and protein.
Eat Protein to Repair and Build Muscle
Physical exertion always triggers the breakdown of muscle protein, but the rate at which this occurs is related to the type and intensity of exercise. You actually need this to happen in order to build muscle, but if you don’t consume any protein after your workouts, your body lacks the amino acids it needs to repair and rebuild. So you can do a ton of strength training but still lose muscle mass if you disregard this rule on a regular basis.
Recommended amount: Try to consume 0.14-0.23 grams of protein per pound of body weight as soon as you can after exercise. Research suggests that 20-40 grams of protein is the ideal amount to maximize your body’s muscle building ability.
Smart protein choices: Eggs, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, salmon, chicken, tuna, protein bar or powder
Eat Carbs for Recovery
Glycogen is fuel made by your body from glucose and it is stored in your muscles. Glucose is derived from carbohydrates, so eating carbs after exercise helps to replenish expended glycogen. The amount of glycogen you burn during exercise depends a lot on the activity – competing in a triathlon obviously takes more than 30 minutes on the treadmill. Take this into consideration when preparing your post-workout meal, but don’t skip carbs because you’re trying to lose weight. Your body needs them to work.
Recommended amount: General guidelines are 0.5–0.7 grams of carbs per pound of body weight. Try to eat this within 30 minutes for peak glycogen resynthesis. Also note that insulin secretion, necessary for glycogen synthesis, occurs more smoothly when carbs and protein are eaten together. A good rule of thumb is to eat carbs and protein in a 3:1 ratio.
Smart carb choices: Quinoa, rice, rice cakes, sweet potato, white potato, pasta, fruit, chocolate milk, whole wheat toast
Don’t Worry About Fat
Fat has the reputation for being uniformly bad, especially when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight. But more and more evidence is pointing to sugar as the worst culprit. Some types of fat are actually quite necessary for proper digestion. Eating fat along with your carbs and protein after a workout will slow down digestion, but not inhibit the absorption of nutrients. That can be helpful to ensure a slow-burning source of energy that keeps you going strong until your next meal – important because your body will also be hard at work rebuilding muscle during that time. While we don’t recommend purposely loading up on fat, you don’t have to worry that adding some richness to your meal will derail your fitness goals.
Smart fat choices: Avocado, nuts, nut butters, olive oil, full fat dairy, dark chocolate, butter (not margarine)
Hydration is Vital
No matter what you eat, you must drink water before, during, and after a workout. Staying properly hydrated helps create an optimal environment for your body to perform its important work during exercise and the recovery phase. Dehydration is bad in any scenario, but during exercise you lose fluid and electrolytes through sweat that must be replaced. In most cases, regular water is all you need, but extreme workouts may call for an electrolyte drink. Just be aware that many of them are jam packed with sugar, and a little goes a long way.
Examples of Good Post-Workout Meals
We’ve talked about the main categories of nutrients that are important after a workout: carbs, protein, and some fat. Following are examples of how to put those ingredients together into a tasty and restorative meal.
- Scrambled eggs and avocado on whole wheat toast
- Salmon and baked sweet potato fries
- Tuna salad, lettuce, tomato, and sprouts on whole grain bread
- Cheese plate with crackers and apple slices
- Oatmeal with protein powder mixed in, fruit and nuts of your choice on top
- Quinoa with diced chicken breast, avocado, and just a sprinkle of chopped bacon
- Greek yogurt parfait loaded with berries and granola
- Grilled chicken with roasted vegetables
- Spinach salad topped with a little bit of steak, blue cheese crumbles, and walnuts; dressed with raspberry vinaigrette
Timing is Everything
Research shows that your body’s ability to rebuild glycogen and protein is enhanced after exercise, probably because this is a vital part of recovery. So it’s important to give your body what it’s looking for as soon as you can after a workout session. Many experts recommend having that meal within 45 minutes, but if you can’t do it by then, don’t wait more than two hours. If you wait longer, your body’s ability for glycogen synthesis drops by as much as 50%.
You exercise because you know it is good for your body. And sure, some people love it, but many others make the commitment because they like the results, not necessarily the process. Whatever the case for you, know that you can extend the benefits of your exercise routine by eating properly afterwards. Luckily this doesn’t mean depriving yourself of something tasty and filling. Getting the optimal ratio of carbs, protein, and fat while limiting the amount of added sugar is all you need to do.