Refuel After Your Workout | Post Workout Nutrition
Working out with no specific plan in mind is always a better idea than not exercising at all. No matter how much or little you work out or how much attention you focus on nutrition, hydration, and sleep, a small amount of poorly supported exercise is better than none. But if you’re serious about getting results and you want to make the most of the time and investment you put into your workout sessions, you’ll need to pay attention to the habits you build and the moves you make both inside and outside of the gym.
The food you eat before, during, and after your workout session can have a huge impact on the progress of your training. If you make great post workout nutrition choices, you’ll get better and faster results and your muscle recovery will happen in a healthier and more efficient way. A strong recovery can mean better preparation for your next workout, which means you’ll get more out of the workout after that, and so on. So start an upward spiral by choosing your post workout meals with recovery in mind.
Post Workout Nutrition: Eating for Recovery
During an intense workout, especially an endurance-focused workout that lasts longer than two hours, our muscles draw energy from shifting sources. For a while, our movements are fueled by simple carbohydrates stored in the tissue of our muscles. When these carbohydrates reserves are depleted, we start mobilizing glycogen stored in the liver and breaking these molecules down into carbohydrates that our muscles can use to keep working. As we burn through all of our carbohydrate sources, including those within the muscle tissue and those mobilized and delivered from elsewhere in the body, our muscle fibers are simultaneously undergoing a certain amount of wear and tear.
So after the workout ends, we need to do two things: rebuild our carbohydrate stores in order to keep functioning, and rebuild muscle tissues that have sustained minute tearing and other minor damage. Taxed, weary muscle tissue thrives on amino acids (the building blocks of the complex molecules we call proteins), so a post workout meal should provide plenty of protein to heal and support muscle recovery.
But even more important than protein, our post workout body needs quickly digestible carbohydrates. For our cells and tissues to continue functioning-- all of our cells, not just muscle tissue-- we need a quick source of reliable, versatile, and easily burnable fuel. Nutrients (like vitamins and calcium) are important, but right after an intense workout, nutrients are not quite as important as pure energy.
So What Should We Eat Right After an Intense Workout?
Muscle recovery and carbohydrate restoration can both be accommodated by post workout food choices, but only if the right foods are eaten within about one hour. This is often called the “recovery window”, and for a variety of reasons, about 60 minutes after a workout, this window seems to close. At that point, the body returns to its normal rhythms and any excess carbohydrates we take in are not burned but are stored as glycogen or body fat.
But before the one hour window passes, any quick-burning carbohydrates we take in contribute directly to the recovery process, and the proteins we eat directly impact the healing of overtaxed muscle tissue.
So right after our workout ends, it’s a good idea to reach for a meal that offers plenty of unprocessed, easily burnable carbohydrates. Catch your breath, and then have an English muffin. Put a little peanut butter on the muffin to add necessary protein. An egg sandwich can offer the same mix of lean protein and carbs. Cooked pasta, rice, and oatmeal are also excellent choices.
Protein is important during the recovery window, but be careful not to tip the balance toward protein and away from carbs, or you’ll miss out on essential energy absorption. Too much protein can also slow the process of rehydration, which is another vital aspect of recovery. In other words, a little peanut butter on a muffin is perfect, but don’t skip the muffin altogether and chow down on a steak. Think carbs first, then protein, then vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. Make sure the carbs you reach for are minimally processed and made from whole grains, and avoid simple sugars like cookies and cakes.
Fats should take a place at the very bottom of the list. Even though some fats and oils are essential to overall nutrition and optimal body function, fats contribute very little to the post recovery process and can actually slow and compromise the absorption of vital carbohydrate energy sources.
Carbohydrates for Fast Recovery: How Much?
As a general rule, your post workout carb intake should equal about one half gram of carbs per pound of body weight. So if you weigh 150 pounds, about 75 grams of healthy carbs consumed within the recovery window should be enough to repair damaged muscle tissue and promote rapid recovery of lost energy. This amounts to about one cup of cooked pasta. The carbs in your cup of pasta (or your bowl of oatmeal or English muffin) will replenish your glycogen reserves and mobilize insulin, the hormone responsible for delivering carbohydrates and amino acids to needy muscle cells.
If your workout falls on the lighter side, post workout carbohydrate intake isn’t quite as important, since you’re likely to take in plenty of carbohydrate energy from the regular meals you’ll be eating throughout the day. And no matter how intense your workout, more than a half gram of carbs per pound of body weight will probably be converted into stored energy or fat, so there’s no need to overload. But if you stay within the recommended amount, add a little bit of protein, avoid fats altogether, and get your recovery meal down the hatch within one hour, you’ll definitely feel a difference in your energy levels. You’ll also be better prepared for your next intense workout session whenever it happens.