Post-Workout Nutrition for Recovery
By Caroline Daniel
You’ve just finished your workout – you’re sweating, tired, and already feeling a bit of soreness. So it’s time to go lay down on the couch for the rest of the day, right?
A pivotal part of maximizing gains from a workout (both cardiovascular and strength-related) actually takes place after the workout is completed. But don’t fear—this step does not involve more raising your heart rate. It involves something much more enjoyable—food!
As you work out, your muscles use up their glycogen stores as well as some proteins for fuel—to maximize their transport of oxygen throughout your body. Upon completing your prescribed workout, your body attempts to rebuild damaged muscle proteins and broken-down glycogen stores. In this window of time immediately post-workout, your body’s ability to synthesize glycogen and protein is actually enhanced.
By eating the right nutrients post-workout, you can help your body synthesize these proteins and glycogen faster and more efficiently in order to increase muscle growth, and restore glycogen stores. Ultimately, this enhances the recovery process so that you are primed and ready for the next day’s workout.
What foods should I eat?
Three major macronutrients make up the foods we eat—carbs, fats, and proteins. Post-workout, you should focus on ingesting carbs and proteins. While you should not shy away from fat after a workout, consuming foods with large amounts of this macronutrient can slow down the digestion and absorption of other nutrients.
Proteins are vital to a post-workout meal/snack because they provide the body with the amino acids necessary to rebuild new proteins and muscle tissue. As shown through various studies, 20-40 grams of protein post-workout appear to maximize the body’s ability to recover. These numbers of partially dependent on body weight—the more you weigh, the more protein you should consume post-workout to adequately re-fuel your muscles.
Consuming carbohydrates after exercise helps replenish the glycogen stores that were lost during the workout. More endurance-related sports (running, swimming, cycling, etc.) require a higher consumption of carbs.
Consuming both carbs and protein after exercise can stimulate insulin secretion, which increases the efficiency of glycogen synthesis. Studies have shown that consuming a meal or snack with approximately a 3:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio can maximize both glycogen and protein synthesis. For example—try consuming a snack with 20 grams of protein and around 60 grams of carbohydrates. But do not get caught up in the exact numbers—even if it’s not exactly 3:1, it can still help you re-fuel!
Timing is Everything!
As mentioned earlier, your body’s ability to rebuild glycogen and protein is enhanced after you complete a workout—but this window of enhanced activity doesn’t last forever!
For this reason, experts recommend that you consume your post-workout meal within 45 minutes of completing the workout if possible. If 45 minutes is not possible, definitely try to get the meal in within 2 hours—studies have shown that rates of glycogen synthesis greatly decrease outside of this time period.
If you ate a meal shortly before your workout, you will have better results past the 45-minute point than you would if you did not consume a pre-workout meal.
Some Snack Recommendations for When you Don’t Have Time for a Meal Post-Workout:
- Trail Mix: Nearly any type will do, but some of my personal favorites can be found at your friendly neighborhood Trader Joe’s. For some reason, all of their trail mixes seem to have a superior taste (in my opinion).
- Protein Bars: It’s basic, but they usually taste good and come in a wide variety of flavors. Here’s one of my personal favorites (that just so happens to have a great carb to protein ratio):
- Protein Shake/Smoothie: There are countless recipes out there to help you make the perfect shake/smoothie at home. But for the days that you’re on the go after your workout, one of my favorite store-bought shakes comes from Gatorade. In my opinion, you can taste the protein less in these shakes than a lot of others.
Caroline Daniel is a Student-Athlete running Cross Country and Track at Belmont University while Majoring in Exercise Physiology. She is currently completing her internship at Personal Best Fitness