Long and intense workouts are hard on your body. They deplete your body of nutrients and break down skeletal muscle and other body tissues. Following these workouts with a post workout meal or snack within 60 minutes helps to maximize recovery, making sure you get the most out of your workout and are better prepared for the next. What counts as long or intense? Generally workouts that include more than 90 minutes of moderate intensity or 45 minutes of high intensity activity, or any workout you went into in a fasted state. Exercise can suppress hunger, but that does not mean your body doesn’t need food at that time. The primary nutrients you need after a workout are water, electrolytes, carbohydrate, and protein. Liquids can be easier to tolerate after a workout. Liquids are also digested more quickly, which can be advantageous if you’re refueling between workouts.
Water and Electrolytes
Replacing fluid losses is important after every workout, year round. In the heat you lose water and electrolytes through sweat, and when it’s cold your body uses water to heat and humidify cold, dry air. Every pound lost during exercise equates to 16 to 24 ounces needed to rehydrate. The higher end of this range takes into account the water you will continue to lose after your workout is over.
Electrolyte balance keeps nerves and muscles functioning properly and helps to maintain bone and cardiovascular health. Electrolytes also play a role in improving fluid absorption and increasing thirst, which improves overall hydration. Sodium is the most abundant electrolyte lost in sweat, with potassium, magnesium, and calcium being lost in smaller amounts. Electrolyte drinks are one good replenishment option, and fruits and vegetables also contain a significant amount of water and are good sources of vitamins, minerals, electrolytes, and countless other micronutrients you won’t get in a commercial product. Adding salt to food is another way to replenish electrolytes.
Carbohydrate, Protein, and Fat
Carbohydrates are the primary energy source for your muscles and brain. You store a small amount of carbohydrate as glycogen in your muscles and liver, and these stores can be depleted after a hard workout. The carbohydrates you take in after a workout are used to replenish these stores and to provide energy for the repair process. Following a workout with carbohydrate intake is especially important when you have less than 24 hours between workouts, or multiple workouts in one day. 1-1.5 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight will optimize glycogen synthesis.
Protein provides the building blocks needed to build and repair muscle and other body tissues that are broken down during exercise. Complete proteins provide all the essential amino acids- the ones your body can’t make on its own. Whey protein has the highest biological value of any protein source- a term that describes how well the protein in a food is utilized to build muscle mass. This makes it a great option for after a workout, but it is certainly not the only source of complete protein. For most people 20-25 grams of protein is ideal for maximizing muscle protein synthesis.
There is less research on fat in relation to recovery. Fat is often avoided after a workout because it slows down digestion, however some studies have shown that despite slowing digestion, fat does not slow the rate of glycogen restoration. One study showed that the effect of whole milk on muscle protein synthesis was almost three times greater than that of skim milk after a workout. Whether or not you decide to include fat in your post workout meal may come down to personal preference and how it makes you feel.
There is no one best post workout meal. Protein shakes are popular and can be convenient, but they are far from being the only great way to refuel after a workout. Choose foods you like, that you digest well, and that make you feel good and energized. It can take some experimentation to determine what works best for you.
Get the most out of your workout by refueling with what you need, when you need it. Here are some post workout meal ideas to try:
- Chicken noodle soup
- This provides all the essential nutrients needed after a workout- fluids, electrolytes, carbohydrates and protein.
- Beef stick and a piece of fruit
- This is a backpack friendly option
- 2-3 ounces of meat/eggs/tofu wrapped in a tortilla with veggies and hummus
- This is a way to work some additional veggies into your day
- PB&J sandwich
- Turkey sandwich with lettuce and tomato
- Tuna and crackers
- Rice cakes with cheese
- Oatmeal with peanut butter and dairy or soy milk
- Smoothie with fruit, yogurt, and whey protein
- Whey protein provides all the essential amino acids you need for recovery
- Chicken and rice
- Complex carbohydrates paired with protein provide sustained energy
- Cottage cheese and fruit
- Baked sweet potato topped with with chili and plain Greek yogurt
- Bean and cheese burrito with salsa
- Add in any veggies you like here for an additional nutritional boost
- Chocolate milk
- Chocolate milk has earned a reputation for being the perfect post workout recovery drink. It provides all of the essential nutrients needed for recovery.
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