December 19 2021
WHAT TO EAT
What to eat post-workout can be just as important as when to eat to get optimal recovery benefits. A mixture of healthy carbohydrates, fats, and protein is key to making the most of your optimal recovery window. Read on to learn more.
Few feelings can beat the post-workout high for athletes. You just came off an intense training session, your body and mind are tired, and you can almost feel your muscles adapting and getting stronger. Unfortunately (or fortunately for us foodies) that battle is only halfway done. What you eat post-workout can significantly help or hinder your body to repair itself from the stresses of physical training and improve fitness so you can keep reaching new milestones.
The main goal of post-workout nutrition is to give your body the nutrients it needs to recover quickly and retain the benefits of your workout. As discussed in our pre-workout guides and post-meal timing article, carbohydrates and proteins are going to be the main power players here.
During recovery, your body is tasked with adapting to the stresses and workload from your training session and responding by strengthening itself so the next time it experiences the same activities, it is better prepared to handle them with ease. Carbohydrates and important to replenish depleted glycogen (stored glucose molecules), and protein is important to repair damaged muscle tissues and help rebuild the muscle fibers thicker and stronger. Fluids and electrolytes are also going to be important to rehydrate the body and promote optimal recovery. Your recovery plan is especially important if you train consistently, as the body needs to fully recover and adapt in between sessions to prevent injury.
For your pre-workout meal, you’re going to want to focus on consuming complex carbohydrates. These carbohydrates take longer to digest, and the energy is released at a slower pace. This helps to sustain energy during long-races without getting fatigued.
A meal heavy in complex carbohydrates (3-5g per pound of body weight) the night before an endurance event is beneficial, and should include foods such as whole-grain pasta, rice, sweet potatoes, lentils, or quinoa with lean proteins and veggies.
This will raise the glycogen stores within your body and prepare you for endurance work. You’re then going to want to top off these glycogen stores 2-4 before your workout with whole-grain bread, pasta, sweet potatoes, broccoli, oatmeal, or beans (aim for 0.2-0.4g of carbs per pound of body weight).
CARBOHYDRATES: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
The key to topping off your glycogen stores.
Glycogen is the form that glucose molecules are stored in so that they can act as energy reserves. Glycogen has been linked to everything from ATP production to cellular communication and muscle preservation, so replenishing these stores after a workout is important to help the body recover quickly. To maximize this, easily digested carbohydrates eaten within a 2-hour window (preferably a 30-60 minute window) is ideal.
SOME OF OUR FAVORITE POST-WORKOUT CARBOHYDRATES ARE:
- Rice cakes
- Almond milk
- Chocolate milk
Opposite to what you typically want pre-workout (high fiber, slow-digesting carbohydrates that will give you lasting energy), it's best to get simple, fast-digesting carbohydrates directly after a workout. This is because your body is particularly insulin-sensitive after training, so eating foods that will increase insulin in the body will help facilitate muscle tissue growth. Insulin is an anabolic hormone, which means it helps to build rather than break down (catabolic). A great way to reap the full benefits of this hormone is to make a smoothie post-workout with fruits and yogurts or milk. Added bonus: a nice, cold smoothie tastes great after a tough gym session!
HOW MUCH SHOULD YOU EAT?
Shortly after exercise (30 minutes if you can but within a few hours at least), consuming at least 8-10grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight has been shown to stimulate glycogen re-synthesis and help the body recover.
PROTEIN: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
The key to muscle growth and recovery
The other important food category we’re going to cover here is protein. When you train hard, you create tears in the muscle from the stress. Protein helps repair these tears and thicken the muscle fibers, leading to increased strength and muscle mass.
STUDY #1: PROTEIN FOR MUSCLE RECOVERY AND GROWTH
Protein is well-known to be an important pre-workout fuel. However, it's just an important post-workout to help repair muscles and maintain (and improve!) fitness. In a randomized trial with 31 young men, 1/3 were given protein supplements before and after exercise, 1/3 were given a placebo, and 1/3 served as controls. After 21 weeks of high-intensity resistance training, the protein supplemented group had significantly higher muscle mass than either the placebo group or the control.
STUDY #2: THE BENEFIT OF TIMING
Another study gave 23 male bodybuilders either a supplement with protein, carbohydrate, and creatine directly before and after workouts, or the same supplement in the morning and evening at least 5 hours outside the workout window. Both groups progressively performed resistance training over ten weeks, however, the group given the supplement directly before and after training had a significant increase in lean muscle mass when compared to the other group.
Protein significantly helps to build and repair muscle, and it is important to include in your post-workout regime—especially for athletes who heavily strength train and focus on building muscles.
SOME OF OUR FAVORITE POST-WORKOUT PROTEIN SOURCES
- Greek yogurt
- Lean chicken breast
- Cottage chasse
- Protein powder (such as whey protein)
Protein powders are commonly used in the fitness community because they can easily be thrown into a post-workout drink or smoothie. This helps to get the nutrients to the body more quickly without having to prepare an entire meal. Whey protein is quickly digested and is a great way to promote muscle recovery and muscle building directly after your training session.
HOW MUCH SHOULD I EAT?
Similar to carbohydrates, consuming protein within as short of a time as possible after a workout is ideal. We recommend 0.2-0.5grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for maximal benefits.
WHAT ABOUT SUPPLEMENTS?
Supplements are another hot topic for athletes. Taking a supplement of essential amino acids within 3 hours of exercise may help to increase muscle protein synthesis and build muscles more quickly.
Glutamine, an important amino acid, is specifically beneficial for muscle recovery and growth. Glutamine helps with protein synthesis and repairing small tears in the muscle after a particularly strenuous workout. This helps to prevent prolonged muscle damage or injury to the tissue.
Get quick energy with protein post-workout for maximum benefit.
At the end of the day, we recommend a post-workout smoothie or shake to jam pack in those easily digestible carbohydrates and protein. Mix your favorite protein powder with berries, a banana, and some almond milk, and enjoy that post-workout glow. Consuming enough protein, carbohydrates, and fats in your meals throughout your days and weeks is also important for overall health and physical fitness, but the timing of these meals outside of the short post-workout window is less important. So if you can, make it a routine to head to the blender or grab a pre-made simple meal out of your fridge at soon as you get home!
Josie Burridge: Josie has always had a passion for food and cooking. From a young age, she was always in the kitchen mixing up new recipes and making her family try her way-too-elaborate meals. She was a competitive gymnast for 12 years, which inspired her to pursue her bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering, emphasizing her studies on biochemistry and biomechanics. She is currently a graduate student studying nutritional epidemiology, and loves combining her knowledge of science with her love of food to provide athletes with high-quality, up-to-date nutritional information and research.