So, you’ve just had a hard workout. You’re tired, hungry and you probably just want to eat the first thing you see, right? Well, not so fast – this is the critical moment that can have the greatest impact on your long term performance and results: post-workout nutrition. Everyone wants to know what’s the best thing to eat after a workout, but to answer this you need to determine the resulting energy and nutrient deficiency that is specific to the type of exercise you’re doing. For example, refueling after a bout of long distance running will be different than refueling from a strength training session.
There is also a degree of individuality (goals, weight, age, etc.) that must be considered as well. The intent of this article isn’t to break down each of these factors but rather to provide some general insight and some practical solutions for optimal workout recovery.
So why does it matter what you eat after exercise?
Because the main goals of post workout nutrition are:
- To recharge your body’s depleted energy stores so that you’re fully recovered before the next workout; and
- To maximize the training effect by providing your body with the raw materials needed to synthesize contractile proteins that increase muscular strength and size or mitochondrial proteins to boost endurance.
The more often you can exercise, while maintaining the greatest degree of intensity, will help you in obtaining the best results. Taking a haphazard approach to post workout meals can really diminish the effectiveness of your training. So, the first step in establishing some order here is ensuring adequate hydration and restoring your electrolyte balance after a hard workout.
How much should I drink after exercise?
Because a little dehydration occurs in most forms of exercise, rehydration is very important. The best way to avoid dehydration is by staying hydrated throughout your workout. Start by making sure you drink plenty of fluid prior to and during the activity.
It is difficult to set universal water intake recommendations for everyone. For general-fitness-goers, engaging in moderate aerobic activity or strength training for under an hour, it’s unlikely they will experience significant fluid loss unless they were dehydrated to begin with.
Dehydration is more of issue for those who participate in prolonged endurance activities. If you fall in this category, you need to assess your sweat loss volume by comparing your pre/post-exercise bodyweight. This should be done without clothes on. It’s obviously not very convenient for most people to do often, but if you do it once or twice to determine the amount you need, you’ll know what you need every time. From there it’s recommended that you consume about 2/3 L of fluids for every pound lost.
To balance your electrolytes and enhance rehydration, an electrolyte enhanced sports drink, fruit juice or milk are all excellent choices. Just be sure that the carbohydrate (sugar) concentration does not exceed 3-6%. Higher concentrations may delay digestion time. General-fitness-goers can get by with consuming only water or a diluted (3% concentration) sports drink since muscular depletion is only a factor in long duration and high intensity exercise.
Make sure to also monitor your hydration status in the hours following exercise. If you continue to produce dark yellow, strong-smelling urine , notice a decrease in your urination frequency or maintain a high resting heart rate – you’re probably experiencing dehydration and you need to rehydrate.
What the best thing to eat after a workout?
Repeated bouts of strenuous exercise can seriously deplete your glycogen stores. High volume strength training and long distance endurance are activities that are known deplete glycogen stores. Moderately hard workouts are unlikely to cause such a depletion unless they are done too often, impairing the recovery process. So most regular gym-goers won’t need to be as concerned with optimal post-exercise nutritional strategies unless they’ve been dieting for a while or exercise everyday.
The process of replenishing these stores starts with adequate carbohydrate intake following a hard workout. The type and timing of the carbohydrate intake is critical to the process. Within the first 2 hours (some may argue 30 mins) of your workout you are presented with a “nutritional window” in which the body may hasten glycogen repletion. This likely results from an increased blood flow to muscles and an increased sensitivity of the cells to the effects of insulin. In other words, your body becomes like a “nutrient sponge” during this window which results is a cascade of wonderful recovery boosting effects. Here’s what else you might expect:
- 600% increase in glucose uptake
- 50% increase in glycogen storage
- 150% increase in amino acid uptake
- 300% increase in protein synthesis
Delaying carbohydrate intake by even 2 hours can decrease total glycogen replenishment by 66% and the opportunity for accelerated recovery is lost. This not good if you want to exercise often and with a reasonable intensity. That is why consuming 1.5g of carbohydrates per kg of body weight is recommended to optimize replenishment. Additional meals like this, consumed every 2 hours, may be needed if the workout was particularly draining.
Protein, in combination with carbohydrates, has also been shown to magnify the recovery enhancement. Experts recommend 0.3g of protein per kilogram of body weight. Sports drinks and bars that contain a carb-to-protein ratio of between 2.5-to-1 and 4-to-1 seem to work best. A protein/fruit smoothie or any liquid based fluid that meets the nutrient criteria fit the bill perfectly. They are convenient, well tolerated by the stomach, fast acting and easy to control.
But I don’t care about performance, I just want to lose weight.
It’s true that it doesn’t make much sense to chug down a high calorie beverage when your goal is to establish a caloric deficit. This would be the exception since high performance is secondary and it is generally understood that performance will decline anyway, the longer the deficit is maintained. That said, it is still recommended that you consume a small amount of protein and carbohydrate post workout to help prevent overeating later in the day.
So there you have it. Sugar, salt (electrolytes), protein and fluid, that’s it! Make sure it’s in the right ratio and portion for you, and consumed within the 2 hour post workout window. From there you can consume a meal consisting of solid, nutrient dense foods. Post workout nutrition can certainly be made more complicated with the use of dietary supplements and with certain training goals. But these recommendations will give you the foundation to build from and help you get a little more out of your hard work in the gym or on the field.