You’ve just finished one of your best workouts. Do you know what—and when—you need to eat in order to maximize your results? We’ve got the answers right here.
With our earlier article focusing entirely on what to eat before exercising, we’d be remiss to not explain what you should be eating after your workout. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do today.
We’ve traveled across the internet and called upon many of the same experts who explained what, when, and why to eat before a workout. We’ve broken things down into a few different sections: first, a quick run-down of the science behind eating for recovery, then a word about fluids.
Finally, we get into the timing of your post workout eating, the types of foods that work the best, and some of the guiding principles to keep in mind. Let’s go!
WHAT’S THE POINT OF EATING AFTER EXERCISE?
It’s all about two things: recovery and storage. You need to recover the losses you undertook during the exercise, and your body is simply better at storing that recovery fuel right after your workout. Sure, you can eat later—but the benefits won’t be as good.
The sports medicine pros at ESPN explain it: “athletes need carbohydrate and fluid to replace glycogen and water losses during the exercise. The muscles store more glycogen immediately after exercise than they do later.” Simple, no?
We’ll talk about what to eat shortly, but generally you want to stick to carbs and protein. Why, exactly? Well says about.com —protein “provides the amino acids necessary to rebuild muscle tissue that is damaged during intense, prolonged exercise. It can also increase the absorption of water from the intestines and improve muscle hydration. The amino acids in protein can also stimulate the immune system, making you more resistant to colds and other infections.”
While you might find some advice that suggests carbs will serve you fine on their own, we noticed “one study found that athletes who refueled with carbohydrate and protein had 100 percent greater muscle glycogen stores than those who only ate carbohydrate. Insulin was also highest in those who consumed a carbohydrate and protein drink.” The magic ratio seems to be 4:1—for every four grams of carbs, you should have one gram of protein.
There was one more piece of advice that we found interesting. Apparently, eating post-workout is most important for those who workout nearly every day—and if you’re following a lot of the routines on the site right now, that’s you.
But if you’re the kind of person who only “works out 2 -3 times per week, you need not worry as much about post-exercise foods because your body will have enough time between workouts to recover,” says Columbia University. Notice that if you’re a lighter exerciser you need not worry as much—but if you want to follow the advice anyway—do it!
THE RE-HYDRATION ESSENTIALS.
There isn’t a ton of information on drinking water after exercise, and for good reason—it’s simply obligatory. That’s always your #1 priority, especially if you’ve gone for a run and haven’t had access to any water during it.
If you want to get really scientific about it, about.com recommends weighing yourself pre- and post-workout, and using the difference to replace fluid losses. For example, drink 20-24 fl oz of water for every 1 lb lost (that would be about 650mL per 0.45kg, for the Canadians among us).
Of course, most of you will just hit that water bottle with abandon, especially after following some of Zuzana’s more torture-like workouts ;) And that’s a very good thing.
WHEN TO EAT.
Do we need to eat right away? You might say no, not exactly—you probably want to get some fluids into you, towel off, get changed, take a quick shower—whatever your normal post-workout routine is.
But according to the New York Times Well Blog, those first 15 minutes are crucial: “the enzymes that help the body resynthesize muscle glycogen are really most active in that first 15 minutes. The longer we wait to eat something, the longer it takes to recover.”
If you can’t get to some proper food within those first 15 minutes, make sure you get something in your stomach within an hour, maximum, post-workout. You won’t get much increased storage at all if you wait longer than that.
WHAT TO EAT—WITH REAL SUGGESTIONS.
Ah, and now the crucial question, where we move away from talk of abstract carbohydrates and protein, and into actual suggestions for the kind of things you should scarf down post-workout.
ESPN suggests that sports drinks are better during a workout, but juices are better afterwards, when our body needs those carbs.
One crucial notion is digestion: if our bodies aren’t used to processing food after a workout, it might be difficult to digest solid foods right away, especially after some long, serious endurance work. About.com suggests the “4:1 combo of carbohydrate and protein [but] a drink may be easier to digest and make it easier to get the right ratio.”
Columbia University comes at us with some real food suggestions: “eat a few slices of turkey on a wheat bagel, or have a large glass of protein fortified milk. The most important nutritional strategy post workout, though, is fluid replacement. Drink water, juice, or carbohydrate rich sports drinks to replace what you sweat out.” All good advice, although be careful of sports drinks that function more as sugar-delivery systems than workout tools.
There’s a ton of marketing behind them, and 9 times out of 10, you’re better off drinking water and using that sports-drink money on a piece of real food (or, in this case, some real fruit juice). Make sure you don’t use your post-workout eating as a chance to load up on too much sugar, or things you might not eat if you hadn’t worked out. And avoid fats for the same reason you avoided them before you exercised: they’re too hard for your stomach to digest after all that work.
We also found a rock-solid recommendation from the Australian Government’s sports department. It’s definitely worth reading: “Many athletes fall into the trap of becoming reliant on sports food supplements, believing this to be the only and/or best way to meet their recovery goals.
This often results in athletes “doubling up” with their recovery, consuming a sports food supplement that meets certain recovery goals, e.g. liquid meal supplement, then following this up soon afterwards with a meal that would help them meet the same recovery goal, e.g. bowl of cereal with fresh fruit.
Unless constrained by poor availability or lack of time, athletes are best advised to favour real food/fluid options that allow them to meet recovery and other dietary goals simultaneously. This is especially important for athletes on a low energy budget.” Top advice.
THE FINAL BITS OF ADVICE.
Eating after exercise takes some time to get used to. Remember that if you’re working out just 2-3 times a week, it’s not as fundamentally important to concentrate on your post-workout recovery. But if you’re working out nearly every day—it’s essential.
And don’t think of your post-workout food as a proper meal: the portion sizes should never get that big. Says the Well Blog: “it’s a small amount – a fist-sized quantity. Low-fat chocolate milk works very well. The goal is not a post-exercise meal. It’s really a post-exercise appetizer to help the body recover as quickly as it can.” That’s a strange-but-perfect way to think about it: a post-exercise appetizer.
Keep these general principles in mind, eat clean and healthy above all, and you’ll be recovering from Zuzana’s workouts in no time. Well, maybe not in no time…