By Isabel Smith, MS, RD, CDN
Whether you ran 26.2 miles yesterday in the New York City marathon, went to the gym this morning for a spin class, or took a nice brisk walk around your neighborhood, it’s important to know that what and when you eat after a workout can have a huge effect on how you recover and how you feel the next time you hit the gym or the pavement. Learn how to refuel the right way the next time you hit the gym or the pavement.
There are a few majorly important aspects to post-exercise refueling including getting the right type of nutrients and at the right time.
Important Macronutrients to Eat Post-Exercise
Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates acts as instant fuel for muscles. When you exercise your muscles use free carbohydrates found in the blood as well as stored carbohydrates in the muscle tissue (called glycogen). After a hard or long workout, these stores can be depleted, so it’s key that you give your body a good source of carbohydrates to help promote replenishing the energy in the muscle. When it comes to replenishing muscle stores of carbohydrates it’s important to consider quickly-digesting carbohydrates that are lower in fiber like low fiber fruit- banana and mango, or even juices – as most (not all) of the fiber is removed.
Protein: Protein is also key to your post-exercise routine. Protein helps to repair muscle damage (which occurs naturally) that is done during a workout. The level of muscle damage depends on the type of exercise you’re doing; for example, a heavy weight session will cause more muscle damage than a longer bout of cardiovascular exercise — therefore, a smaller amount of protein paired with a higher carbohydrate load better suits a long run or bicycle ride.
When refueling with protein, it’s important to choose a complete source of protein as it can better enhance muscle repair and regrowth. For example, pea, sprouted rice or non-GMO whey are great sources of complete protein. Other examples of complete protein include greek yogurt or a 3 oz serving of wild caught/organic animal protein. For most people, a serving of about 25 grams of protein should suffice; it’s key to remember that some protein supplements may contain much more protein than your body can absorb (30+ grams) at once and may also cause gastrointestinal distress.
Electrolytes: Electrolytes are key for hydration, however people often over-consume water and under-consume electrolytes like sodium and potassium that are lost through sweat. The easiest way to keep up with electrolyte needs during a (long ) workout is to replenish electrolytes while exercising. It’s key to choose beverages that include both sodium and potassium such as coconut water with a pinch of salt added – coconut water is high in potassium and relatively low in sodium. Other options include water with some fresh beet/celery juice mixed in as beets are high in potassium and also contain some sodium and celery also contains some natural sodium; for the long-distance athlete, they may need to also add salt to this type of beverage or even consider an electrolyte-rich beverage designed for distance athletes.
Caffeine: The verdict is still out on this one, but some research is suggesting that caffeine may help with carbohydrate absorption after a long exercise bout; however, if you’re choosing to have a cup of coffee or tea try to limit it to one serving as over-consumption of caffeine can contribute to dehydration.
What to Eat Post-Exercise?
A more complex meal is appropriate here; one that includes both carbohydrates and protein.
When to Eat?
Eat as quickly as possible after workout. Optimal nutrient timing is within 30-60 minutes post exercise as the muscles are more likely to use the fuel more efficiently. If you’re afraid you won’t get home in that time to have something to eat, be prepared and bring something simple like a banana and a serving of coconut water with you when you go. If you’re exercising for 60+ minutes or taking a long run or bike ride you may want to consider another source of quickly-digestible carbohydrates either while you exercise or immediately following to replenish muscle glycogen; focus on getting protein in as soon as possible too.