What you eat and drink after your workout—and when—can have a big impact on your next performance.
What do you eat first after a workout? Most athletes pay fairly good attention to what they eat before exercising, but afterwards for some, well, it’s almost as if ‘anything goes.”
Eating the right foods and beverages after your workout does more than just replenish your draining fuel supply. It helps your body get ready for your next round of activity, too. So, if you’re the type who works out regularly (and fairly hard), what and when to eat can make a big difference in your overall performance.
Keep in mind that refueling is geared primarily to those who are doing extended and strenuous bouts of exercise. If your usual activity is a daily walk or brief swim, your regular meals and snacks should take care of your nutritional needs, as long as your diet is healthy and well-balanced. But always stay on top of your fluid intake.
If you’re going the distance, what you eat after your workout is just as important as what you eat before you exercise. You’re not only helping your body recover from a bout of exercise, you’re also helping your body prepare for the next one.
When you exercise, sweating causes you to lose important body salts, like sodium and potassium, which need to be replaced. Many advanced athletes get in the habit of weighing themselves before and after exercise, in order to figure out how much fluid needs to be replaced. For each pound that you lose during activity, you should drink about 2-3 cups of liquid (or about one liter of fluid per kilo of weight loss).
Water is fine as a fluid replacement. Since you’ll be eating afterwards, you’ll need to pick up carbohydrate, sodium (and likely some potassium) from your foods. For those who don’t normally drink high-calorie liquids, this is the one time they might drink fruit juices. They provide fluid and carbohydrate and—depending on the fruit—potassium, too. Sports drinks are great since they provide not only fluid and carbs (some even have a bit of protein, which your body also needs), as well as the right balance of salts that have been lost through perspiration. And they usually have a mildly light, sweet taste that encourages you to drink more.
After your workout—especially if it’s really vigorous—your body has burned through a lot of carbohydrate. That’s the primary fuel that keeps your muscles working, and it’s important to refuel as soon as you can. The recommended amount is about 1.4 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight (or, 0.6 grams carbohydrate per pound of body weight). That’s about 100 grams of carbohydrate for someone weighing 165 pounds (75 kg). Healthy carbohydrates—fruits, whole grains and the natural carbs in dairy products—are a good place to start with post-workout snacking.
A bit of protein is important in recovery, too, since it helps to stimulate muscle repair and growth after you’ve been working out. It doesn’t take much—about 10 grams of protein or so will do. The ideal post-exercise meal or snack contains a combination of healthy carbs and protein. This is why athletes often turn to foods like a sandwich on whole grain bread, a dish of yogurt and fruit, a protein shake made with milk and fruit, or specially formulated recovery beverages.
When you exercise, your muscles become very sensitive to the nutrients that are available. And that sensitivity lasts for a limited amount of time. That’s why many athletes who want to optimize muscle recovery pay attention to this “metabolic window.” That’s a time period of about 30-45 minutes after exercise, during which you should try to eat your carbs and protein. During this critical time after you exercise, your muscle cells are more sensitive to the effects of insulin, a hormone that helps transport amino acids (from protein) into your cells. Insulin also works to drive carbohydrate into the cells, where it is stored in the form of glycogen. This stockpile of carbohydrate can then be used to provide energy to working muscles during the next bout of activity. Once you kick this fuel storage process into gear, you can keep it going for up to eight hours if you continue to provide your body with a shot of carbohydrate every two hours.