A couple months ago we discussed what and when to eat before exercise. It’s important to make sure you’re fuelling your body properly for the work it’s about to do, while also making sure you’re not bloated or uncomfortable during exercise. We also recently discussed the importance of staying hydrated and how to fuel your body mid-workout if you’re doing exercise that is really long, intense, or in extreme conditions. Today we’re going to wrap up this exercise nutrition mini-series on what you should eat post-exercise to make the most of your workout.
Post-workout nutrition is almost as important as the workout itself. Just like sleep, good nutrition is essential for recovery. Prioritizing post-workout nutrition will help you take advantage of the work you just did, help you feel good for the rest of the day, and help you recover faster for your next workout!
Here are some tips on how to fuel post-workout:
1. Rehydrate. Just like pre- and during-workout nutrition, it’s incredibly important to make sure you’re staying hydrated. You lose a lot of water during exercise through sweat. While you should be sipping water throughout your workout, it’s also important to rehydrate after your workout is over. Getting rehydrated will help keep your blood volume at optimal levels, which helps with circulation. Your brain also needs water to function properly, so if you’re dehydrated after your workout, you’ll have trouble focusing at work, or even just in a conversation. Once you’re done with your workout, drink some water. If you’ve had a really hard workout or in extreme heat, you can consider a drink that will replenish lost electrolytes such as coconut water or watermelon juice.
2. Refuel. There are two main nutrients you want to focus on immediately after exercising: carbohydrates and protein. Glycogen is the main fuel source during exercise, especially during endurance exercise, so you need to make sure you’re replenishing your muscles by consuming high quality carbohydrates. If you are doing another workout the same day, you might want to consume simple carbohydrates such as fruit, potatoes, or rice crackers. However, in general you should be consuming whole grains and complex carbohydrates that are slower to digest and that provide a lot of great nutrients in addition to quick energy, such as whole grain breads, brown rice, legumes, quinoa, or starchy vegetables. During an endurance workout, your body relies heavily on muscle glycogen stores, so your post-workout meal or snack should have a ratio of 4:1 carbohydrates to protein.
Replenishing your body with protein is crucial for initiating muscle and other soft-tissue repair, especially after strength training or intense exercise such as interval training. As little as 6-10 grams of protein accelerate protein synthesis in muscles following exercise, but try to get closer to 20 grams to optimally stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Protein intake immediately after prolonged exercise may also help offset immune depression that is often associated with strenuous training. If you’re doing strength training or high intensity training that has caused muscle tears, your post-workout snack should have a carbohydrate to protein ratio closer to 2:1.
3. Anti-inflammatory foods. Inflammation is an important process, however too much can be damaging. Exercise, particularly intense exercise, can lead to excess inflammation, so try to add anti-inflammatory foods into your diet in the hours after exercise. This includes spices such as turmeric, ginger or garlic, as well as omega-3 fatty acids and lots of vegetables.
So what does a post-workout meal look like?
1. If you live fairly close to your setting and will be able to consume a meal within an hour or so after exercise, this is a great option. Prioritize whole foods that are nutrient dense and not processed. Having whole grains with legumes or meat, and lots of vegetables will help you recover well and provide you with nutrients your body needs for overall health.
2. If you aren’t able to have a meal within an hour or so and/or feel like you need to replenish your body sooner, here are some example post-workout snack ideas:
- One of the easiest ways to refuel after a workout is to make a quick protein shake or smoothie. Include protein powder, some spinach, a banana, and some berries to boost your recovery. When choosing a protein powder, make sure you avoid any with sweeteners such as acesulfame, potassium, aspartame, and sucralose.
- Chia pudding: 3 tbsp chia seeds + 1 cup coconut milk + 2 tbsp raw honey + 1/2 tsp cinnamon (let sit overnight)
- 1/2 cup greek yogurt (plain) + 1/2 cup berries + 3 tbsp apple butter
- 2 hard boiled eggs + baked sweet potato wedges
- 1/2 can fish on rice crackers
- Cottage cheese
- Organic trail mix (unsulphured dried fruit + raw nuts/seeds)
Meal ideas from: Trionne Moore, BA RHN & Dr. Melissa Piercell, ND.
As with pre- and during-workout nutrition, post-workout nutrition is highly individual. So listen to your body and of course don’t eat something that you’re sensitive or allergic to.
Remember that proper nutrition isn’t just for elite athletes. If you fuel your body properly you will have more energy for playing with your kids or pursuing a passion, and will be able to tackle mental and physical challenges with more ease.
Greg Wells is the CEO and founder of Wells Performance, a global consulting firm on a mission to elevate how we live our lives at work and in life. He has worked with some of the highest-performing individuals on the planet, including Olympic and world champions and elite organizations including General Electric, BMO, Deloitte, KPMG, BMW, Audi, Sysco Foods, YPO and Air Canada. He is also committed to inspiring children and young adults, working with school boards and independent schools around the world.