Any fitness enthusiast will tell you that what you eat and drink before, during and after a workout plays a key role in how your body performs, recovers and prepares for the next bout of exercise. And whether you’re hitting it hard in the gym, making an effort to add miles to your weekly run, or taking your bike on a long-distance tour, paying attention to when you feed and hydrate your body can be just as important as the workout itself.
Post-workout nutrition has three specific purposes: replenish glycogen, decrease protein breakdown and increase protein synthesis. If done correctly, a good post-workout nutrition protocol can help improve recovery, lead to less muscle soreness, increase the body’s ability to build muscle and improve immune function.
If you’ve been around the fitness industry for any length to time, you’re bound to have heard people talking about the “window of opportunity.” What they are referring to is a “window” of time, when your muscles are primed and ready to accept nutrients that stimulate muscle repair, muscle growth, and muscle strength. Sounds serious, right? Well, it really does matter, especially if you want to recover and be ready for your next bout of exercise.
According to Cynthia Sass, RD, CSSD, sports nutritionist and author of Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches With Pulses-The New Superfood, “Exercise puts stress on your muscles, joints, and bones, and your body uses up nutrients during workouts; so post-workout foods help to put back what you’ve lost, and provide the raw materials needed for repair and healing,” she says. “In fact, it’s the recovery from exercise that really allows you to see results in terms of building strength, endurance, and lean muscle tissue,” adds Sass.
Not recovering properly can leave you weaker as you go into your next workout and up your risk of injury. The minute you end your workout, this window opens. And while the research is varied, some experts say it’s the first 30 minutes that are the most critical, while others claim this window can last up to two hours post-workout. It is during this time that feeding your body the proper nutrients, will help it recover and grow.
Experts recommend that as soon as possible post workout, get carbs and protein into your body. “Ideally, you want to have a recovery meal, snack, or beverage within one hour of the end of the workout,” says Sass. “That’s when your body is primed to use the raw materials from food for repair and healing,” she adds.
Focus on quality carbohydrates to refuel your glycogen stores in preparation for your next workout while taking in protein to help repair and rebuild your muscles. As far as what to eat based on the activity performed, Sass says that different nutrients are not needed for different workouts, rather, different amounts (depending on the length and intensity of the workout) is what matters. “Longer, more intense workouts put more wear and tear on the body, so it makes sense that larger portions are needed to support recovery compared to shorter, less intense training,” she explains.
Sass also says how much you eat after a workout depends on a lot of factors such as: gender, age, height, the length, and intensity of the workout. “But in general, it’s important for more intense workouts to include vegetables, lean protein, good fat, healthy carbs, and natural seasonings, like fresh or dried herbs and spices,” she explains.
And while the options for post-workout meals is endless, Sass has a few favorites she recommends to clients. For people who need a “meal on the go,” a smoothie made with kale, pea protein powder, avocado, fruit, and fresh ginger root, is a great option. And if you’re in the mood for something warm, Sass loves making a stir-fry made with a variety of veggies, organic chicken, sliced almonds, citrus fruit, black rice, ginger, garlic, and chili pepper. But if cold and crisp is what you’re craving, you might want to try a garden salad topped with salmon, avocado, extra virgin olive-oil based vinaigrette made with balsamic and herbs, and white beans, lentils, or chickpeas.
Image: Stacy Spensley, CC-BY
Sara Lindberg is a freelance writer specializing in health, fitness, and wellness.