We’ve all been there—you step off the treadmill or power through a particularly tough training session and you feel invincible! Perhaps you even feel like you deserve a prize for all that hard work: An edible one. With extra cheese.
You put a lot of effort into your workouts, always looking to perform better and reach your goals.
Chances are you’ve given more thought to your pre-workout meal than your post-workout meal.
But consuming the right nutrients after you exercise is just as important as what you eat before.
Here is a detailed guide to optimal nutrition after workouts.
Eating After a Workout Is Important
To understand how the right foods can help you after exercise, it’s important to understand how your body is affected by physical activity.
When you’re working out, your muscles use up their glycogen stores for fuel. This results in your muscles being partially depleted of glycogen. Some of the proteins in your muscles also get broken down and damaged.
After your workout, your body tries to rebuild its glycogen stores and repair and regrow those muscle proteins.
Eating the right nutrients soon after you exercise can help your body get this done faster. It is particularly important to eat carbs and protein after your workout.
Doing this helps your body:
* Decrease muscle protein breakdown.
* Increase muscle protein synthesis (growth).
* Restore glycogen stores.
* Enhance recovery.
Getting in the right nutrients after exercise can help you rebuild your muscle proteins and glycogen stores. It also helps stimulate growth of new muscle.
Protein, Carbs and Fat
As explained above, exercise triggers the breakdown of muscle protein.
The rate at which this happens depends on the exercise and your level of training, but even well-trained athletes experience muscle protein breakdown.
Consuming an adequate amount of protein after a workout gives your body the amino acids it needs to repair and rebuild these proteins. It also gives you the building blocks required to build new muscle tissue.
It’s recommended that you consume 0.14–0.23 grams of protein per pound of body weight (0.3–0.5 grams/kg) very soon after a workout.
Studies have shown that ingesting 20–40 grams of protein seems to maximize the body’s ability to recover after exercise.
Carbs Help With Recovery
Your body’s glycogen stores are used as fuel during exercise, and consuming carbs after your workout helps replenish them.
The rate at which your glycogen stores are used depends on the activity. For example, endurance sports cause your body to use more glycogen than resistance training.
For this reason, if you participate in endurance sports (running, swimming, etc.), you might need to consume more carbs than a bodybuilder.
Consuming 0.5–0.7 grams of carbs per pound (1.1–1.5 grams/kg) of body weight within 30 minutes after training results in proper glycogen resynthesis.
Furthermore, insulin secretion, which promotes glycogen synthesis, is better stimulated when carbs and protein are consumed at the same time.
Therefore, consuming both carbs and protein after exercise can maximize protein and glycogen synthesis.
Try consuming the two in a ratio of 3:1 (carbs to protein). For example, 40 grams of protein and 120 grams of carb.
Eating plenty of carbs to rebuild glycogen stores is most important for people who exercise often, such as twice in the same day. If you have 1 or 2 days to rest between workouts then this becomes less important.
Fat Is Not That Bad
Many people think that eating fat after a workout slows down digestion and inhibits the absorption of nutrients.
While fat might slow down the absorption of your post-workout meal, it will not reduce its benefits.
For example, a study showed that whole milk was more effective at promoting muscle growth after a workout than skim milk.
Moreover, another study showed that even when ingesting a high-fat meal (45% energy from fat) after working out, muscle glycogen synthesis was not affected.
It might be a good idea to limit the amount of fat you eat after exercise, but having some fat in your post-workout meal will not affect your recovery.
A post-workout meal with both protein and carbs will enhance glycogen storage and muscle protein synthesis. Consuming a ratio of 3:1 (carbs to protein) is a practical way to achieve this.
The Timing of Your Post-Workout Meal Matters
Your body’s ability to rebuild glycogen and protein is enhanced after you exercise.
For this reason, it’s recommended that you consume a combination of carbs and protein as soon as possible after exercising.
Although the timing does not need to be exact, many experts recommend eating your post-workout meal within 45 minutes.
In fact, it’s believed that the delay of carb consumption by as little as two hours after a workout may lead to as much as 50% lower rates of glycogen synthesis.
However, if you consumed a meal before exercising, it’s likely that the benefits from that meal still apply after training.
Eat your post-workout meal within 45 minutes of exercising. However, you can extend this period a little longer, depending on the timing of your pre-workout meal
Foods to Eat After You Workout
The primary goal of your post-workout meal is to supply your body with the right nutrients for adequate recovery and to maximize the benefits of your workout.
Choosing easily digested foods will promote faster nutrient absorption.
The following lists contain examples of simple and easily digested foods:
* Sweet potatoes
* Chocolate milk
* Fruits (pineapple, berries, banana, kiwi)
* Rice cakes
* Dark, leafy green vegetables
* Animal- or plant-based protein powder
* Greek yogurt
* Cottage cheese
* Protein bar
* Nut butters
* Trail mix (dried fruits and nuts)
Sample Post-Workout Meals
Combinations of the foods listed above can create great meals that provide you with all the nutrients you need after exercise.
Here are a few examples of quick and easy meals to eat after your workout:
* Grilled chicken with roasted vegetables.
* Egg omelet with avocado spread on toast.
* Salmon with sweet potato.
* Tuna salad sandwich on whole grain bread.
* Tuna and crackers.
* Oatmeal, whey protein, banana and almonds.
* Cottage cheese and fruits.
* Pita and hummus.
* Rice crackers and peanut butter.
* Whole grain toast and almond butter.
* Cereal and skim milk.
* Greek yogurt, berries and granola.
* Protein shake and banana.
* Quinoa bowl with berries and pecans.
* Multi-grain bread and raw peanuts.
Make Sure to Drink Plenty of Water
It is important to drink plenty of water before and after your workout.
When you are properly hydrated, this ensures the optimal internal environment for your body to maximize results.
During exercise, you lose water and electrolytes through sweat. Replenishing these after a workout can help with recovery and performance.
It’s especially important to replenish fluids if your next exercise session is within 12 hours.
Depending on the intensity of your workout, water or an electrolyte drink are recommended to replenish fluid losses.
It is important to get water and electrolytes after exercise to replace what was lost during your workout.
Putting It All Together
Consuming a proper amount of carbs and protein after exercise is essential.
It will stimulate muscle protein synthesis, improve recovery and enhance performance during your next workout.
If you’re not able to eat within 45 minutes of working out, it’s important to not go much longer than 2 hours before eating a meal.
Finally, replenishing lost water and electrolytes can complete the picture and help you maximize the benefits of your workout.
But check yourself before you wreck yourself. You need food post-workout to restore your energy, build muscle, and boost your metabolism, but the wrong kind can undo the hard work you just put in. Meals that are hard to digest, full of sugar, or loaded with saturated fat can do serious damage, right at the moment when your body needs to repair itself most.
With that in mind, we set out to uncover the worst foods to eat after a workout, and we asked the nation’s most trusted nutrition experts exactly which foods to avoid.
1. Smoothies From Pre-Made Mixes
They made be wildly convenient—especially if you are low on time and are whipping something up after an at-home workout—but they usually contain a lot of added sugars. “Your body burns through complex carbs and then fat. Drinking sugary drinks or snacks stops the fat burning process,” explains Susan Albers, Psy.D of the Cleveland Clinic. “Make your own smoothies from scratch with a protein base. Drink slowly and mindfully!” Get inspired with the fat-blasting smoothie recipes in the best-selling book, Zero Belly Smoothies!
2. Spicy Foods
Spicy foods—anything with salsa, sriracha or hot sauce—are hard to digest, and you’ll want to stay away from these choices. “Your body just accomplished a major effort and is a state of repair,” says Michelle Neverusky, Fitness Manager of Carillon Miami Beach. “It needs things that are easy to digest, a little protein, a little sugar to bring your sugar levels back to an even keel, and mostly carbohydrates to replenish your energy levels.”
Maybe you want the caffeine, maybe you want the bubbles, or maybe you just find it refreshing but repeat after us: Never ever drink soda after a workout. “Your body needs to hydrate, and soda won’t do that for you,” says Stephanie Mansour, a weight-loss and lifestyle coach for women. “Plus, soda may make you bloated!”
4. Heavy Proteins Like Steak
Just like spicy foods, Neverusky recommends skipping anything that is hard to digest—like a thick, juicy steak. “If you’re bulking up, you want to add a high carb ratio like tuna and rice; but if you are leaning out, you want to avoid carbs and drink a protein shake to retain the muscles.”
5. Fatty Foods
Skip the oils, seeds, anything fried, and even nuts after your workout. “Fat acts to slow the digestion process in the gut and will, therefore, delay the delivery of much-needed nutrients into the muscles,” explains Paul Roller, coach at CrossFit Outbreak.
Sigh. Are we really going to tell you that you can’t have chocolate after all your hard work? Yep! At least not immediately after.
“Avoid chocolate bars if you’re trying to lean down,” explains Lola Berry, author of The Happy Cookbook. “Remember that training will have sped up your metabolism; use that to your advantage by keeping your diet super clean with whole foods.” But if you really can’t kick that craving, Berry says to melt two tablespoons of coconut oil with one teaspoon of raw cacao powder, a pinch of cinnamon, and a smidge of Stevia to make a sugar-free chocolate sauce that you can pour over a bowl of fresh berries!
7. Fast Food
Maybe there’s a Burger King next to your gym that taunts you and your craving every time you pass by it—but do whatever you can to stay away! “While you may crave salt after working out, fast food options won’t be good at replenishing your body,” explains Mansour, “You’ll be consuming trans fats and basically undoing your workout.”
8. Simple Carbs
Taylor Gainor and Justin Norris, co-founders of LIT Method sum up eating white bread or pastries in a simple word: “NO!” Why not? “All that fat slows down digestion, which will do the exact opposite of what you want to happen after working up a sweat,” they explain. “Consuming high amounts of sugars also will work against you if you are trying to lose weight because it slows down your metabolism.”
9. Energy Bars
Say what? Wouldn’t an energy bar make sense, thanks to the fact that they are supposed to give you, well, energy? Not so much. “These might have a lot of protein, which is seemingly great for repairing and building your muscles post-workout,” explains Annie Lawless, health/wellness expert and founder of Blawnde.com. “But in reality, most of the bars on the market are mostly sugar and no more nutritionally-sound than a candy bar. And I’m not talking about natural sugar, either; many bars contain refined white sugar and high fructose corn syrup, making them a nightmare for your blood sugar.” Get your protein from a whole food source like eggs and pass on the processed packaged bars.
10. Sports Drinks
These are classically marketed as the perfect hydration replenishment post-workout because of their electrolytes—so what could be so bad? “The high sugar content in sports drinks make them unnecessary post-workout when your body doesn’t need the extra glucose running through your bloodstream,” explains Lawless. “If you feel drained and in need of glucose replacement, reach for coconut water or a healthy smoothie. A syrupy sports drink will just cause your blood sugar to spike violently when you don’t need it.”
11. Raw Veggies
Skipping raw veggies after a workout may seem confusing since they usually are a great choice. But it’s not the nutritional value that is the problem. “The problem is how filling raw veggies can be when your body needs serious replenishment,” says Lawless. “After a tough workout, you need calories, high-quality carbohydrates, and protein. If you fill up on raw veggies that take a lot of volume in the stomach and make you feel full very quickly, you won’t be getting the amount nutrients or calories you need post workout.”
12. High fiber
“Avoid high fiber foods—especially salads with flax seeds or kale,” says Laura Cipullo, RD, CDN, CDE, CEDRD. “They may cause cramping and bloating. Instead, find what works with your body, which may be different on different days.”
13. Prune Juice
This healthy drink actually serves as a laxative—something you don’t need post-workout. “Running and other exercises can already have this effect on your body, so these foods would only exacerbate this undesirable situation,” explains Cipullo. Noted!
A big no-no after working out is eating anything that will spike your energy and cause a crash. “This means you should be avoiding refined sugars found in candy,” say Karena Dawn and Katrina Hodgson of Tone It Up. “Candy lacks important nutrients that give your body the sustained energy you need in order to recover and still get through your day. Instead, it’s best to make a protein-packed smoothie post-workout! This will not only keep you satisfied until your next meal, it’ll also give you everything you need to repair your muscles and decrease recovery time.”
15. Black Beans
Stay away from black beans in any form—solo, in soups or stews, or even in burger form. “They have a high fiber count of 15 grams, which slows down the digestive process,” says Albers. But worst of all? “It’s likely that eating beans post-workout will just make you gassy.” No thanks!
16. Sugary Drinks
Juices—especially fruit punch—should be avoided at all costs because it contains high levels of fructose. “It’s slow to digest,” says Natasha Forrest, a personal trainer at Crunch gyms. “And it reduces the fat burning effects of a high intensity or fat-burning workout as it adversely promotes fat storage.”
17. Fried Eggs
Eggs are a wonderful way to get your protein after a workout—as long as you eat them raw or hard-boiled. If you hit a diner or greasy spoon after your workout, don’t order your eggs over-easy or sunny-side-up. You’re guaranteed to get them drenched in saturated fats—something you want to keep out of your diet right after a big sweat session.
Do your friends try to tempt you to go spinning on a Sunday morning with the promise of bottomless mimosas afterward at brunch? “Sorry to be a buzzkill, but booze should never be at the finish line,” says FITFUSION trainer Andrea Orbeck. “Drinking after training dehydrates you, reduces protein synthesis, and packs on empty calories. Instead, clink your fork and knife together as you celebrate with a lean chicken breast and side of sweet potato.”
19. Meal replacements or protein shakes
“Many meal replacement drinks on the market are filled with junk that will actually hinder your post-workout success,” says Orbeck. “Avoid labels with chemical sugars like aspartame, artificial flavors, and colors. If real food can’t be an option, go for ones with basic ingredients.”
20. Nothing With a Side of Water
“At all costs, avoid having ‘nothing but water,'” explains Neverusky. “Your body wants to recharge. If you don’t eat, your body will eat the muscle you just put on during the workout. Be sure to feed your body correctly.” Not sure what to chow down on?
I Exercise in the Morning, Can I Do Intermittent Fasting?
In order for you to get the most of this article, you will need to understand something known as the “Anabolic Window”.
It refers to a time period after a workout, where your muscles are primed for growth as long as a suitable protein/carbohydrate source is consumed. There has been a big emphasis on this window being as small as thirty minutes with supplement companies promoting the benefits and convenience of their rapidly digested products.
Does the anabolic window exist or is it just an overhyped marketing ploy?
The answer to this question is yes and no…it all depends on your goals, activity levels and training experience levels.
What does this mean for you?
If you are fairly inexperienced, with a few hour-long sessions per week for general fitness and your focus isn’t on performance, then as long as you eat enough quality protein/carbs at some point in the day, the timing of when you do is unimportant.
Whereas if you are someone whose sole focus is on performance with the aim of competing and you often find yourself training 5/6 times per week for 2 hours at a time, then the timing of your protein/carbs intake becomes a bit more important.
However, it has been shown that consuming a mix of protein and carbohydrates at either 1 hour or 3 hours post-exercise elicits the same response in regard to muscle protein synthesis, completely dispelling the suggestion that there is an anabolic window lasting only 30 minutes.
How to incorporate the 2 Meal Day if you exercise in the morning
First of all, are you currently doing 2 Meal Day? Then your training goals and experience will make a difference here.
If you belong in the less experienced, training for general fitness and weight loss group then you can exercise first thing in the morning and can continue to follow your Intermittent Fasting program until your lunchtime, as long as you get enough quality food in at your two meals. If you do this, there is no need to worry!
For those that are more experienced and have a big focus on performance (I am in this category), the best way to benefit from both exercising in the morning and following your Intermittent Fasting program is to experiment with your fasting hours and eating window. For example, if you are training first thing in the morning at 7am, aiming to eat about three hours after you finish your workout, you could have your dinner the night before a bit earlier and break your fast around 11am the next day.
This is purely anecdotal and won’t apply to everyone.
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