Knowing what to eat after that crazy balls-to-the-wall, heck-bent-for-leather workout is just as important as the workout itself. When it comes to post-workout recovery feeding, there are three things you want to focus on: metabolism, muscle growth, and hydration.
But, we have a secret for you: you don't need to eat for recovery. Your body is super smart about repairing and recharging itself after intense or prolonged exercise. If that wasn't the case, evolution would have weeded us out long ago. Provided you're in the habit of eating a reasonably healthy diet, everything should fall into place — eventually.
But there's the rub. Eventually. If you're serious about your chosen sport — or if you're really focused on your fitness goals — “eventually" is a word that probably doesn't factor into your vocabulary too often. You want to crush your workout, recover, and do it again ASAP.
To help you recover quickly and effectively, here are the three categories to cover when planning what to eat after a workout.
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When you exercise, you tap your blood sugar as well as backup carb stores (in the form of glycogen) in your liver and muscles.
Much like you need to refill your car with gas when it runs low, you need to refill your glycogen stores when you deplete them. To do that, you need to consume carbohydrates.
How to get them: Generally, you'll want to look to fruits, veggies, and whole grains.
When to consume them: Many athletes feel they should start replenishing glycogen immediately after they work out. From a timing perspective, protein is more important. You'll get the same recovery benefit from the carbs you ingest at any point during the four hours following a workout.
The thinking used to be that those carbs would trigger the insulin response, kicking off a chain of events that would stimulate glycogen storage in muscle. But research shows protein alone starts this process just fine, allowing carb replenishment to occur at a more leisurely pace.
Exercise breaks down muscle. So you need to supply amino acids — your body's building blocks — via dietary protein to muscles to rebuild them. The faster you do so, the faster you'll be back in action.
How to get it: Look primarily to animal products, if that fits your lifestyle. Meats and dairy products are the easiest ways to fuel a rapid, complete recovery. Ladder Whey Protein provides 26 grams of protein in the form of a quick and easy shake to help you refuel after a workout.
If you're a no-meat athlete, there are plenty of veggies and whole grains that will do the trick as well. Legumes (in particular, soy), hemp, quinoa, nuts, and seeds are all packed with quality protein. You can also reach for plant-based protein shakes like Ladder Plant Protein, which provides 21 grams of pea and pumpkin seed protein.
When to consume it: You should consume 20 to 25 grams of fast-absorbing protein such as whey as soon as possible following exercise. Your body ramps up protein synthesis post-workout, so giving it the resources it needs to do its job makes sense. Most protein powders will do the trick as long as they're low in fat, which slows absorption.
Your body also likes to repair muscles while you sleep, so right before bed is another great time to have some protein. The window is much larger here — about six hours — so a slower-absorbing variety like casein makes sense. Cottage cheese or yogurt are reasonable options.
You sweat when you exercise. Sometimes it evaporates too fast for you to notice it, but it happens nonetheless. Therefore, fluid replenishment matters.
We are about 50 to 60 percent water. It plays a pivotal role in all kinds of bodily functions, including those related to athletic performance.
(Learn more about how dehydration can impact performance).
What to consume: Again, water. Lots of it! Or, if you're doing a particularly long or hard workout, consider a supplement like Ladder Hydration. It's designed to help you maximize absorption of scientifically supported high-performance vitamins and minerals so you can exercise at a higher intensity.
When to consume it: Whatever rule you follow, like the “eight glasses" approach or “half your body weight in grams" approach, remember that you lose a lot of water when you exercise.
Keep a water bottle with you at all times, particularly during longer events and for workouts occurring in warm weather. If you're consuming a hydration supplement, drink it during or after your workouts.
Recovery is the time to stock up the calories for your post workout meal.
If you've just completed a massive endurance effort, you likely have a massive calorie deficit, so it is time to replenish depleted stocks. With this in mind, it's OK to eat a little more.
Even if your workout wasn't hours long, remember that your metabolism doesn't just switch off the moment you step off the bike, stow your running shoes, or rack your weights. It'll keep revving for a while, especially if you're doing high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
An exception is if your goal is to lose weight, then a deficit makes sense. However, don't overdo it.
If you're feeling fatigued longer than you should post-workout, if your soreness isn't going away, or if you're having trouble focusing, then you're getting carried away on the deficit and need to dial up your calories.
The word inflammation gets thrown around quite a bit, but what does it mean exactly? When you damage your body in any way — injury, disease, even muscle breakdown from activity — your immune system responds by flooding the area of concern with various cells, substances, and fluid to protect and repair it.
As an acute response, it's a good thing. But if you keep hammering that area and don't give your body the time and nutrients it needs to complete the repair process, you can cause systemic and chronic inflammation, which is a problem.
What's more, what you eat after a workout can help take the edge off the normal-yet-uncomfortable acute inflammation caused by intense activity.
Phytonutrients (nutrients derived from plants) are a key player for helping support performance and recovery. The four phytonutrients of particular interest are quercetin, ellagitannins, anthocyanins, and curcumin.
Here are some foods where you can find these nutrients:
Keep in mind that most of the studies examining the beneficial properties of various nutrients (including phytonutrients) analyze them in concentrated forms at high levels.
There's plenty of science pointing to the overall health benefits of a phytonutrient-rich diet — not to mention anecdotal evidence and common sense.
What's more, in all likelihood, the specific benefits don't work like an on/off switch the moment you hit clinical levels.
You might notice the absence of specific vitamins and minerals in the above list of recovery nutrients.
Of course, you need lots of these, especially electrolytes, which you lose through sweat, as well as B-vitamins, which play a huge role in your body's energy systems. But as long as your diet is solid, you don't need to put much effort into replenishing them.
Considering athletes tend to eat a higher number of calories overall (as they should — especially fueling muscle growth and replenishing energy stores post-workout or event), a balanced nutrition plan should provide all the vitamins and minerals you need.
If you're still worried, make a point of adding a good multivitamin to your diet.