Just have a knockdown, balls-to-the-wall, heckbent-for-leather workout? Train so intensely that you don’t even have the juice to untie your sneakers? Push yourself so hard in a race that you left your lungs in a steaming heap back at mile eight? If so, you’re probably ready to focus on what to eat, right?
I have a dirty secret for you: You don’t need to eat for recovery. Your body is super smart about repairing and recharging itself after intense and/or prolonged exercise. Were it not, 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.
Ah, 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 word that probably doesn’t factor into your vocabulary too often. You want to get it done, recover, and do it again ASAP. For you, therefore, targeted nutrition is very relevant. There’s no getting around the fact that proper diet can help you recover faster.
When it comes to recovery feeding, there are three things you want to focus on: metabolism, muscle growth, and hydration. The three are tightly interwoven, but here are some basic explanations that should help you decide what to eat after a workout.
3 Most Important Things to Consume After a Workout
From a big picture perspective, carbs, protein, and water should be the primary focus of your recovery protocol. Focus on these three things, and you’ve taken a big step in the right direction.
Carbs for metabolic recovery
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 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.
Protein to rebuild muscle
Exercise breaks down muscle. So you need to supply amino acids — your body’s building blocks — via dietary protein to muscles in order 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. 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.
When to consume it: Twenty grams to 25 g 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.
Water for hydration
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 kind 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!
When to consume it: Whatever rule you follow, be it the “eight glasses” approach or “half your body weight in grams” approach, remember that you lose a lot of water when you exercise — particularly during longer events and those occurring in warm weather — so keep a water bottle with you at all times, and refill it often.
How Much Should You Eat After a Workout?
Recovery is not the time to skimp on calories. If you’ve just completed a massive endurance effort, you likely have a massive calorie deficit, so job No. 1 is 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).
One exception might be 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.
Can You Reduce Inflammation With Post-Workout Nutrition?
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, inflammation can become systemic and chronic. Then you have a problem. Two major causes of this problem are excessive stress and a lousy diet. In other words, overtraining and under-recovering can lead to chronic inflammation.
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 key players here. Four of particular interest are quercetin, ellagitannins, anthocyanins, and curcumin. Here are some foods you’ll find them in the following sources.
Quercetin: Citrus, apples, onions, parsley, sage, tea, grapes, and dark berries.
Ellagitannins: Berries, pomegranate, and walnuts.
Anthocyanins: Berries (I’m sensing a pattern here), grapes, eggplant, and avocado.
Curcumin: Turmeric (an herb common in Indian cooking).
Personally, I’ve also had a lot of luck with omega-3 fatty acids, specifically from fish oil, when it comes to combating exercise-induced inflammation. And there’s some research backing up this strategy.
Keep in mind that most of the studies examining the anti-inflammatory properties of various nutrients (including phytonutrients) analyze them in concentrated forms at high levels. Consuming tart cherry extract at levels clinically shown to combat exercise-induced inflammation is as easy as popping a couple capsules, but eating enough tart cherries to get the same effect would be somewhat challenging — and kinda gross.
That said, 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.
Other Nutrients for Recovery
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 really need to put much effort into replenishing them. Considering athletes tend to eat a higher amount 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.
Recovery nutrition is really what you make of it. If you eat and drink haphazardly — eating whatever, whenever — you’ll probably get back to form eventually (more or less). But if you eat and drink the right amounts of the right foods, you increase your chances of getting back to form — and it’ll happen faster. And if you eat and drink the right amounts of the right foods at the right times — you’ll be unstoppable.