Post-workout is an extremely important time after exercise when you can optimize your health with proper nutrition. In fact, it is said that the post-workout period (which lasts from about 30 to 60 minutes after you finish any fitness activity) may actually be more important than the workout itself. From energy restoration to muscle recovery to nutrient absorption (and everything in between), be empowered to learn all there is to know about your post-workout.
With so much information out there about exactly what exercises to do and why, it can be difficult to know what guidance is sound. Here we'll dive into why post-workout nutrition is so important and how certain foods have been shown to fuel performance and recovery better than others.
Why is Post-Workout Nutrition So Important?
There are many reasons why post-workout nutrition is important. After engaging your body in a physical way, it needs to recover that energy loss. During exercise, the body uses up its stores of glycogen, a complex carbohydrate that is stored in the muscles and liver. After exercise, the body increases its uptake of glucose and amino acids from the blood to replenish these glycogen stores. By eating nutritious foods, you can give your body the glucose and amino acids it needs to help with this energy recovery process.
Another thing to consider is that our muscles experience micro-tears during workouts. Exercise often causes microscopic damage to the muscle fibers, which triggers a process of repair and adaptation known as muscle hypertrophy. This process involves the synthesis of new proteins and the formation of new muscle fibers, and consequently muscle growth, which is a popular goal of working out. If you are constantly sore after working out, it may not necessarily be a sign of progress – it could be a clear sign that you need more time to recover.
The benefits of eating right during your post-workout meal are vast! By choosing your meals wisely, you can:
- Minimize muscle damage/muscle protein breakdown
- Assist in building muscle/increase muscle protein synthesis
- Replenish muscle glycogen (the stored form of carbohydrates)
- Reduce cortisol (stress hormone) levels
- Reduce muscle soreness
- Reduce risk of injury
...And much more!
When Should I Eat After Working Out?
After working out, there is a window of time that will be optimal for post-workout nutrition. This timeframe is often referred to as ‘nutrient timing’ or the ‘anabolic window’ and lasts up to one hour after strenuous movement.
While eating well following a workout can help with the energy replenishment process, the concept of “when” still has some debate around it. However, the “what” - specifically, what to consume – has more scientific research behind it.
Four Vital Elements of Post-Workout Nutrition
Just think: the next time you finish working out and have to decide what to eat, you will be supporting your body and mind in a whole new way! To further your knowledge of post-workout nutrition, here are four of its most vital elements:
Hydration is the term for replacing fluids lost through sweat. Staying hydrated prevents dehydration, as well as helps regulate body temperature, transport nutrients, and maintain joint health. To hydrate effectively, water is the best option, including water infused with refreshing fruits! Beyond water, you can also enjoy an assortment of teas as a great way to re-hydrate.
Protein helps to repair and rebuild muscle tissue that is damaged during exercise. Protein also helps to promote muscle growth and improve strength and performance. When it comes to choosing a protein, it’s recommended to opt for protein sources that have a high percentage of protein and little-to-no amount of carbs or fat included in them. Examples include:
- Protein powders
- Cottage cheese
3. Complex Carbohydrates
Complex carbs refer to carbohydrate sources that are high in fiber and assist in replenishing glycogen stores that are depleted during exercise. Glycogen is the primary fuel source for muscles during exercise, and replenishing it helps to promote recovery and maintain energy levels. Examples of complex carbohydrates you can include in your post-workout recovery include:
- Whole grains (oats, quinoa, brown rice, and whole wheat bread)
- Fruits (apples, bananas, berries, and oranges)
- Vegetables (broccoli, carrots, spinach, and sweet potatoes)
4. Healthy Fats
Healthy fats play a vital role in hormone production, cell membrane function, and nutrient absorption. There are different kinds of fats, such as monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, and omega-3 fatty acids. Depending on your unique body and health, your dietary fat consumption may vary, and it’s recommended you speak with your healthcare practitioner about what’s best for you.
The most common healthy fats include:
- Nuts and seeds (almonds, walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseeds)
- Fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines)
- Oils (avocado, olive, and coconut)
Choosing a post-workout meal that contains protein, complex carbs, and healthy fats (otherwise known as prioritizing a balanced diet) will support you in recovering quickly and effectively, so you can stay consistent with your exercise regime while caring for your body as best you can.
Things to Avoid After Working Out
These are general guidelines but remember that what works for you won’t work for someone else, and vice versa. That’s IIN’s core concept of bio-individuality in action!
Sugar and Simple Carbohydrates
Sugar can cause a rapid spike in blood sugar levels, often followed by a crash. This can lead to a feeling of fatigue and low energy levels, which can negatively affect recovery and performance.
Excess sugar can be found in surprising places, like granola bars and yogurts. It's key to read the nutrition labels of your post-workout snacks.
As delicious as it is, spicy food can cause digestive issues such as heartburn, indigestion, and acid reflux, which can keep you up at night, interfere with recovery, and even disrupt your sleep quality.
There is such a thing as consuming too much protein after working out! “Heavy” proteins like red meat may lead to digestive issues and slow down the recovery process.
Sports drinks are advertised to make you think that they’re a great water alternative for hydration and energy. However, the high amounts of sugar commonly found in sports drinks can lead to dehydration and an increase in blood sugar levels.
Unless you are engaging in intense, prolonged exercise lasting more than an hour, water is sufficient to rehydrate the body.
Protein bars are one of those sneaky places where sugar can hide. Many protein bars are highly processed and contain added sugars, artificial sweeteners, and other additives that can interfere with recovery and digestion.
If some of these food items are among your favorites after a workout, consider making them at home to have more control over their ingredients. Always keep in mind that whole sources of fuel for your body will be the best choice for optimizing your post-workout benefits.
Before Your Next Post-Workout Meal
Before you exercise again and then eat, take a moment to really appreciate how food can be your ally. Nutrition is such an important part of you feeling your healthiest and happiest, after workouts and beyond!
If you’re called to learn even more about coaching, nutrition, and the benefits of holistic health, we have a variety of world-class wellness courses ready for you to dive into – so don’t be afraid to check it out while you break a sweat!