Working out can make you hungry and thirsty, but what you choose to eat or drink makes a difference in how well your body recovers from exercise.
“The right type of foods can help you recover faster, have more energy, build muscle mass, burn more fats,” said Maggy Doherty, a registered dietitian with Parkland Hospital System. “What you eat after a workout can give you a competitive advantage.”
Doherty describes proper food and drink for a post-workout recovery as a three-part process. She says you need water, carbohydrates and protein to really get the most out of your workout — and do it within 45 minutes of finishing that workout. That’s when your body is more susceptible to nutrients.
“If you wait until later," Doherty said, "you’ve basically just kind of starved your muscles and they’re not going to recover as fast.”
Workout recovery's a three-part process: You want to refuel your body with protein. Replenish your muscle glycogen store with carbohydrates. And water also plays a role because when you sweat you lose water.
What is glycogen? The storage form of glucose or broken-down carbohydrates. It’s stored in the liver and in the muscles, and when your body needs energy, it goes to those muscle glycogen stores to fuel your workout.
Can the wrong choice of post-workout food cause harm? It may not necessarily do harm, but the right type of foods can help you recover faster, have more energy, build muscle mass, burn more fats; so what you eat after a workout can give you a competitive advantage.
Good food items to choose: Depending on the type of workout you do, you want a 3-to-1 or 4-to-1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein. Go on that lower end if you’re doing resistance or anaerobic, and you’d want to go on the higher end if you’re doing aerobic or endurance exercise.
Some examples: If you were taking a snack after the workout, low-fat chocolate milk is exactly the 3-to-1 ratio. It’s about 30 grams of carbohydrates to 10 grams of protein. So chocolate milk is an awesome post-workout recovery snack. You could do a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You could do Greek yogurt, trail mix with a Gatorade – those would be some good snacks.
For post-workout meals: You want to make sure you have a foundation of carbohydrates and complement it with protein. So you could a stir-fry with rice, vegetables and shrimp. Or a steak with potatoes and broccoli. Pasta with Bolognese sauce. You want a find a base of carbohydrate and put some protein on it.
What about the sugar in those items? Sugar is a simple carbohydrate. Simple carbohydrates are broken down more quickly than a complex carbohydrate. For example, white bread is a simple carbohydrate. Whole grain bread is more complex. So if you eat those simple carbohydrates after a workout, they’re digested more quickly, which help replete those glycogen storages more quickly.
When to eat: You want to make sure you eat something within 45 minutes of finishing that workout. That’s kind of known as the “window of opportunity,” so when your body’s more susceptible to nutrients. You can make the most difference in your post-workout recovery within those 45 minutes, whether it’s a snack or a meal. If you wait — and then you go to work and get busy, and you don’t eat until three hours later — you’ve basically just kind of starved your muscles and they’re not going to recover as fast.