In exercising, as in life, we often overlook the small but mighty factors that are crucial to our success.
It can often go like this. You eat before exercising and focus on doing your workouts properly. You focus on the duration of every specific workout while controlling your breath and being conscious of your core.
But then, once you finish up your final stretches and wrap things up, you most likely skip the post-workout meal. What you don’t realize is that this meal has a huge effect on your recovery and makes all of those hours spent in the gym worth it.
In most cases, this can be because people have either been led to believe that if you eat after a workout, you undo all of the hard work you have done for weight loss, or “muscle building”. Or maybe you just don't have any time to eat after squeezing in that thirty minutes of exercise.
The thing is skipping a post-workout meal is actually what leads to the undoing of all that hard work. It messes with the recovery process and leaves you feeling tired and weak.
So let's dig in and see what post-workout recovery fuel you are missing out on. The following are some of the best ways to refuel properly.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
First and foremost, the timing of your post workout meal is vital!
When you exercise, your muscles get depleted due to the use of the carbohydrate storage tool called glycogen. So, by the time you are done exercising, your muscles are screaming for more carbohydrates and proteins. Directly after a workout is the best time to give in to those cravings.
According to some research, nutrient intake during this particular time can lead to the rebuilding of muscles because of our body's naturally enhanced ability to rebuild glycogen and protein right after a workout.
Some call this the “window of opportunity” and the window gets smaller and smaller with time until it eventually closes. Many professionals recommend eating as soon as you can after a workout, and the first thirty minutes after your workout are prime time for this meal, rather than a few hours later.
It not only matters when you eat your post workout meal, but also what you eat. Your meal should consist of a happy balance between proteins and carbohydrates to ensure your tired muscles are getting the appropriate nutrients to recover.
IMPORTANCE OF PROTEINS
Most of us are aware that exercise leads to the breakdown of muscle proteins, and depending on the type of exercise and your experience, the rate of protein breakdown may vary.
This means that including proteins in your post-workout meal is extremely important for restoring them back into our system, which then goes on to rebuild the muscle.
Chicken and turkey meat are the obvious choices as a source of post-workout protein. But if you are looking for something a little bit different, here are some other protein sources that work great to aid your muscles as they recuperate.
When you digest yogurt, you not only provide your body with a yummy probiotic, but you also get a “protein and carbs package deal”. Carbohydrates are there to build your energy reserves back up after a draining workout and proteins jump in to help with muscle repair.
You can combine yogurt with some fresh or frozen fruits and other carb sources. This combination will make your post-workout recovery even more efficient because a combination of proteins and carbohydrates after exercising can maximize glycogen synthesis.
Yogurt works wonders when it comes to rebuilding muscles, but it comes with an extra perk as well. It’s loaded with calcium which is a major bone-building material!
Legumes, such as peanuts or chickpeas, are overflowing with minerals including iron, zinc, calcium, magnesium, and copper. These valuable elements play a huge part in the health of our muscles and bones.
However, when talking about post workout recovery, legumes are most productive for containing fiber, protein and amino acids in high amounts. Fiber has many beneficial effects on the digestive tract, and the essential amino acids act as the special ingredient that this high protein source offers to our post-workout body.
Legumes are generally rich in essential amino acid lysine, which is a great aid to our bodies and the way they breakdown nutrients, but complemented with a simple carbohydrate has an even better impact in how protein is delivered to our system.
Black beans, peas, and peanut butter are excellent examples of this superfood. In addition to fiber, protein and amino acids, they are rich with antioxidants, folate, calcium, potassium, zinc, and Vitamin B, which are all crucial to the body when trying to achieve a healthier lifestyle.
Another easy and often overlooked source of high-quality protein, eggs are a quick go-to after a long session of exercising. They are jam-packed with complete proteins, and fill your body up with all the essential amino acids you need for the repairing of muscle tissue and recovery after exercise.
They’re perfect for a yummy grab-and-go snack paired with a slice of wheat toast. Eggs are also an awesome source of B vitamins and minerals like calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, and copper.
Eggs are also a well-known source of healthy fat, but we’ll focus on how fats affect our workouts later.
RECOVER WITH CARBS
While proteins help your muscles heal after a workout, it’s important to also incorporate carbohydrates to regain energy to do so. The right source of carbohydrates will be easy to digest and nutrient rich.
#1 MEDJOOL DATES
Darker, larger and most importantly sweeter than most other varieties of dates, organic medjool dates are an excellent way to restore glycogen in the body.
The natural sugars of these soft and sticky sweet treats have a low glycemic index. When dried, they can be used as sweeteners in place of the more common and unhealthy options like refined or artificial sugars. They act as a wonderful sweetener alternative choice for vegans as well.
Dates are one of the best sources of carbs that the body desperately needs after a workout. Just a few Medjool dates can have around 70-75g of carbs. Even though they might taste like something straight out of a candy box, they are all natural with a low glycemic index.
They contain potassium, which is a valuable mineral for muscles, nerves and fluid regulation. Potassium plays a significant role in regulating muscle contractions. If you suffer from cramps, eating dates can help to reduce their frequency, especially directly after a workout.
Apart from being a post-workout aid, dates can also be beneficial for bone health because they’re heavy in copper, calcium, potassium and manganese content. And as a rich source of antioxidants, they may help with protection from the build up of oxidative stress and the damage it can cause, which has been known to lead to life-threatening diseases, such as cancer, heart disease and more.
They are also a great source of fiber that can help with digestion and gut health in general. Mix them into a smoothie, bowl of oatmeal, protein bar or enjoy them as is. Whatever way you slice ‘em, dates are a delicious and beneficial choice.
Another sweet but nutrient-complete option when it comes to post workout carbohydrates is the popular banana. A healthy source of carbohydrates with an added bonus of magnesium and potassium, minerals that are extremely important for muscle health and recovery.
High in the “good kind of carb”, bananas are a versatile snack. You can eat them dipped in peanut butter for an easy, on-the-run carb and protein combo. You can mix them into a smoothie or yogurt. Culinary artists around the world love to get creative with this infamous fruit.
The simple sugars and carbohydrates in a banana give the body the boost of energy it needs to rejuvenate the muscles after a workout.
#3 SWEET POTATO
Similar to bananas and dates, the sweet potato is high in fiber, potassium and healthy carbohydrates to assist in muscle restoration. They also contain a few additional nutrients as a cherry on top.
Sweet potatoes, or yams...as your grandmother might call them, are rich with vitamin A, vitamin C, copper, and pantothenic and folic acid. These vital nutrients give your body the fuel it needs during the muscle building process.
If you’re trying to get lean and not bulk up, a sweet potato is an excellent choice for an after workout carbohydrate source due to its abundance in omega-3 fatty acids. This nutrient reduces muscle damage and soreness.
Although not as grab-and-go as a medjool date or banana, the sweet potato can be cooked up and served numerous ways and works nicely as part of a nutritious dinner if you’re one to work out in the evenings.
When you find yourself with enough time after a workout to have some fun in the kitchen, try working a sweet potato into your spread. Both your muscles and your taste buds will be satisfied.
Rice is another option that has a high amount of carbohydrates, low amounts of protein and nearly no fat. Depending on the type of rice, it can contain B vitamins, calcium, potassium and manganese, which we’ve already established as essential minerals for repairing muscles after working out.
For lifters and body builders, white rice is a popular choice as it is high in calories and carbohydrates and is considered a great way to “load up” without having to consume a ton of food.
Rice, in all its varieties, is easy to make and there are plenty of enjoyable recipes out there to choose from when you feel like adding a little pizzazz.
#5 LIQUID MEALS
It is a common misconception that eating directly after a workout is a no-no. Truth is, it’s extremely detrimental to your workout goals! Whether you are misinformed or don’t have the time, it is never a good idea to skip a post workout meal.
Protein shakes have been created for those who need this meal to be fast, easy and last over time. If you’re exercising daily but don’t have time to keep up with the grocery shopping to ensure you have what you need for your post workout meals, you might want to supplement with a protein shake.
Whey and protein powders have been developed over time to include the proper protein to carbohydrate ratios and all of the muscle rebuilding nutrients you would get in other natural sources. They even have the necessary vitamins and minerals.
A protein shake is an excellent replacement for your post workout meal if your schedule is tight. With so many quick and simple options, there is no excuse to skip.
WHAT ABOUT FATS?
Over the course of history, the debate has gone back and forth about whether it’s a good idea or a bad idea to consume fats after a workout. There are still studies to be done to determine the truth behind how fats affect our bodies after exercise.
The majority of experts on exercise will tell you it is not forbidden to eat them, but fats are digested at a slower rate causing the body to take its sweet time to metabolise and recover.
This doesn't mean you should completely cut them out, just try to consume smaller amounts and be sure to choose healthier sources of fat such as avocados or nuts.
Now that we’ve made our way down the list of solid foods, let’s discuss the most important element of all. We all know by now that water is essential and a lack of it can cause an extensive list of health issues, but it cannot be reiterated enough!
Hydration is CRITICAL. There’s just no ifs, ands or buts about it.
Remember, when you exercise, you sweat. When you sweat, your body loses water. When you lose water, you lose electrolytes. Replenishing these energy-boosting substances after a workout is crucial for recovery.
Of course, water is the best way to compensate for lost fluids, but sports drinks work as another option. Look for the ones that are low in artificial sugars and high in electrolytes like magnesium, potassium, calcium and others.
If you’re a dairy lover and need to satisfy your sweet tooth, you can also drink chocolate milk. This is a combination of proteins, carbs and water. It can help you stay hydrated, refuel your body and stock up on some calcium, while quenching your craving for a little chocolatey goodness!
The Bottom Line
You’ve heard it before: listen to your body! But in all honesty, sometimes our bodies don’t tell us exactly what we need. After an intensive workout, it might feel like a good idea to collapse on the couch and rest your aching muscles, but it’s absolutely necessary to get that post workout meal in before you veg out.
Find a well balanced meal full of healthy proteins and carbohydrates that works for you and your schedule to help your body recover. There are many options to choose from that are delicious and easy to make. Whether you’re exercising to bulk up or lean out, a post workout meal is an absolute MUST.