Food is Fuel (Part 2) — What should I eat after exercise?

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When it comes to your post-workout meal, what you eat is just as important as when you eat it. During exercise, damage is caused to muscles, which is what ultimately helps us reach our goals be it being stronger, more muscular, leaner or fitter. However, these tissues which have been put through their paces need repairing for the muscle building to happen. Consuming the right range of nutrients is essential for boosting your exercise performance, improving your body composition, speeding up recovery (hello sore muscles), improving bone mass, increasing the body’s ability to build muscle, and boosting fat burning.

The post-workout snack or meal has four specific purposes: to refuel, repair and recover muscle protein and glycogen stores, and rehydrate the body with fluids and electrolytes lost in sweat. The foods and fluids we consume immediately after exercise dictate how quickly our bodies can recover. The range of appropriate foods and drinks will vary depending on the individual, but one thing is clear— nutrition recovery is best when a range of key nutrients are eaten within 15-60 minutes post-exercise.

Important Nutrients

Protein after exercise prevents muscle breakdown and therefore assists with muscle recovery and growth (hypertrophy) leading to increased or maintained muscle mass. There’s no evidence to support choosing protein powders over whole food protein sources after training. Although protein shakes seem to be fashionable to drink following a gym session, the truth is your muscles don’t seem to be bothered where the protein comes from, so long as it’s a good quality source, such as eggs, lean meat, chicken, fish, milk, yoghurt, or a whey-protein shake. Men should aim for 40-60 grams of post-workout protein while women should aim for 20-30 grams.

Carbohydrates after exercise help replenish muscle glycogen stores, which become depleted after moderate and high intensity exercise. Carbohydrate reduces muscle protein breakdown, promotes muscle repair and development and stimulates the muscle to take up amino acids. If you do not replenish these glycogen stores then your next training session will be compromised. That’s why re-fuelling with carbohydrates post-exercise is essential and why very low carbohydrate diets are doomed to fail, long-term. The post-exercise meal or snack should provide between 1-1.2 grams of carbohydrate per kg of body weight. For those of you who are trying to lose weight, make sure the post-exercise meal is within your energy budget for the day. Planning one of your main meals to be consumed straight after your workout is a smart idea.

Fats after exercise do not seem to interfere with the digestions and absorption of nutrients.

Fluid after exercise is crucial within the first 4-6 hours in order to replace any sweat losses. Aim to replace 150% of fluid losses by weighing yourself pre and post-exercise. For example— If you finish your session 1kg lighter, and consumed 500 mL of fluid during the session, you have a fluid loss of 1.5 litres and will need to rehydrate with 2.25 litres.

Examples of ideal post-workout meals and snacks include:

  • Homemade porridge (Quinoa flakes or rolled oats)
  • Vegetable omelette + sourdough bread
  • Poached eggs + mushroom & spinach + whole-grain bread
  • Protein smoothie made up with oats + berries
  • Wholegrain crackers with peanut butter + banana
  • Wholegrain sandwich with lean chicken + salad
  • Stir-fry with lean beef/chicken/pork/tofu + broccoli + brown rice/quinoa/sweet potato
  • Tuna + salad whole-grain wrap
  • Fresh fruit salad + low-fat yoghurt
Stay tuned for Part 3: Common sports nutrition myths busted.

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