Excellent Eating After Exercise

October 21, 2011 · 5 comments

This is a guest post by Denis Faye.

Whether you’re trotting up the stairs to your apartment after a ten-mile jog or pounding out that last set of curls, there’s nothing like that post-workout feeling. You’ve busted your tail and now it’s time to relax.

Or is it? A little couch time might seem in order, but that doesn’t mean the work is done. After a hard workout, your body becomes super receptive to nutrients, so you’ve got about an hour here when proper eating is crucial. Don’t slack off now. Hit the kitchen for your recovery snack!

When Nietzsche said, “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,” he could have been talking about a good workout. First of all, exercise burns through your blood sugar as well as your glycogen, your body’s back-up sugar supply. Meanwhile, it drains your electrolytes and fluids and causes micro-trauma to your muscles. That last one typically happens more often with weight training, but just about any intense exercise breaks down (and subsequently builds) muscle to some degree. Just look at a swimmer’s shoulders or a jogger’s legs if you doubt this.

It may seem like a whole lotta bad to happen at once, in truth, the combo is a good thing. To replenish the blood sugar, you need carbs. To fix the muscles, you need protein. When you consume the two together, they can work in tandem to do good things.

But before I go any further, let’s talk about sports nutrition theory. In short, it’s a Wild West science. Every day, new research comes out that completely blows the doors off of accepted protocols. What I’m about to explain comes largely from the work of Drs. John Ivy and Robert Portman, as reported in their book Nutrient Timing: The Future of Sports Nutrition. Their theories are currently the accepted standard for recovery foods. There have since been plenty of other studies that cast doubt on their work. While I’ve read scores of them and I have yet to be swayed, that could change any day. In the meantime, I encourage you to read this post, then read Nutrient Timing, then with that foundation, explore other research and make your own choices.

Also be mindful that this protocol pertains to intense exercise. If you’re just playing a little foosball or walking around the block, there’s no need for specialized, timed eating. However, when it comes to a serious workout, because your body is in a state of depletion, the rules of nutrition shift a little. Usually, you want to take in your carbs with some fiber, or at least with a balanced amount of fat and protein, to slow absorption. That way, you avoid sugar spikes and the result insulin issues can lead to things like type 2 diabetes. But post exercise, it’s okay to get unregulated carbohydrates in there quickly. You’re not going to cause a sugar spike because you’re out of blood sugar. You’re just refilling the tank.

And while you’re at it, throw in some protein. Protein is comprised of amino acids, which are the building blocks for muscle. If you can get some in there fast, it can jump-start the recovery process. The trick, however, is to get enough for it to work without overwhelming the carbs and slowing absorption. The magic balance is a source of much controversy, largely stemming from the fact that many people find the concept of unregulated carbs hard to, ahem, swallow. According to Portman and Ivy, and in my experience, 4-to-1 carbohydrates-to-protein works pretty consistently. That said, you might want to experiment between 2-to-1 and 6-to-1 to see what works for you.

As for what to put in this recovery cocktail, there are no shortage of supplements on the market that hit these numbers, but there are also several (semi) real food sources that work, including non/low-fat chocolate milk, fruity yogurts, and apple juice with a little protein powder added. Just remember to avoid fiber and fat because they’ll slow absorption.

How much of this you take depends on your size and how hard you blasted it. The general range is 100 to 250 calories. Drink/eat it within the first 10 minutes of wrapping up and allow 30 to 45 minutes for it to absorb before eating anything else.

If your primary reason for working out is to burn fat, and you’re still interested in a recovery snack’s effect on your muscles, I say go for it. Yeah, I know the current thinking that fasting for an hour post-exercise will “augment lipid mobilization” or burn extra fat, but there’s a loophole. According to the latest research (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2838634/?tool=pubmed), those lipids will mobilize as long as your post-exercise calories are lesser than the calories you burned, so considering a solid 60 minute workout can blow through 400 to 800 calories, a little 100-200 calorie replenishment shouldn’t be a problem.

The final two pieces of the recovery puzzle are electrolytes (specifically potassium, sodium, magnesium, and chloride) and water, all of which you’ll lose when you sweat. Most liquid-based recovery supplements cover these bases, but you can also recharge those vital minerals with a banana – usually in amounts that far exceed most sports drinks.

As for rehydrating, I hear there’s a new thing out there called “water.” You might want to research it.

Hmmm… Bananas? Yogurt? A cool glass of water? Man, post-exercise nutrition by eating after exercise is starting to sound delicious. Maybe it’s not the arduous task I thought it was. I’m going for a jog right now.

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Ron October 22, 2011 at 6:02 am

Great post, always try to end my workouts with a protein shake.

Nathan Jones October 22, 2011 at 10:57 am

Any advice on post workout replacement shakes for those who workout at night? I have about an hour or so to recover after my Insanity workout before hitting the hay and have been told to not consume carbs in case it doesn’t burn off in my sleep (my goal is fat loss). So I have been drinking a whey/cassein protein (about 60 grams of protein combined) shake made with water and ice and have gotten use to the glycogen depletion and just move really slowly getting in to bed. But I also want to build muscle so I am wondering if not compensating for the glycogen deficit is hurting me? Any help would be greatly appreciated.

julie October 24, 2011 at 9:29 am

Recently, I find food distasteful after a hard gym session. After about 2 hours, I can tolerate a bit of dinner, but nothing too heavy. I’ve wondered if this is okay, but decided that I’m not going to force myself to eat or drink if I don’t feel like it.

BroScientist October 25, 2011 at 2:20 pm

“and have been told to not consume carbs in case it doesn’t burn off in my sleep ”

You were told wrong. This is BroScience at its best. What matters is the food you consume in a 24 hour period. Carbs before bed is bunk (see what I did there?)

Jonathan October 27, 2011 at 7:01 am

“Carbs before bed is bunk (see what I did there?)”

LOL, yeah I see!

Good tips, bro.

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