Eating shortly after you’ve unlaced your athletic shoes will help your body recover from your workout, leading to increased energy and stronger muscles. While you don’t need a large, sit-down meal, you do need some food to replace lost nutrients. If you aren’t very hungry after exercise, at least have a snack or a nutritious shake.
Inside your muscles are stores of glycogen, a complex sugar that you use for fuel during physical activity. During exercise, glycogen stores become depleted as your body burns this sugar for energy. Eating carbohydrates after workouts allows your body to refill glycogen supplies, restoring your vigor. This is especially important for athletes who train nearly every day. According to Columbia University Health, without post-workout carbs your body may not be able to restore glycogen levels before the next workout session, and that may result in weaker performance. High-carb foods like oatmeal, barley, whole-grain bread and fruit encourage glycogen replenishment. Avoid “empty-calorie” foods such as cookies.
Your body also needs protein after exercise, and for more than one reason. First, eating protein along with carbohydrates after workouts leads to greater glycogen retention, according to the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s Guide to Sport and Exercise Nutrition. Your body also uses protein to replenish amino acids — protein’s building blocks — that you may have burned for energy. Protein also helps your muscles grow bigger and stronger, especially when eaten after strength-training exercises, such as weight lifting, push-ups and squats. Muscles become damaged during activity and then use protein to heal, which increases their size. Get protein from nonfat yogurt, egg whites, tofu and nuts.
Eating too soon or too late can hamper the benefits of your post-workout meal or snack. Columbia Health recommends eating 15 to 60 minutes after you stop exercising. The enzymes that turn food into glycogen are most active then, so you’ll replace lost stores more quickly. You don’t need to wait to drink fluids, however, so rehydrate with water or a sports drink immediately after working out.
You need enough calories to replenish your body, but don’t go overboard. Overeating will lead to weight gain — even with heavy exercise. If you’re only having a snack, eat about 200 to 300 calories, which are provided by tuna on whole-wheat bread, lowfat cottage cheese and fruit or a nonfat yogurt and banana smoothie. Meals have more calories — the exact amount depends on daily needs — and should also have more nutrients. Fill half of your plate with fresh, steamed or lightly sauteed vegetables and fresh fruits and place a serving of protein and a serving of whole grains on the other half. For example, eat broiled salmon with brown rice and a medley of broccoli, cauliflower and carrot that’s been sauteed in a teaspoon of olive oil.
References & Resources
- Go Ask Alice: Is It Better to Eat Before or After Axercise?
- American Council on Exercise: 7 Smart Post-Workout Snacks and How to Know When You Really Need One
- NSCA’s Guide to Sport and Exercise Nutrition; National Strength and Conditioning Association, Bill Campbell, Marie Spano
- University of New Mexico: Nutrient Timing: The New Frontier in Fitness Performance
- University of New Hampshire Dining Services: Nutrition Topics: Sports