Post-workout Nutrition – How to Eat for Optimal Recovery

[Dr. Lauryn Lax – Contributor]post workout nutrition

Post-workout nutrition is a highly debated subject with various opinions as to what the ‘perfect’ recovery meal is following your workout.

Some claim,“after you finish a workout, you have approximately 30-minutes to replace energy by consuming a mix carbohydrates and proteins”. Others say: “The best time to eat any sort of sugar or cheat meal is after your workout.” Still others state: “A 2:1 carb-to-protein ratio is ideal—and avoid fats at all cost.”

And, still others say, “Just make sure to consume a real whole food meal not long after your workout.”

BUT here’s what they don’t tell you:

In most every study or experiment that has investigated the benefit of immediate post-workout nutrition, test subjects were fed after completing an exercise session that they had completed in a fasted or semi-starved state.

In other words, yep! You’re going to benefit if you eat a meal after a workout in which you were completely depleted of energy.

So here’s the bottom line:

If you’ve actually had a pre-workout meal, or any other meal earlier in the day, there’s no dire need to eat immediately after your workout – you are not necessarily going to ‘lose’ any gains you made in your fitness; and if the clock strikes one-minute after the 30-60-minute post-workout time frame, not all is lost.

So what’s the ‘right’, the perfect, post-workout meal, given that you are eating fairly ‘normally’ throughout the day?

post-workout nutritionThe answer: It all depends on you (i.e. your goals, what you’ve already eaten that day, the type of workout you did, how long and hard you trained, time of day, etc.)

While the answer is completely individual, there is one thing that is universal:

Food and fuel does a body good to promote optimal recovery—not JUST after a workout…but throughout your day.

Ensuring you are consuming QUALITY nutrition 70-80% of the time (at least) is going to be the key to your success inside and outside the gym.

That being said, however, if you are still wondering what the ‘perfect’ post-workout fuel is for YOUR body and YOUR training… it does make sense to fuel within that 30-60 minute window if you:

  1. Haven’t had anything to eat before your workout and you’re energy-depleted state (such as an early morning hard session before breakfast)
  2. You’re going to be working out again within the next 4-8 hours
  3. You’re trying to put on muscle and/or size
  4. Your next meal is not until many hours later (such as finishing your training session around 3 p.m., but dinner is not until 7 or 8 p.m.)
  5. You are hungry (go figure)

[ More:   17 Fitness Pros Reveal Favorite Nutrients for Post-Workout Recovery ]

Here are a few avatars of potential types of training, goals and ideal meals post-workout:

Example 1: Recreational Exerciser

The recreational exerciser works out for the mere joy of runnin g. He or she may sign up for a race or competition here or there, or even make it a goal to complete a half-marathon or marathon, but ultimately they hit the streets, the gym or the trail to feel good, keep in shape and get that endorphin boost. After your daily workout, what is the ideal thing to reach for to refuel? First and foremost rehydration is priority. Unfortunately, many exercisers only replace a fraction of the fluids lost from a workout.

Have a general idea of how much fluid to replace by weighing yourself before and after a run one day in order to assess fluid needs. A weight loss of 1-3% is considered ‘normal’ immediately following the run, and therefore drinking water will help rehydrate your body for optimal metabolic function. Once you know the amount of weight lost in the workout, you will require drinking about 16 ounces of fluid for every pound lost. And if weight loss exceeds this amount (1-3%), drink more fluid during the workout to p revent potential performance impairment due to dehydration. As for food…it all depends on how ‘hard’ and how long you trained.

Example 2:  Constant Weightlifterpost workout nutrition

Five to six days, sometimes even seven, you are in the gym. You love training and lifting weights. You are a self-proclaimed ‘gym rat’ who knows the ‘rules’ of the book like the back of your hand: 5-6 small meals per day, supplementing with a whey protein shake post-workout, casein at night before bed—it’s like clock work. However, are you truly maximizing your nutrition?

Often times, the body-building style of routine has trained adherents to eat and train this particular way because it’s ‘what you are supposed to do.’ Something that is rarely discussed though is if your body is truly benefitting from it. For instance, many protein supplements on the market are not easily digested or absorbed by the body as some would like to think. While ‘liquid nutrition’ does enter the digestive tract faster…if you find yourself in the bathroom day in and day out following the consumption of a supplement, it may not be the right one for you.

Many weightlifters chug down their protein supplement, only to have the feeling they are going to crap their pants because of it. Look at the ingredient list of any protein on the market, and more often than not, you are going to find the names of many ingredients you cant even pronounce. Your body does not always like these. And therefore while you are doing ‘all the right things’—something is not adding up. The same can be said of consuming the copious amounts of bars, artificially flavored sugar-free products and other sports drinks on the market —it’s not real food, and therefore several of these things are not recognized by the body.

That being said, the research is up to you to find what works best for YOUR body. (And sometimes no shakes whatsoever are needed—just a balanced meal with some protein, carbs, and even a little bit of fat meal). In fact, while protein gets high accolades for being necessary post-workout, there is no better time than following your workout to consume carbohydrates (primary and essential to provide energy). Think: starchy vegetables (sweet potatoes, potatoes, carrots, squashes), green veggies, fresh fruit and occasionally some safe starches [such as properly prepared (soaked) rice or quinoa].

Example 3: High-Intensity Bootcamper / Cardio Bunny / CrossFitter.

Your needs post-workout could be considered similar to the weightlifter above. If your workouts are typically under an hour though, your next balanced meal for the day should/could suffice post-workout. However, if you feel a bit energy depleted, a small protein shake mixed in water or snack won’t hurt you. If you do opt for protein powder, opt for a source with the least amount of ingredients and truly experiment to see how your body reacts and accepts the liquid nutrition. You may need to try several different types to find what works best for you. Real food snacks are very simple as well. Try: A handful of chicken or nitrate-free turkey roll-ups with 1/4 avocado, canned/packet tuna mixed with dijon mustard and a small apple; diced butternut squash and some chicken sausage; 1-2 hardboiled eggs and some sweet potato salad; a slice of homemade turkey meatloaf; a small sweet potato and protein of choice; 1/2 banana and nut butter; grass-fed burger patty; etc. The world is your oyster.

Example 4: Competitive Athlete (CrossFit, collegiate sports, marathoner, or other high-intensity sport)

If you are a true performance athlete, wherein competition (or working towards competition) is the goal, post-workout nutrition becomes a bit more scripted for promoting recovery. Not only is it important to ensure you are consuming a substantial amount of quality carbohydrates (starchy vegetables, some safe starches such as rice, quinoa, some may even tolerate sprouted grains) throughout the day to support recovery and training, but more often than not, an intake of some non-‘clean’ sources of fuel (think Gatorade powder post-workout to immediately replace sugar stores lost and regulate cortisol levels) is going to need to fit into the equation. The same can be said about protein powders. There is a time an d a place for these, and around training (particularly if a person is performing more than one session, or in the gym for hours at a time), a protein powder most certainly is going to do more good, than harm for that individual.

Unfortunately, with so many variables, it’s impossible to give one “post-workout nutrition recommendation” for everyone—particularly for carbohydrates (and the need to consume more of these post-workout). Ultimately, your needs will depend on your age, sex, activity level, and all the other factors affecting your recovery. Instead of fixating on precise percentages of diet, a better rule of thumb is to play around with your own food and see what makes you feel best. In addition, working with a professional, such as a nutritionist (who works with performance and exercise) to establish a solid baseline of your body’s needs could be beneficial.

Dr. Lauryn Lax is a Doctor of Occupational Therapy, Nutrition Therapy Practitioner, Fitness Professional and Journalist living in Austin, TX. She is the founder of her holistic wellness practice THRIVE Wellness & Recovery (http://meanttothrive.com), specializing in lifestyle redesign, helping others develop a healthy relationship with food, fitness, their bodies and achieve their personal goals.  Read more