Post-workout Refuel and Recovery
I am a firm believer that what you eat after your training is just as important as the training itself. Maximising your nutrition after a workout speeds up the recovery process and optimises your body’s potential to adapt to that training stimulus and get stronger, faster, fitter and more powerful.
Let’s take a moment to think about what happens during a workout…
Exercise is a stress on the body. It stimulates muscle breakdown and an inflammatory response, which means in the hours following exercise, your body is working hard to repair that damage and adapt to your training stimulus to allow you to handle it better next time around, so doing the same thing won’t feel as hard and you can push further. This is how progress is made!
Fuel stores: In order to produce energy to power your muscles through a workout, your body will have metabolised carbs, proteins and fats. The amount and ratios depend on the duration, type and intensity or exercise, with higher intensity exercise utilising more carbs as fuel and lower intensity exercise using a mix of carbs and fats. Using up your fuel stores means you’ll be feeling fatigued, and one important purpose of post-workout nutrition is to replenish these stores.
Hydration: Adequate hydration is super important during exercise to cool down the body’s core temperature (which is how why you sweat!) and prevent over-heating. Fluids are also crucial to keep blood flowing efficiently and deliver oxygen and nutrients to the working muscles. Fluid losses also need to be replaced post-training.
Muscle damage: When we exercise, especially during resistance/weights training, we created small tears in our muscle tissue. This damage to tissues offsets an inflammatory response, and providing adequate nutrition allows our bodies to repair this damage and rebuild that tissue - stronger than before!
Inflammation: As mentioned, exercise creates an inflammatory response to the damage caused to muscle and other tissues when you workout. This is a positive thing as it increases blood flow to these areas to promote healing and adaptations, making you stronger. High levels of inflammation over a long period of time increases risk for chronic disease, fatigue, poor mood, digestive problems and poor performance, so again, nutrition is a key part of restoring the body back to normal function.
What to Eat
When thinking about post-workout nutrition, I like to look at it in 2 parts:
First is your post-workout meal, or what you eat after training.
Second, is what you are eating over the course of the next 24-48 hours.
The are four ‘R’s (or goals) that need to be considered when making your post-workout meal:
The purpose of refuelling is to replenish your body’s energy stores to prevent fatigue for the remainder of the day and your next session. Including carbohydrates in your recovery meal will help to replenish lost glycogen stores, as well as prevent your body from using protein as an energy source (so that protein can be used to rebuild and repair muscle tissue instead!).
Insulin secretion helps to promote glycogen synthesis, and this is maximised when both carbs and protein are consumed together. Glycogen storage rate is at it’s highest in the hour post exercise, due to the enzyme glycogen synthase being activated, and insulin sensitivity is high, meaning our bodies become more efficient at absorbing glucose from our food, while our muscles are at their most permeable for storing and replenishing glycogen - and this is what we want for faster and better recovery! The amount of carbs you need post-workout will depend on the duration and intensity of that session.
Examples of carb-rich foods that are great post-workout would be oats, sweet potato, rice, pasta, breads and fruit. Or a high carb snack such as a banana, bliss ball, smoothie or muesli bar to pack in your gym bag!
During exercise, as mentioned, muscle is being broken down. Protein provides the building blocks, in the form of amino acids, to rebuild and repair this muscle tissue, allowing them to heal and grow stronger, as well as build new muscle tissue. The optimal amount of protein to stimulate muscle growth (known as muscle protein synthesis) is 20-30g of protein, and repeated every 3 hours throughout the day to continue building muscle.
To maximise your muscle building and recovery potential, this should contain 2-3g of the specific amino acid Leucine. Animal protein sources will naturally contain this amount of leucine in 20-30g of protein containing serves, however plant based protein sources are naturally lower in Leucine. Don’t stress though, this doesn't mean you won’t build muscle - we are just talking about what studies show to be ‘optimal’ for muscle building potential. And most plant based protein powders have added Leucine too!
Great sources of protein include tofu or tempeh, lentils and beans, smoothies with protein powder or soy milk and chia seeds, oats and other whole grains (or yoghurt, eggs, fish etc for omnivores)!
Rehydrating with adequate fluids is just as important! Even a sweat loss of 2% of your body weight can natively affect performance, and every day we need to replace around 2L of fluid to account for our daily fluid losses without even considering sweat loss during exercise!
Rehydrating promotes recovery by providing a steady blood flow (and therefore delivery of oxygen and nutrients) to your muscles. Plain water is usually adequate, however if participating in very long duration or intense exercise, or hot/humid climates, choosing an electrolyte-containing fluid, such as a sports drink, electrolyte drink or even coconut water, will be more beneficial. Essentially, the more you sweat, the hotter the conditions and the harder you worked, the more fluids you will need to rehydrate. Oh, and alcohol doesn’t count as it can cause further dehydration and impair muscle recovery!
A general guideline is around 1 L extra water for every hour of exercise.
As we discussed earlier, exercise is a stress on our bodies which causes inflammation and tears in our muscle tissue, and by repairing this damage, we grow back stronger! During this time, we need to make sure our diet is filled with plenty of colourful foods (I’m talking fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, as well as spices like turmeric, cinnamon and garlic!) that are going to provide the antioxidants, vitamins and minerals needed to reduce inflammation induced by exercise.
Healthy fats, rich in the anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids, such as chia and hemp seeds, flaxseed, walnuts, leafy greens and oily fish, have also shown to be beneficial for reducing muscle inflammation and soreness post-exercise.
Aim to include at least 4-5 different coloured fruits and vegetables to every main meal, plus a source of healthy fats - think the ones listed above, or avocado, tahini, almonds, cashews, nut butter etc!
Your Next Few Meals
Contrary to popular believe, it is not only in the 30-60 minutes after exercise that your body is capable of building muscle. In fact, adaptations (that means building and repairing muscle tissue, getting stronger and fitter) continue taking place for the next 24-48 hours. Therefore each meal is a chance to provide your body with the energy and nutrients needed to maximise this potential!
As mentioned above, including 20-30g of protein at each meal will promote muscle tissue synthesis to continue building muscle. Along with this, focus on including plenty of nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds spread throughout the day, which are filled with antioxidants and other compounds to reduce inflammation and heal damage post-exercise. Making nutrition as much as a priority as the training session will help you maximise recovery and truly get the most out of your sessions!
I hope this post was helpful, and if you have any further questions or would like more individualised advice for your specific training and needs, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me!