Powerful post-workout foods may the one thing you need to take your athletic performance to the next level. Recovery nutrition is not complicated, but it's often ignored by busy athletes. Muscles do not get bigger, stronger and faster during your workout. All of those changes happen while you are recovering!
Proper post-exercise nutrition creates the perfect environment for adapting to training, enabling you to become bigger, stronger and faster than your competition. It also prevents fatigue and fatigue-induced injuries. And recovery nutrition will prepare you for bigger workloads, leading to greater gains.
After a tough workout, your muscles are damaged; your carbohydrate (glycogen) stores are low; and you are probably dehydrated. You can address all of these issues by eating the right foods at the right time. Your recovery meal or snack should include all of the following nutritional components: fluid, carbohydrates, protein and electrolytes. The fluid hydrates you, while the carbohydrates in your food replace the carbs you used as fuel during your exercise. A meal or snack that includes protein will help repair damaged muscle cells and build new muscle. During exercise, electrolytes are lost through sweat and must be replaced. Electrolytes help the body balance its fluids, allowing the body to recover, build muscle and store carbohydrate.
Many people believe they need a fancy supplement to achieve a proper post-workout meal, but you can meet all of your nutritional needs with food alone (which is often a less expensive option!).
Consume your post-workout meal as soon as possible—definitely within one hour of completing exercise. Your body is primed to receive fuel immediately after exercise. The time frame is particularly important if you are planning on another training session within 24 hours, have just completed resistance training or are reducing your calories to lose weight. Not headed home right after your workout? Pack a snack so you don't miss the one-hour optimal fueling window.
The following foods will travel well in your duffel bag, so you can eat them on your way out of the gym:
- 1/2 cup of almonds and 1/2 cup dried fruit
- peanut butter (2 tbsp.) and banana sandwich
- medium apple and 1/4 cup of sunflower seeds
- granola or energy bar with 10-20 grams of protein
If you have access to a refrigerator or cooler, try one of these delicious options:
- 16 oz. chocolate or regular cow's milk
- 16 oz. soy milk
- 1/2 cup hummus with 1 cup crackers
- turkey or tuna (3 oz.) sandwich
- 1 cup yogurt
- homemade smoothie with 16 oz. of milk and fruit
- 1 cup of cereal with 16 oz. of milk
Without a proper post-workout meal, muscle repair and growth are delayed, leading to sub-optimal training adaptation, early fatigue during your workout and higher risk of injury or illness. You may need to invest some time packing up your post-exercise foods, but it's a worthwhile investment. Recovering with food can give you an edge!
Katie Knappenberger, RD, ATC, is an assistant professor and athletic trainer at Daytona State College (Daytona Beach, Fla.). She earned her master's degree in nutrition, with a concentration in sports dietetics, from the University of Utah and her bachelor's degree in athletic training from the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. She is a member of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association and the Sports Dietetic Practice Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Follow her on Twitter (@KatieRdATC) for sports nutrition tips and cutting-edge research updates.