As an athlete, you've probably participated in (or at least observed) the following popular post-workout food ritual: a set of free weights crashes down after the last rep; a bottle filled with a chalky liquid gets a good shake; and down goes another protein shake in a single gulp.
Clever marketing and misinterpretations of research have created lots of confusion about post-workout nutrition. Many athletes take the misinformation and rush to their local supplement store to load up on concoctions of chemical compounds. But post-workout nourishment is more complicated than that. It's important and it needs to be planned properly. Failing to take your workout effort, body composition and training goals into account could prevent you from getting key nutritional components; reduce the benefits of all your hard work in the gym; and derail your progress.
The correct answer to the question of effective post-workout nutrition? Give your body what it needs to recover—which probably requires more than a scoop of protein powder mixed with water.
Training routines and requirements differ for each sport. So why should all athletes finish their workouts with the same post-workout shake? The proper course for post-workout nutrition depends on what type of athlete you are, and on your height, weight and body type. There's a reason gas stations have diesel and unleaded gas with various octane levels. Different engines need different fuel.
If your sport requires short bursts of intensity, like football, your training will be geared for force production. This type of training tears down muscle fibers. Building them back up should be the primary goal of post-workout nutrition. Foods containing fast-digesting proteins and healthy fats are your best bet. The proteins will reverse the tissue breakdown while the good fats will support insulin sensitivity and keep your body focused on muscle recovery. Instead of protein powder, pack some pre-cooked chicken strips and an avocado.
Remember that the amount of food you consume should be relative to your size. If your workout facility lacks a refrigerator, water-packed tuna and a handful of macadamia nuts offer the same benefits.
On the other hand, if you're an endurance athlete, like a cross country runner, you require more help buffering inflammatory stress from sustained competition and training. Post-workout, endurance athletes need to replenish their energy stores. Adding quality carbohydrates to a quality protein will ensure that you top off your tank. Emphasize starchy carbohydrate sources, like sweet potatoes or pumpkin, but limit fruit intake. The natural sugar content in fruit fills up liver fuel sites before tending to the muscles.
Regarding volume, a midfielder who plays 60 minutes of soccer requires more carbohydrate replenishment than a 20-minute technique-focused swimmer. The amount of post-workout carbs depends on the exertion level and duration of your activity.
Before you throw back another Musclebuilder 5000 shake, take a few seconds to evaluate what you want to accomplish with your post-workout meal. Use the time after your workouts to give your body what it needs. By following a few guidelines and taking a smarter approach to post-workout nutrition, you can recover faster, continue making progress toward your goals and maximize your results.
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