5 Tips for Eating Right After You Exercise

Woman drinking water after a workout at the gym
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You may know the importance of eating before exercise, however, what you eat after exercise can be just as important. While your pre-exercise meal can ensure that adequate glycogen stores are available for optimal performance (glycogen is the source of energy most often used for exercise), your post-exercise meal is critical to recovery and improves your ability to train consistently. Keep these five important points in mind when you're refueling after a tough workout.

Rehydrate

The first nutritional priority after exercise is to replace any fluid lost during exercise. In general, the best way to determine how much to drink (either water of a sports drink) is to:

  • Weigh yourself before and after exercise and replace fluid losses.
  • Drink 20-24 fl oz water for every 1 lb lost.

Eating After Exercise

It is also important for high-level athletes to consume the right carbohydrates, such as fresh, whole fruit, a smoothie or easily digestible carbs within 15 minutes post-exercise to help restore glycogen. Research has shown that eating 0.3-0.6 grams of carbohydrate for each pound of body weight within two hours of endurance exercise is essential to building adequate glycogen stores for continued training. Waiting longer than two hours to eat results in 50 percent less glycogen stored in the muscle. The reason for this is that carbohydrate consumption stimulates insulin production, which aids the production of muscle glycogen. However, the effect of carbohydrate on glycogen storage reaches a plateau. Keep in mind that if you are a casual exerciser and are not working out hard every day, the amount of carbs you need to eat after exercise drops dramatically.

Carbohydrate Plus Protein Speeds Recovery

Research also shows that combining protein with carbohydrate within thirty minutes of exercise nearly doubles the insulin response, which results in more stored glycogen. The optimal carbohydrate to protein ratio for this effect is 4:1 (four grams of carbohydrate for every one gram of protein). Eating more protein than that, however, has a negative impact because it slows rehydration and glycogen replenishment. One study found that athletes who refueled with carbohydrate and protein had 100 percent greater muscle glycogen stores than those who only ate carbohydrate. Insulin was also highest in those who consumed a carbohydrate and protein drink.

Protein Needs After Exercise

Consuming protein has other important uses after exercise. Protein provides the amino acids necessary to rebuild muscle tissue that is damaged during intense, prolonged exercise. It can also increase the absorption of water from the intestines and improve muscle hydration. The amino acids in protein can also stimulate the immune system, making you more resistant to colds and other infections.

The Best Carb to Protein Ratio

If you are looking for the best way to refuel your body after long, strenuous endurance exercise, a 4:1 combo of carbohydrate and protein seems to be your best choice. While solid foods can work just as well as a sports drink, a drink or smoothie may be easier to digest and quicker to make ensuring the right ratio within the desired 30-minute window after a workout. Some research points to chocolate milk as the ideal post-workout drink with the right carb:protein:fat ratios.

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