Most serious athletes are aware that healthy nutritional habits should be a part of any complete exercise plan. Training well must be balanced by eating well, or the athlete could be missing out on the maximum physical and mental benefits that this optimal fitness level can bring about.
But one pitfall that some athletes can fall into is focusing too heavily on what they consume before a workout and neglecting the post–workout meal. The truth is that both are equally important, and eating properly after exercise is key to helping the body to replenish its energy stores and regrow muscle proteins that have been lost during exertion. Doing this effectively can lead to a quicker recovery and better preparedness for the next workout, which generally means a lower risk for injury, too.
Below are some tips to guide your post–workout meal so you can maximize your performance with a reduced injury risk:
Macronutrients: Protein, carbs, and fats
When you work out, your muscles use up a compound called glycogen, which is a form of glucose that is stored until it’s needed. As a result, your muscles are partially short on glycogen after exercise, and some of the proteins in muscles also get broken down due to exertion. Once your body begins the recovery phase after exercising, it actively works to rebuild these lost glycogen stores and regrow the damaged muscle proteins. Consuming the right nutrients soon after physical activity can accelerate this process and help with new muscle growth. This is why you should focus on getting appropriate amounts of protein, carbs, and fats during this time:
- Consuming enough protein after a workout gives the body amino acids needed to repair and rebuild those that have been damaged; this will in turn help to repair and build muscle
- Tip: aim for about 0.14–0.23 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight very soon after each workout; research has shown that ingesting 20–40 grams of protein seems to maximize the body’s ability to recover after exercise
- The rate that glycogen is used depends on the sport or activity, endurance sports generally cause the body to use more than strength training
- Eating carbohydrates after exercising helps to replenish this lost glycogen, consuming them along with protein is even more effective for maximizing protein and glycogen synthesis
- Tip: aim for 0.5–0.7 grams of carbs per pound of body weight within 30 minutes after training, and try to consume a carbs–to–protein ratio of 3:1
- Although it’s true that fats will slow down digestion and the absorption of your post–workout meal, eating them will not impede the benefits of a well–balanced meal with protein and carbohydrates
- Tip: limit the amount of fat you eat after a workout, but don’t neglect them entirely
- Final tip: timing matters, and it’s generally recommended that you eat your post–workout meal within 45 minutes, and preferably no longer than two hours later
Many athletes use supplements like creatine, protein, and caffeine to build muscle or improve their performance. Supplements may serve a beneficial role for some, but as their name suggests, they should only be used in addition to a well–devised and complete nutritional plan.
- Protein in the form of shakes and powders is extremely popular, particularly in high–school age boys who are looking to bulk up, but it doesn’t appear that protein supplements are any better than the natural protein derived from food
- Some protein supplements also provide extra calories, which can actually translate to more fat
- Tip: skip the supplements and focus more on getting protein from healthy food sources like chicken, salmon, tuna, Greek yoghurt, eggs, and protein bars
- Creatine is used to boost performance and strengthen muscles by facilitating the intake of water into muscles
- While it’s use is generally safe in adults, it has not been researched in younger populations
- In addition, some supplements contain various experimental stimulants, which can be dangerous and potentially lead to serious side effects
- Tip: as with protein supplements, it may be best to steer clear of creatine and instead make efforts to get proper training, nutrition, and sleep
- Some research has suggested that consuming caffeine after a workout can lead to more glycogen in muscles, and therefore a better recovery, compared to carbs alone
- But caffeine is also a stressor that increases cortisol levels, and the amount of caffeine used in the study above was the equivalent of 5–6 cups of coffee
- Tip: if you’re exercising earlier in the day and a cup of coffee is a normal part of your routine, it won’t likely do any harm; but consuming large amounts of caffeine later in the day could have some negative effects and should, therefore, be avoided
In our next newsletter, we look into how a physical therapist can help you recover from sports–related injuries.