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A Nutritionist’s guide to post-workout refuelling

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You’ve just walked in the door from a sweaty session at the gym and you’re like: ‘Now what?’

You’ve read somewhere that you’re supposed to eat something special, otherwise, you’ll lose your gains or not recover properly.

Maybe you try not to eat after exercise, fearing you’ll undo all your hard work. Or maybe you don’t care, grab a Mars Bar and move on.

Choosing healthy foods after your workout is an important consideration when it comes to your overall nutrition.

Here’s how to feel confident with choosing something quick, easy and nutritious right when you need it!

Your post-workout foods will depend on the type of training you do

Low-intensity exercise

If you can talk during your exercise session and it lasts for less than 60 minutes you probably don’t need to plan specific meals and snacks for recovery. Your regular meals and snacks, if they’re primarily healthy food, will be more than enough.

Walking, swimming, slow cycling, yoga or other low-intensity classes like stretching or abs don’t require specific post-workout foods. And there’s definitely no need for sports drinks, protein shakes, protein bars/balls or other ‘special’ products.

High-intensity exercise

On the other hand, high-intensity exercise, where you get your heart rate up high or lift very heavy weights, does require some thought with your nutrition to maximise the benefits from your training. Post-workout snacks are often called recovery meals because tough exercise sessions actually damage and stress the muscles. Muscles receive tiny tears, your nervous system gets highly activated and all your muscle carbohydrate reserves (called glycogen stores) get depleted.

The nutrition strategies below are all designed to help your muscles and nervous system repair and refill their glycogen stores. Only then can your muscles grow (tone) and get stronger and you’re ready to do it all again the next day.

Your post-workout foods will depend on your goals 

It’s actually not just your post-workout foods that depend on your goals. Your overall nutrition strategy will be influenced by your goals as well.

Weight loss

If your goal is to lose weight, you’ll need to ensure you’re creating a significant and consistent energy deficit.

This means that you’re consuming less energy than your body is burning and maintaining that deficit for weeks on end. My team can help calculate this for you and ensure you’re losing weight in the healthiest way possible.

Your post-workout snacks need to be included in your overall food intake for the day and provide the key nutrients for recovery (listed below) without resulting in over-consuming your food for the day.

Muscle building

Muscle growth requires two things: an adequate training program and sufficient protein and energy. If your goal is to build muscle, then you need to ensure you’re creating an energy surplus.

This means that you’re consuming slightly over your daily energy needs to give your body the resources it needs to grow.

A goal like this usually requires eating pretty regularly, so it’s easy to include the tips below into your meal plan straight after your workout.

Performance

If you’re an athlete or even high-level executive who exercises regularly and want to perform at your best, a post-workout meal or snack will do wonders for helping you manage the stress or extra training in the rest of your day.

Eating for performance is not a good time to lose body fat. Your goal is to meet your energy needs and ensure high diet quality so you’re getting plenty of nutrients.

Timing matters but not as much as you think it does

There are lots of opinions about when to eat after your workout, with some people whipping out their protein shakers almost immediately after or even during a session.

Timing matters but you’re not locked to a five-minute window. It’s best to eat anytime within 60 minutes after training.

That’s when your body is keen to refuel glycogen stores and take up protein, but if you miss this window by 30 minutes or so, you’re not doomed to failure.

The main recommendation would be to not go too long without eating after exercise. Otherwise, you’ll miss the optimum time for refuelling but more importantly you’ll become so hungry that you’ll be prone to overeating or making poor food choices.

You can’t ‘undo’ or ‘wreck’ your workout by what you eat afterwards

You did the workout, you can’t take it back. A Mars Bar after a workout does not wreck your workout.

Your body will use the sugars and fats it provides, it’ll just miss the nutrients – the protein, vitamins, minerals and fibre, it’s lacking. You didn’t undo all your hard work!

In saying that, here are some foods much more suited to post-workout snacks that are much healthier choices than a mars bar!

Protein + Carbohydrates

The key components of a post-workout meal are a mix of protein and carbohydrate-rich foods. Protein is needed for muscle repair and carbohydrate for refilling glycogen stores.

Protein-rich foods:

  • Milk, yoghurt & cheese (soy or cows)
  • Meat, poultry & seafood
  • Eggs
  • Tofu
  • Legumes and beans

Carbohydrate-rich foods:

  • Bread, pasta, couscous, crackers
  • Potato and sweet potato
  • Sweet corn
  • Polenta
  • Rice, rice noodles and crackers
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Oats, muesli
  • Legumes and beans

Meal & snack ideas

Bottom line

In the end, it all comes down to how you eat overall for the whole day. Choose delicious, whole, fresh, minimally processed foods.

If you can, pad them around your training session so you’ve got plenty of energy to work hard and if you need help get it from a qualified nutritionist or dietitian.

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