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How to Make the Most of Your Post-Workout Meal

By Julia Reedy, MNSP, July 12, 2020

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You made the plan, stuck to it, and smashed your workout. You’re done! Right? Well, not quite. Because if you want to squeeze every last drop out of your hard work (and keep exhaustion-induced wooziness at bay—we've all been there), your routine should stretch beyond that last rep. Here’s how to make the most of your post-workout meal.

 

Your post-workout meal has everything to do with the workout itself

Aerobic exercises like running, spinning, or even choreographed trampolining are ones that require increased oxygen consumption (ahem, breathing) for a sustained period of time. During these types of workouts, you breathe heavily but steadily and don't necessarily strain your muscles too much. Aerobic exercise largely relies on glycogen—a storage form of carbohydrate found in the muscles—for sustained energy.

This is different from anaerobic work like weightlifting or sprinting (for short distances) in which the work is started and finished in quick succession, thereby limiting your need for a steady increased oxygen supply. Exercises like these use (and exhaust) short-supply fuels like creatine phosphate in your muscles for power.

Many gym warriors also spend at least some of their sweat time dedicated to HIIT or circuit training, which are some combination of these two types and thus utilize multiple fuel sources, though glycogen really keeps things running beyond the first few minutes.

And since we're depleting our bodies of these crucial energy sources during intense workouts, it's critical that we re-fuel them within a certain amount of time. Our bodies are especially sensitive to food immediately after a workout, so what we eat during that window is crucial. What's more—the composition of your workout really should drive the composition of your post-workout meal. So what does refueling look like for each of these types of exercise? Let’s get into it.

 

For endurance: lots of carbs, some protein, plus electrolytes and anti-inflammatory add-ons

Your body is primed for refueling about 30 minutes after your workout. Aerobic exercise expends sugar for energy, which largely comes from glycogen—and it continues to be used well beyond that final minute, as your body is still working hard even if you've stopped moving. This can cause your blood sugar to dip below normal, leading to a woozy and shaky feeling.

So, to get back on stable ground, make carbs the focal point of your post-cardio meal. A small amount of protein is also recommended; it helps to prevent muscle tissue breakdown (separate from glycogen breakdown, this is something that happens if you don't eat enough after a workout) and instead stimulates repair.1

No matter your M.O., cardio work always comes with 3 side effects: fast breathing, a high heart rate, and sweat! You can lose a significant amount of fluids during a single workout, making it incredibly important that you hydrate enough to replenish what you lost. This includes both water and the electrolytes sodium and potassium that exit your pores. Here’s a recipe that’s rich in all the necessary post-cardio nutrients:

Tropical Smoothie

This type of exercise is also typically followed by spikes in inflammation markers like hsCRP as well as cortisol (be it slightly delayed).2 Add some anti-inflammatory nuts or seeds to your smoothie to counteract these fluctuations.

 

For strength/anaerobic: protein to repair muscles, carbs to get the job done

During resistance exercise, we force our muscles past their breaking point—literally. When we lift weights and do other muscle-intensive activities, we cause them to slightly tear (FYI: this results in a raised blood level of creatine kinase (CK). It's an enzyme only found in muscle, so when it appears in blood, we know some muscle damage has occurred and allowed it to leak out). This process is completely normal; in fact, it's absolutely necessary if we want to get stronger. But in order to reap these benefits, we have to give our muscles the fuel and resources they need to build themselves back up. Plus, if we continue this muscle break-down process with multiple tough workouts in a row without adequate fuel, we run the risk of causing cascading consequences throughout our bodies.

So how do we build and repair muscle? The answer might seem simple: protein, right? It is the building block of muscles, after all. And that's certainly true. But what's slightly lesser known is that this repair process also requires carbs. Muscle repair is a process that requires energy in the form of calories. And if the calories in your post-workout meal are all protein, some of those will just be burned off like gasoline—effectively wasting away its potential to do the job intended. The carbs act as that needed energy source, feeding the muscles as they do their work. Here's a simple recipe that's protein-heavy with a boost of carbs (and would go great over your favorite grain).

Simple Beef Stir-Fry

 

For HIIT: carbs and protein, plus a focus on slow-digesting, anti-inflammatory foods all day

Circuit training and HIIT integrate parts of both aerobic and anaerobic exercise, so it stands to reason that your re-fuel should incorporate significant amounts of both carbs and protein to replenish the multiple different types of energy stores your body has expended. Pushing your body into an especially strenuous state can also cause especially high levels of inflammation. This recipe has substantial amounts of carbs and protein alike, plus the added bonus of anti-inflammatory berries and oats.

Yogurt Parfait

Circuit training is also well known for its ability to keep your body in a high-calorie-burning state for an especially long amount of time. After eating your post-workout meal, focus the rest of the day on incorporating slow-digesting foods like healthy fats and fiber to ensure your muscles get the slow, consistent drip of energy that they need.

HIIT is especially trying on the body because of its, well, high intensity. So get the rest it needs! One study found that even a single night of inadequate sleep can limit your body’s ability to recover after interval training.3

 

Summary: what to include in your post-workout meal

When it comes to squeezing all the juice out of a tough workout, your fuel is your strongest tool. Making calculated choices can help you recover, re-energize, and repair muscles more efficiently. Here's a summary of best post-workout refueling practices:
  • If doing endurance/aerobic exercise, build a post-workout meal around healthy carbohydrates. Add some protein, electrolytes, and anti-inflammatory ingredients to support recovery.
  • If doing strength/anaerobic work, eat a high-protein meal after your workout. Make sure your meal also includes carbs to avoid burning dietary protein for energy.
  • HIIT/circuit training requires lots of carbs and protein to re-fuel. Because of its intensity, it's important to be cognizant of your food intake throughout the day after this type of workout—focus all meals on a HIIT day around anti-inflammatory, slow-digesting foods.

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Reedy Headshot (3)Julia Reedy, MNSP
      • Julia is a Written Content Strategist & Editor at InsideTracker. She loves to use her experience in cutting-edge nutrition research and writing to spin complex health and nutrition topics into clear, approachable info everyone can relate to. As an inquisitive food shopper, she's constantly reading ingredient lists—and leaving shelves of backward products in her wake.

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      • References
      • [1] Ivy, John L. "Regulation of muscle glycogen repletion, muscle protein synthesis and repair following exercise." Journal of sports science & medicine 3.3 (2004): 131.
      • [2] Kamath, Deepak Y. et al. “High Sensitivity C-Reactive Protein (hsCRP) & Cardiovascular Disease: An Indian Perspective.” The Indian Journal of Medical Research 142.3 (2015): 261–268. PMC. Web. 26 Apr. 2018.
      • [3] Rae DE, et al. One night of partial sleep deprivation impairs recovery from a single exercise training session. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 2017;117:699.

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