One thing we know about exercise is that it expends energy, and sometimes, lots of it. It’s macronutrients from the food you eat, mainly carbohydrates and fat, that fuel an exercise session. If you don’t supply your body with adequate fuel, your exercise performance may suffer. That’s why extreme calorie restriction is detrimental to exercise performance.
You already know that fueling up properly beforehand can help you perform better, but what about post-workout nutrition? Too often, people neglect this aspect of getting stronger and fitter. How many of these post-workout nutrition mistakes are you making?
Post-Workout Nutrition Mistake One: Not Eating Anything after a Workout
On days that you’re busy, you might be tempted to get back to your routine without having a meal or snack. Don’t do it. Exercise depletes muscle glycogen stores and if you don’t replenish them, you risk feeling fatigued. Plus, if you exercise twice a day, your second workout may suffer. Aim for a small meal or snack with a ratio of around 3 or 4 to 1 carbs to protein. Science suggests that this is the ideal ratio and each is important. You need carbohydrates to replenish glycogen and protein to help your body repair damaged muscle fibers. Plus, a combo of protein and carbs triggers a transient bump-up in insulin that helps get those amino acids into muscle cells where they can start repairing damage to your muscle fibers.
What about timing? Eat a meal or snack as soon as possible after a workout but don’t stress if you can’t munch on something for an hour or two. At one time, it was thought that you needed to consume carbs and protein within a window period to maximize muscle protein synthesis, usually within an hour. However, studies are questioning whether eating within this window period matters. You also don’t need an enormous amount of protein after a workout, between 20 and 30 grams should suffice. If you use the 3 or 4 to 1 ratio, that’s around 25 grams of protein and between 75 and 100 grams of carbs. Stick to the lower end of carb range if you’re trying to lose weight.
Post-Workout Nutrition Mistake Two: Not Adjusting How Much You Eat Based on Your Workout
It’s true that you need to replace glycogen stores after a workout, but factor in how hard you worked. If you did a yoga workout or a stretching class, don’t pull out all the stops by eating an extra meal or a calorie-laden snack. Studies show that people tend to overcompensate for the calories burned during exercise by eating more calories than they expended and that’s not productive if you’re trying to control your weight. Consuming more calories than maintenance may help you build muscle, but if your primary goal is to get leaner, don’t let the size of your post-workout meals and snacks get out of hand. A high-intensity interval training workout that lasts 40 minutes needs a different refueling strategy than a leisurely 30-minute yoga class. Adjust how much you eat accordingly.
Post-Workout Nutrition Mistake Three: Not Refueling with Real Food
It’s easy to get sucked in by the convenience of a protein bar or a protein shake, but, ultimately, your body functions best on whole, unprocessed foods. Many shakes and bars are highly processed and some contain high amounts of sugar. Yes, your body can handle a bit more sugar after a hard workout but 20 or 30 grams of sugar in a single bar rivals that of a candy bar. Remember, sugar has no nutritional value, only empty calories. Many protein bars and protein powders are loaded with fillers and artificial ingredients that you simply don’t need in your diet.
Save the protein bars and powders for days that you’re truly time-strapped. Otherwise, stick to healthier sources of post-workout carbs, like oatmeal, beans, lentils, sweet potatoes, hummus, and protein sources, like hard-boiled eggs or a chicken breast. If you’re trying to keep it plant-based, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, tempeh, quinoa are good sources of protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
Post-Workout Nutrition Mistake Four: Not Rehydrating
Refueling is more than what you eat. Your body needs hydration as well, so place as much emphasis on rehydrating after a workout as you do replenishing glycogen, your muscles fuel stores. Your body is 60% water and studies show even mild dehydration can cause fatigue, negatively impact your mood, and trigger headaches. That’s because dehydration directly impacts brain and muscle activity by reducing nerve transmission between the two. Signals are slower to arrive and you feel tired and may experience brain fog.
The best way to make sure you’re drinking enough is to weigh yourself just before your workout and right after. Subtract your “before” weight from your “after” weight. For each pound that you’re down, drink 2.5 glasses of water. There’s really no need to drink a sports drink unless you were exercising hard for 90 minutes or more. Most sports drinks contain lots of sugar or artificial sweeteners as well as other synthetic additives. Water works best. If you don’t enjoy drinking plain water, add fruit slices for flavor.
Post-Workout Nutrition Mistake Fives: You Get Your Sugar Fix after a Workout
As mentioned, after a workout is the best time to consume a snack higher in sugar. When you eat something sweet, insulin rises and this helps get glucose into cells to replenish glycogen – but don’t overdo it. A doughnut or a brownie is devoid of nutritional value and contains no protein. Aim for a snack that has a three or four to one ratio of carbs to protein rather than telling yourself you “deserve” a doughnut or pastry because you worked out. It’s best to wean yourself away from sugar as much as you can. Your body needs food with nutritional sustenance after a workout, not empty calories.
American Council on Exercise. “What You Need to Know about Nutrient Timing”
J Sports Sci Med. 2010 Sep 1;9(3):354-63. eCollection 2010.
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