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Refueling After a Workout


Last Friday I decided that I was going to run the 17 miles from my house to work. I don't know what got into me. Maybe I was inspired by the Olympics or humiliated my failure at the Pallet Jack Race (watch the video here). Regardless, I guess I felt like I needed to prove something and prove something I did: I'm an idiot. 17 miles is a long way and I don't think I was quite ready for it. In my defense, I am training for a marathon in November so this day had to come sooner or later.

I should have planned better. I didn't allow myself enough time and had to call in from a gas station along the way to let Paul know I was "running" (see what I did there?) late and by the time I got here I was spent. That's when I realized my worst mistake; I had nothing in the office to eat. I was totally depleted and just didn't have the right food on hand to set myself right.

In honor of my stupidity, I did some research and put together some tips on how and what to eat before and after a workout. I learned the hard way that refueling definitely makes a difference!

The typical person thinks an energy bar, protein shake or sports drink will suffice in the aftermath of an exhausting workout. Though the electrolytes and protein in these post-workout forms of sustenance certainly help, much more is needed to properly refuel the body. Even those who are trying to shed weight need a nutrient-packed post-workout meal.

The failure to properly refuel after a workout will cause the body to consume its own muscle and offset the benefits obtained from exercise. Even if your workout is fairly light such as a yoga session or a quick jog, you still need to refuel your body with something following activity. Ideally, you will consume healthy, nutritious food and water/electrolyte-laden sports fluids within half an hour of your exercise session.

When to Refuel

Do not wait any longer than an hour to refuel your body. The proper timing of replenishment will heighten the production of glycogen. This is the uber-important carbohydrate in the muscles that allows for physical activity. Several studies have shown that consuming carbohydrates immediately after a workout serves to hasten the body's regeneration of glycogen. Glycogen production is especially important for those who have additional physical activity on the docket for the remainder of the day.

Mind Your Calories

A post-workout snack should have at least 250 calories at a bare minimum. It should also contain protein and carbohydrates. Otherwise, this form of sustenance won't slow down energy release or provide satiety. Keep in mind that your body has broken down critically important tissues and makes use of energy in the form of carbohydrates that are stored in the muscle, liver and blood. If you don't consume enough food following your workout, your body won't be able to recover and subsequent activities won't be nearly as enjoyable or productive.


Examples of Post-Workout Fuel

Opt for foods with plenty of protein, carbs and flavor. Make sure it has a little bit of salt or sugar so you feel satisfied and are not temped to overeat throughout the rest of the day. Chow down on carrot sticks and celery dipped in hummus. Whole wheat crackers, Greek yogurt, fruit, nuts and nut butter will also suffice as nutritious post-exercise fuel. Health experts state that the proper ratio of carbohydrates to protein is between 3:1 and 4:1 following a workout. As an example, four servings of grains should be consumed for each serving of meat in the aftermath of a strenuous session at the gym.

Do not fall for the marketing hype surrounding recovery bars. Though some of these post-workout snacks are healthy and provide an energy boost, they are not any different than something like a banana with crackers and peanut butter. Energy bars are a good choice if you are on the run and don't have time to prepare a healthy meal. However, any old energy bar will not suffice for refueling purposes. Take a close look at the energy bar's ingredients. If it has dried fruits, nuts and ample protein, give it a shot. If it is loaded with sugar and salt, think of it as a dessert rather than a means of refueling the body following a workout. Even some vegan, gluten-free and all-natural energy bars are unhealthy. Some of these allegedly nutritious vegan protein bars have 400 or more calories.


Don't Forget About Hydration

The typical workout induces sweat that drains the body of much-needed moisture. You also lose fluid through exhalation to boot. It is imperative that you hydrate your body following physical activity. This is especially important if it it is hot or humid as sweat does not evaporate as quickly or easily when the weather is humid. So be sure to hydrate with cool water and/or sports drinks with electrolytes during and after your workout.

The guidelines established by the American College of Sports medicine state that drinking between 20 and 40 ounces of fluid is required for each hour of exercise. Once the workout ends, one should consume 16 to 24 ounces of fluids for each pound of body weight lost as a result of the sweating process.

A Word About Sports Drinks

Sports drinks and juices with carbohydrates are much easier to digest than carb-laden foods following a strenuous workout. Some physical fitness experts swear by coconut water as it is loaded with electrolytes. It also has carbohydrates to boot. However, unlike most sports drinks, coconut water does not have any added sugar. 


Electrolytes refuel the body with sodium. The body loses upwards of 10 grams of sodium per day when put to the max in hot/humid conditions. Even an hour of exercise in cold temperatures will lower the body's sodium level. Opt for a sports drink with electrolytes and you will enjoy an infusion of sodium and potassium that boosts endurance, energy and muscle strength.

What to Eat Before and After a Workout

It's best to eat 1-2 hours before your workout, and keep the meal between 300 and 500 calories of healthy carbohydrates. Don't eat a meal immediately before a workout. Some ideas for pre-workout foods are bananas, oatmeal, whole wheat toast, and yams. 

It's best to eat something to refuel between 20 and 60 minutes after you finish your workout so your body uses the nutrients for recovery. Mix proteins with healthy carbohydrates and aim for around 400 calories. Some ideas for post-workout meals are: chicken and brown rice, wheat toast and egg whites, yogurt and almonds, or protein bars.

The 7 Best Foods to Eat After a Workout

The worst thing you can do to your body following a workout is not eat. Your body desperately needs sustenance as well as hydration from water/sports drinks to refuel following a grueling exercise session. Try to eat within 20 minutes of your workout's completion. Any old food will not suffice. You need a steady supply of nutrients in order to recover, regain energy and face the rest of the day.

The human body uses up glycogen within its muscles during physical activity. Even protein structures are broken apart while exercising. The failure to replenish the body with healthy food following a workout will leave these muscle tissues much weaker than they should be. Poor post-workout nutrition or a complete lack of food following physical activity will prevent new muscle from growing. So don't reach for a candy bar, a couple pieces of bread, brownies or pretzels after a taxing session at the gym. Here is exactly what you should eat following your workout.

1. Healthy Complex Carbohydrates Like Brown Rice and Chicken

Eat an entree of chicken and brown rice to load up on healthy complex carbohydrates in the aftermath of your workout. These carbohydrates will spur the release of enough insulin to stimulate your body to the point that it can function without flaw for the remainder of the day. In turn, insulin transmits carbohydrates and amino acids to the muscles to stimulate their growth.


2.  Salmon

Enjoy some tasty salmon along with olive oil and a side of celery. Cap off the meal with some grapes for a sweet treat. Salmon is helpful thanks to its omega-3s that decrease muscle inflammation in the aftermath of an exhausting workout. If muscle was left in an inflamed state, it would result in painful soreness for hours or even days on end. Research also shows that salmon contains healthy fat that stimulates the burning of fat. Celery and grapes add in much-needed carbohydrates and fiber. The olive oil provides healthy fat.

3. Turkey and Veggie Wrap

Dig in on a whole-wheat turkey and vegetable wrap following your workout and you will consume the carbohydrates necessary to refuel your energy-depleted body. Add multi-colored vegetables of different varieties (tomato, spinach, pickles, peppers etc.) to load up your body with vitamins, fiber and important nutrients. Turkey is ideal as it is loaded with the protein your muscles need to rebuild following a strenuous exercise session. Protein also serves to repair damaged muscles. Renewed muscle tissue stimulates the metabolism, allowing your body to process food in an efficient manner.


4. Tuna Sandwich

Slap some tuna on two slices of bread and you will have a convenient, simple and uber-healthy small meal. Tuna has little fat but plenty of protein and omega-3 fatty acids that promote heart health. Add some olive oil, kale/spinach, pickles and tomato to the sandwich for even more nutritional benefit. Tack on some crackers as a side dish for energizing carbs that will fuel your body following exercise.

5. Quinoa Plus Sweet Potatoes

These are two simple foods that taste amazing and boost your body after a taxing exercise session. Add some soy sauce to your quinoa for flavor. It provides all sorts of helpful vitamins and nutrients. Quinoa has more protein and fiber than brown rice so be sure to stock up on this grain during your next trip to the supermarket. Sweet potatoes are rich in magnesium, potassium and other vitamins. If you are still hungry following this meal of side dishes, devour some kiwi. This scrumptious fruit loads up your body with vitamin C, potassium and antioxidants.


6. Black Beans and Eggs

If you aren't afraid of a little post-workout flatulence, prepare some black beans, eggs and peppers following your day at the gym. Cook up your favorite style of eggs and mix them with black beans and pepper slices. Opt for bell peppers and you will enjoy an infusion of vitamin C. Black beans provide carbohydrates and plenty of fiber. Eggs are chock full of protein that will keep you satiated, catalyze muscle repair and prevent overeating throughout the rest of the day and night.

7. Hummus on Whole Grain Bread

Hummus is quickly spilling into the mainstream. If you are a bit hesitant to eat hummus, let it warm up after taking it out of the fridge. Room temperature hummus tastes much better than cold hummus. Hummus is made with chick peas, crushed sesame seeds known as “tahini”, water and lemon juice. Some add olive oil to boot. This bean mixture is rife with protein, carbohydrates and vitamins that fuel your body after a grueling session at the gym.

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Topics from this blog: Training Tips Nutrition