What to Eat After Exercise…So You Don’t Gain Weight

woman lifting a barbell

It's easy to negate the effects of a good workout by eating the wrong foods afterward!

What’s best to eat for recovery after a hard workout? That’s what marathoners, body builders, and exercisers ask. They read ads for “recovery foods” with the “perfect” ratio of carbs to protein and a “proprietary” formula— and emphasize immediate consumption the minute you stop exercising. But the truth is that engineered recovery foods, which often cost more, are actually no more effective than standard foods.

Q: Who should eat a recovery diet?

A: Too many athletes are obsessed with rapidly refueling the minute they stop exercising.  They’re afraid they’ll miss the one-hour “window of

best recovery food for exercisers

Skip the pricey "recovery" foods; a glass of low-fat chocolate milk may be all you need.

opportunity” when replacement of glycogen [stored glucose] is fastest. But refueling still occurs for several hours after exercise, just at a slowing rate. So there’s no rush! Given a steady influx of adequate carb-based meals and snacks, muscles can refuel within 24 hours. If you have a full day to recover before your next training session, or if you have done an easy (non-depleting) workout, you don’t need to obsess about refueling immediately afterward. Over the course of the next 24 hours, you should repeatedly consume carbohydrates with each meal/snack, along with some protein to build and repair the muscles (e.g. chocolate milk or a fruit smoothie).

Refueling as soon as tolerable is most important for serious athletes doing a second bout of intense, depleting exercise within six hours of the first workout, including:

√ triathletes doing double workouts

√ soccer players in tournaments

√ people who ski hard in the morning and again in the afternoon.

The sooner these athletes consume carbs to replace depleted muscle glycogen and protein to repair damaged muscle, the sooner they’ll be able to exercise hard again.

Q: How many carbs do I need?

A: According to the International Olympic Committee’s Nutrition Recommendations, adequate carbs means:

Amount of exercise Gram carb/lb Gram carb/kg
Moderate exercise (about 1 hour/day) 2.5 to 3 5 to 7
Endurance exercise (about 1-3 h/day) 2.5 to 4.5 6 to 10
Extreme exercise  (more than 4-5 h/day) 3.5 to 5.5 8 to 12

 

For example, a 150-lb triathlete doing extreme exercise should target about 500 to 800 grams of carb/day (2,000 to 3,200 carb-calories). That’s about 500 to 800 grams of carbs every 4 hours during the daytime.

Q: What are some good carb-protein recovery foods?

recovery food for exercisers

Simple recovery food: cereal (carb) and low-fat milk (protein). Nothing elaborate and pricey necessary!

A: Your recovery meals and snacks should include a foundation of carbohydrate-rich breads, cereals, grains, fruits, and vegetables plus a smaller amount of protein (at least 10 to 20 grams per recovery snack or meal). Best bets:

√ fruit smoothie (Greek yogurt + banana + berries)

√ cereal + milk

√ bagel + (decaf) latté

√ pretzels + hummus

√ baked potato + cottage cheese

√ turkey sub

√ pasta + meatballs

Do NOT consume just protein, as in a protein shake or protein bar. Protein fills your stomach and helps build and repair muscles, but it does not refuel your muscles. Your muscles want three or four times more calories from carbs than from protein. If you like the convenience of protein shakes, at least add carbs to them. That is, blend in some banana, frozen berries, and/or graham crackers.

Keep in mind that recovery calories “count.” I hear many frustrated dieters complain they are not losing weight despite hard workouts. Perhaps that’s because they gobble 300 or so “recovery calories” and then go home and enjoy a hefty dinner. By organizing your training to end at mealtime, you can avoid over-indulging in recovery-calories.

Q: What about recovery electrolytes? Do I need them?

woman exercising hard outdoors and sweating

Simple foods still work best after a particularly tough workout, particularly if you sweat a lot.

 

 

A: After a hard workout, many athletes reach for a sports drink, thinking products like Gatorade or PowerAde are “loaded” with sodium (an electrically charged particle). Think again! Milk and other “real foods” are actually better sources of electrolytes than most commercial sports products. These electrolytes (also known as sodium and potassium) help enhance fluid retention and the restoration of normal fluid balance. Here’s how some common recovery fluids compare:

Beverage (8 oz) Sodium (mg) Potassium (mg) Protein (g) Carbs (g)
Water
PowerAde 55 45 19
Gatorade 110 30 14
Low-fat milk 100 400 8 12
Chocolate milk 150 425 8 26
Orange juice 450 2 26

 

As you can see, after a hard workout, recovery fluids that such as chocolate milk, orange juice, or a latte offer far more “good stuff” than you’d get in a sports drink. Sports drinks are dilute and designed for drinking during extended exercise.

bagel with peanut butter

A bagel with peanut butter provides carbs, protein, and sodium—important for replenishing after a tough workout.

To assess how much sodium you lose in sweat, weigh yourself naked pre and post an hour of exercise, accounting as best you can for any fluid consumed. Loss of one pound equates to loss of about 700 to 1,000 mg of sodium. If you sweat heavily and lose a significant amount of sodium, you can easily replace those losses with pretzels (300 mg sodium/10 twists), a bagel (500 mg) with peanut butter (200 mg/2 tbsp), Wheaties and milk (300 mg), or a spaghetti dinner with tomato sauce (1000 mg/cup Ragu sauce). The truth is: most athletes actually consume plenty of sodium, from everyday food!

Q: What should I eat before I exercise?

A: According to research presented at the 2011 annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine, consuming protein before lifting weights enhanced recovery better than consuming a protein drink afterwards. That’s because your body digests pre-exercise protein into amino acids during exercise and puts those amino acids right into action repairing damaged muscles.

Q: I never really feel like I recover well. Is something wrong?

woman running on beach in sweats

Sure, you love your morning runs, but make sure you take at least a day off every week to rest; your body needs it!

A: If you have to drag yourself through workouts, there could be an underlying issue. The most common:

√  You’re overtraining. Rest is an essential part of a training program; muscles need time to refuel and repair. Take at least one, if not two, days off from exercise per week.

√  You’re anemic. Anemia is common, so have your doctor monitor your serum ferritin (stored iron). If your iron stores are depleted, you’ll feel needlessly tired during exercise. An estimated half of female athletes are iron-deficient, as indicated by low serum ferritin stores. (About 14% of all women are iron deficient.) A survey with collegiate male runners suggested about 20% had low serum ferritin. Iron supplements help resolve the problem, along with a good recovery diet.

So the moral of the story is: Eat wisely, and you’ll recover well—and feel great without gaining extra weight!

Copyright: Nancy Clark MS RD CSSD January 2012

Nancy Clark MS RD CSSDAbout Nancy Clark MS RD CSSD
Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) counsels both casual and competitive athletes at her office in the Boston area (617-795-1875). Her Sports Nutrition Guidebook, Food Guide for Marathoners, and Cyclist's Food Guide all offer additional information. The books are available at www.nancyclarkrd.com and sportsnutritionworkshop.com.