Refuel and Recover

After exercise you may have stopped working, but your body hasn’t. Glycogen stores are replenished, and damaged muscle fibres begin to repair. Rest is when you actually become fitter and stronger, with your body working hard to adapt to the challenges placed upon it so it’s important to get post exercise nutrition right, possibly even more important than pre- or during exercise. If you give your body what it needs, when it needs it, it will be ready for the next workout or challenge sooner, if you don’t you could face feelings of fatigue and find yourself lacking in your next session.

When to refuel

There seems to be a short window of opportunity, within which your body’s capability to turn food into the muscles’ fuel, glycogen, is enhanced. Within the first 30 minutes post exercise, the enzymes responsible for this process are particularly active, up to one and a half times so, and remain fairly receptive for a further 90 minutes. But after two hours, this ability to store glycogen in the muscles drops by up to 66%.

What to take on

Most people that are asked this question will say “protein, protein and more protein” as this is what the body uses to help repair those aching muscles of yours, but that’s not all that’s needed, and it’s actually not the main element of exercise recovery.

Studies have found that a ratio of 3:1 carbs to protein is best for glycogen re-uptake, muscle repair, and also faster muscle growth. This magic ratio can also help to reduce the intensity of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). Protein coupled with the carbohydrate, helps to increase the release of insulin, promoting the uptake of glycogen, and it also minimises protein breakdown.

How much to take on

Now this part depends on a few factors:

  • How long your session was
  • How hard you worked
  • Your personal goals

60 minutes or less

Up to one hour’s exercise should only require a small snack, or if timed well with your next meal, a standard breakfast, lunch or dinner. It’s important to get some good quality carbohydrates in, as these provide your body with the sugars that are then converted to glycogen, but also a bit of protein to help with muscle repair.
If you exercised for less than 30 minutes you should be able to get by until your next meal, but if you’re very hungry that could be a sign that you started your workout slightly carb-depleted. Try a slice of wholemeal toast with a small amount of peanut butter, or a fruit and yoghurt smoothie to keep hunger at bay.
Peanut butter on toast gives a post-workout boost
30-60 minutes of exercise may substantiate something more filling so try to have your meal sooner after exercise than later. A chicken and salad sandwich is great for after a lunchtime run, or rice and grilled chicken or fish and veggies after an evening workout.
Other post exercise snacks include:
  • 1-2 pieces of fresh fruit and a glass of milk or a yoghurt
  • Tuna, cottage cheese or houmous with a bagel, wholemeal bread, pitta or a wrap
  • Dried fruit and nuts
  • Rice cakes with peanut butter and jam
  • Bowl of cereal or muesli with milk
  • Porridge
  • Jacket potato with tuna, baked beans, cottage cheese or chilli
  • Recovery shake (protein and carb formula)

Longer sessions

If you worked out for 60 minutes or more, or after a particularly hard session, you should try to focus on refuelling and giving your muscles the best possible chance to recover. Try a sports drink or energy bar as soon after exercise as possible to get some quickly absorbed carbohydrates into your system. Recently gaining momentum is the “Got Chocolate Milk” campaign. Chocolate milk has the right carbohydrate to protein ratio, and is therefore more apt to aid the body in recovery than a carbohydrate only drink. A small (200-300ml) glass of chocolate milk instead of a sports drink or energy bar may help you recover more quickly for your next session.
Chocolate milk is great for speedy recovery post exercise
After this snack, try to eat a complete meal within two hours of exercise. This meal should follow the principles of the snacks above, containing a good balance of carbohydrate to protein. Here are some ideas:
  • Pasta with a tomato based sauce, prawns, chicken, feta or tuna
  • Lasagne with salad
  • Jacket potato or rice, grilled chicken or fish, veggies
  • Bean or meat casserole with lots of vegetables, served with rice, couscous or wholemeal bread
  • Chilli with rice and veg
  • Fish pie and vegetables
  • Home-made curry with lean protein and veg, served with rice

What if…?

There are always going to be times when these suggestions don’t fit for whatever reason, here are a few example scenarios and how to get round them:

“I always feel a bit sick after a hard workout”

Even though you may not be hungry, your body still needs fuel to enable it to repair and recover. Sometimes a snack is all you need to settle your stomach again. Try something light that takes a little longer to digest, like a banana, or a rice cake with cottage cheese. Or have something fairly easy on the stomach like porridge, or scrambled egg with a slice of toast.

“What if I exercise before bed?”

If you work out late you’re not likely to want to eat something that will fill you up too much and sit in your stomach. Try having your main meal a couple of hours before your workout so you don’t finish feeling ravenous, and just have something easy to digest and fairly quick to make. Peanut butter on toast, or a bowl of cereal with some berries would be perfect.

“I’m trying to lose weight, how can I keep post exercise snacks to a minimum?”

There is some debate here, if you’re trying to lose weight then obviously you don’t want to take on more than you need, but after exercise your body does need food! It’s mostly about timing, if you exercise shortly before a main meal, you don’t need to take on extra nutrition and can just use your next meal for recovery. But otherwise, it’s still important to eat, or you’ll be too tired for your next session, or even end up too hungry and be likely to “binge” later on. The snacks and meals listed above are mostly low GI and should be able to keep you full without taking on too much.
What do you like to eat after exercise? Do you have any post-workout rituals or supplements that you couldn’t live without?

Further reading:

  1. Bean, A., 2007. Food for Fitness. London, A&C Black Publishers Ltd. Pages 57-63.
  2. Palmer, A., 2010. Runner’s World Complete Guide to Nutrition. London, NatMag Rodale Ltd. Page 167.
  3. Karp, J.R., Johnston, J.D., Tecklenburg, S., Mickleborough, T.D., Fly, A.D., Stager, J.M., 2006. Chocolate milk as a post-exercise recovery aid, International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, [online] Available at: http://oakbrooksc.com/docs/stager_chocmilk_study.pdf [Accessed 14th November 2012].
  4. Got Chocolate Milk?, 2012. What’s in it? [online] Available at: http://www.gotchocolatemilk.com/ [Accessed 14th November 2012].
  5. Niles, E.S., Lachowetz, T., Garfi, J., Sullivan, W., Smith, J.C., Leyh, B.P., Headley, S.A., 2001. Carbohydrate-protein drink improves time to exhaustion after recovery from endurance exercise, Journal of Exercise Physiology Online [online] Available at: http://faculty.css.edu/tboone2/asep/Niles1Col.PDF [Accessed 15th November 2012].