What should you eat post-workout to get the most out of your exercise?

So you’ve just done a workout, maybe some cardio or weights training, or both! Now what? What is the best way to replenish and rebuild your energy stores and muscles post-workout? What should you eat now? Keep reading to find out!

Why is the post-workout feed important?

Eating a carefully chosen, well-balanced meal or snack post-workout is important because it restores your energy reserves (known as glycogen) and helps to rebuild damaged muscle tissue! (1) It can be the difference between muscle recovery or muscle degeneration, and energy restoration or exhaustion! During an intense workout, you deplete a large amount of your stored fuels (mainly glycogen) and cause damage to muscle fibres. The goal of post-workout replenishment is to reverse these processes, and to improve muscle recovery and integrity!

When is the best time to eat, post-workout?

Straight after a workout, there is a 30-60 minute “window of opportunity” when your body is in an optimum position to readily uptake protein and carbohydrates, and carry out muscle recovery and glycogen repletion (replenishing your energy stores).

This is because there is up-regulation of “glucose transporter carrier protein-4” on cell surfaces during a workout, meaning that your cells are primed and ready to take in as much energy as they possibly can post-workout! (2) This is why it’s important to make the most of this opportunity! BUT, there is a catch.

Vigorous exercise engages your sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is the part of your nervous system that is engaged during times of stress, also known as “fight or flight.” Stress hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline are released during exercise, which de-activates your digestive function (4). This means that your digestive system is not exactly ready to take in and effectively absorb a huge meal post-workout! However, we can try and hijack this, and engage your parasympathetic nervous system (also known as “rest and digest” nervous system) to allow your body to effectively take in the nutrients you are about to consume. One way you can do this is be sure to engage in a cool-down post-workout. This significantly lowers your heart rate, and can begin to engage your “rest and digest” nervous system (3). Focus on deep breathing and relaxation before you eat and during your meal or snack, sending a signal to your body and brain that it is digestion time, so you can get the most of the food you’re eating! Engaging in a high-intensity workout then rushing off to work whilst sculling your protein shake is not going to be very effective for nutrient replenishment!

What type of meal or snack should you consume post-workout?

Research shows that the best type of meal or snack to have post-workout is one rich in protein and carbohydrates.

Studies have shown that consuming a meal or snack balanced with protein and carbohydrates post-workout significantly increases glycogen resynthesis (energy restoration) and muscle synthesis (1). The combination of carbohydrates and protein increases insulin levels, which is an “anabolic hormone.” What this means, is that it is involved in building up, NOT breaking down. This is great news for your muscles!

Now, there are a whole array of post-workout supplements that provide carbs and protein, but there is a downside; they only provide protein and carbs, and are often devoid of real nutrients! Humans don’t JUST need macronutrients, but we need real food with a whole array of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, antioxidants and other beneficial compounds that all play a role in improving our health! That is why most of my suggestions below are real, whole food snacks or meals for your post-workout recovery.

My suggestions

Protein shake

The truth of the matter is, most of us get enough protein in our diets and we don't actually need concentrated protein powders to get adequate protein. However, if you’re after convenience and something you can sip on after a workout, a protein shake may be the way to go! There are literally thousands of protein powders on the market, but my recommendation is to get a collagen-based protein powder. This is because collagen is the most abundant protein in the body. In fact, 30-40% of all the protein in your body is made up of collagen (5). It is also really gentle on the gut, easily digestible and contains arginine, which is important for muscle repair and synthesis and glycine, which is VITAL for glycogen replenishment.

Here is a suggested mix for you:

  • Collagen protein

  • Almond butter: calorie dense and also contains protein

  • Cacao: contains anti-inflammatory properties which can aid in recovery and natural simulates to help boost and replenish energy levels

  • Bananas (frozen): rich in potassium, magnesium and carbohydrates to refuel you

  • Coconut water: rich in electrolytes, a good base for the smoothie

Chicken, black bean and quinoa salad

Throw together all these ingredients together for a great carbohydrate and protein balanced meal post-workout!

  • Chicken: high in protein, and relatively easy to digest

  • Quinoa: moderately high in protein, as well as potassium and magnesium for electrolyte repletion

  • -Black beans: contains starch with slow-release and easily digestible carbohydrates, whilst also being naturally high in protein! (6)

Veggies and hummus dip

This combo is not only great for entertaining on the weekend, but it also doubles as a fantastic post-workout snack!

  • Hummus: chickpeas in hummus provide reasonable amounts of protein and carbs to help you refuel

  • Veggies (eg. celery, carrot, capsicum): provide carbs, fibre, nutrients and water!


Eggs and avo on sweet potato toast

I find myself feeling sluggish after eating gluten-rich conventional breads, so I opt for sweet potato toast as an alternative!

  • Eggs: a great source of protein and energising fats

  • Sweet potato: will help you to replenish your glycogen stores because of the natural sugars and complex carbohydrates it contains

  • Avo: high healthy fat content will also help you re-energise!

Peanut Banana overnight oats


This is a great one you can prepare the night before if you are little time-poor

  • Oats: Oats are fantastic because they are gradually digested and help you replenish glycogen stores

  • Peanut Butter: provides protein and healthy fats to fuel you!

  • Bananas: rich in potassium, magnesium and carbohydrates to refuel you


I hope this has been helpful for you, and that some of my suggestions can improve your post- workout recovery!

References

(1) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3577439/ (2) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12617691 (3) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12735426 (4) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18416594 (5) https://www.elsevier.com/books/international-review-of-connective-tissue-research/hall/ 978-0-12-363710-9 (6) https://draxe.com/black-beans-nutrition/

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