So you've just finished a race or an intense sweat. Now, what should you eat after a workout? As much as you would love to drink your finisher beer, experts say to eat a small recovery meal first, such as a sandwich and some fruit, some chocolate milk, or even a shake to kick-start the recovery process. Regardless of what you choose, you want your post-race recovery snack to have some protein, fat, and carbs.
Why Is the Post-Race Refueling Window So Important for Recovery?
What should you eat after a workout? (Or perhaps more importantly, why should you eat after a workout?) Also known as the anabolic phase, this post-exercise recovery period — previously thought to be just an hour or two long — can be the secret to constant improvement for at least 36 hours after a workout. Here are some things to note.
1. It promotes muscle anabolism.
As soon as we start a race or an intense workout session, the muscle breakdown begins. And the longer and more intense the session, the more extensive the damage.
Muscle catabolism (breakdown) occurs as the body fuels the demands of physical activity. During this process, the body uses the fuel you provided before the workout as well as what it had stored in reserve. During a long and difficult workout, these fuels eventually become depleted. You can see this during a race (especially a Super or Beast) and definitely afterward.
This damage — and subsequent regrowth upon refueling — is what provides opportunity for improvement.
2. It decreases Inflammation.
Some of the soreness you feel after a hard workout is due to inflammation that follows muscle tears and other tissue breakdown. It’s the body recruiting cells to the site of the damage, so that it can work to create new proteins to rebuild muscle.
Great, right? Sure — unless you’re not properly fueled.
In that case, the body becomes its own worst enemy by breaking down its own muscle to fuel recovery. When this protein breakdown exceeds the rate of repair, there is a net loss of muscle.
By taking advantage of the post-activity window and incorporating a carbohydrate-protein snack, you provide the body with additional protein so that it can spare unnecessary muscle breakdown.
3. It increases blood flow.
Your body does not know that you’re striving for the final piece of your Trifecta. All your body knows is that you are making demands (running, lifting, pushing) and that it doesn’t seem like you’re stopping anytime soon.
So, it enters defense mode.
One way it does that is by increasing blood flow to the muscles, but this elevated blood flow doesn’t stop when you stop. After you stop, it remains elevated. This is good, because nutrients and oxygen are delivered quicker and metabolic byproducts are removed more rapidly.
3 Ways to Master Your Post-Race Refueling Window
The possibilities for refueling are endless, so don’t overthink it. Here are some basic guidelines to get you started:
1. Make your recovery fuel part of your workout and race plan.
If there is a finish line with fuel, great. But if your training takes you to the trails with an hour drive home afterward, make sure to pack something for the ride.
2. Start with something easy.
A lot of people aren’t ready to take in solid food after a demanding workout. However, fluids usually go down easy. Begin with a simple eight-ounce chocolate milk followed by more fuel within the hour for maximum results.
3. Eat something — anything.
But don’t stick to a liquid diet for long. Carbohydrate and protein sources are an easy combo. Follow up the chocolate milk or smoothie with a turkey sandwich, pretzels, and cheese.
Remember, its not just a question of what should you eat after a workout, but why you should eat directly after a sweat session. Thank your body for working hard by giving it the fuel it deserves.