Re-Build Your Body After A Strenuous Workout With Food

Wednesday, September 27, 2006 - 10:08am

By Erica Lesperance, RD, LD

Food is one of life’s simple pleasures. Its role in our bodies, however, is very complicated. Food is essential fuel for the body, ensuring proper growth and development. Making the right food choices can help maintain a healthy weight and prevent or slow disease processes and aging. For athletes, food choices play the additional role of providing adequate energy for vigorous training and endurance events. However, many beginner athletes do not realize that the foods they choose after their training workouts and competitions are often more important than those that they eat before working out.

Athletes have special nutritional needs

Athletes often experience chronic fatigue when training for endurance events such as marathons and triathlons. One of the most common causes of chronic fatigue in athletes is improper nutrition. When facing an arduous training schedule, an athlete must replenish her body after each workout. This can be difficult because time is limited and appetite is often suppressed after strenuous exercise. However, taking small steps to promote recovery will help prevent injury and improve performance. The most important considerations for optimal recovery from exhaustive daily training, a hard competition, or a multi-sport event are fluids, carbohydrates, protein, and electrolytes.

Optimal workout recovery foods

1.   Fluids need replacing after exercise

Replacing fluids lost during exercise is the number one priority for recovery. It is common for athletes to lose several pounds of water through sweat in one training session. Serious dehydration can be prevented by drinking 6-8 ounces of fluid every 15-20 minutes during exercise. Even with this important preventative measure, fluids will still need to be replaced after exercise according to the following guidelines.

  • Weigh yourself before and after hard exercise to determine the amount of fluid loss. (If the loss is more than 2% of your body weight, adjust your hydration schedule during exercise to minimize the loss.)

  • Drink 16 ounces of fluid for every pound lost.
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine during your rehydration period, as they act as a diuretic and cause your body to lose more water.
  • When your urine is clear or pale yellow and you have to urinate frequently, you are adequately rehydrated.

2.   After exercise carbohydrates stores need replenishing

Carbohydrates are stored in muscle in the form of glycogen. During exercise, glycogen stores are depleted and need to be replenished. The enzymes responsible for making glycogen are most active during the first 15 minutes after a workout. Muscles then continue to replace glycogen at a slower rate, taking at least 20 hours to fully replenish depleted stores. Based on this knowledge, the following is recommended.

  • Eat a snack containing 50-100 grams of carbohydrate (200-400 calories) within 15 minutes after finishing your workout. Liquids and solids work equally well. Examples include:
    • 24-32 ounces of a sports drink such as Gatorade
    • 8 ounces of fruit juice and a medium bagel
    • 1 serving of cereal with milk and a banana
    • 2 slices of toast and a yogur
  • Continue to eat 0.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight every two hours for six to eight hours. For a 150-pound athlete, that is 75 grams of carbohydrates, which is equivalent to 300 calories.

3.   Protein, with carbohydrate is recommended after exercising

Protein does very little for recovery on its own. However, when eaten in combination with recovery carbohydrates, it can enhance glycogen replacement. Excessive protein is not necessary, but it is wise to incorporate small amounts in your post-exercise meal schedule. This is easily accomplished by adding milk to cereal, peanut butter to toast, or cheese to fruit. If you prefer not to eat solids soon after exercise, try a recovery sports drink that provides protein and carbohydrates.

4.   Electrolytes lost during exercise need restoring

Loss of fluid is not the only concern with excessive sweating during exercise. Minerals such as potassium and sodium are also excreted through the pores. These minerals, called electrolytes, are important for normal body function. Potassium is involved in many vital processes such as muscle contraction, heart function, and maintaining fluid balance. Sodium, which is a component of salt, is also involved in maintenance of fluid balance.

It is easy to replenish electrolytes with post-exercise foods. Given the high sodium content of the American diet, replacing salt loss is usually of no major concern. Some popular recovery drinks such as Gatorade and PowerAde are surprisingly low in potassium, so it is wise to have on hand some high potassium foods to eat after exercise. Examples include potatoes, yogurt, orange juice, bananas, pineapple juice and raisins.

It is essential to eat and drink to replenish your body after working out

If you have never carefully considered the foods you eat after strenuous exercise, it may take some discipline and planning ahead to follow the above recommendations. However, if you choose recovery foods and fluids wisely you will optimally replenish your body’s stores and recover more quickly for your next workout. For the endurance athlete who must often train twice in one day, this is essential to prevent chronic fatigue and promote peak performance.

For further information on eating after you have exercised see the following articles from TheDietChannel: Sports Nutrition: 8 Nutritious Ways to Maximize Your Workout and Maximize Your Workout With Protein & Nutrition Timing.

For further information on coping with eating late in the evening after exercise see the following article from TheDietChannel: Post-workout meal: Appropriate after 8 p.m?