Hands up if you’ve ever found yourself halfway through a workout only to become so distracted by what you’ll eating afterwards that you can hardly wait to step off the treadmill? If you’re finding yourself too hungry in the middle of a workout you should probably consider what to eat before a workout, and then think about optimal nutrition for workout recovery.
You may have heard that you should eat some protein and carbs during the “critical window” post-workout. That’s true, but only in some cases.
Here’s the deal: if you’ve had a pre-workout snack/meal, or any other recent meal, there’s no crucial, do-or-die need to eat after your workout–especially if you’re not hungry.
This is particularly true if you have no other workouts planned for the day since your body is able to replenish energy levels within 8 hours of normal eating. But it does make sense to fuel within that 20-60 minute window if you a) haven’t had anything to eat before your workout (such as a fasted morning exercise session) and/or b) you’re going to be working out again within the next 8 hours (this applies to athletes who are training multiple times a day).
Studies show that muscles’ elevated sensitivity to protein lasts at least 24 hours after exercising so whether you have that protein shake straight after your HIIT class or at your next main meal, the muscle protein synthesis will still happen. Don’t worry too much about protein timing–just make sure you’re getting a good amount of protein over the course of the day from a variety of whole food sources.
The daily recommended intake is 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight, although protein needs vary based on age, activity level, pregnancy, health conditions, etc. As with everything in life, moderation is key! The Goldilocks principle certainly applies to protein intake: not too much, not too little, just right.
Too little protein can cause wonky blood sugar and loss of lean body mass, while too much can cause your body to convert the protein you’re eating into excess blood sugar through a process called gluconeogenesis. I suggest shooting for between 40 and 70 grams of protein per day, depending on your lean body mass.
Here are some protein-rich meals and snacks to have post-workout:
- Smoothie – 1 scoop of collagen or whey protein powder, a handful of greens, 1/2 cup of berries, 1 tablespoon of almond butter or ½ avocado, almond or coconut milk, plus a dash of cinnamon. Or try one of these smoothie recipes.
- Veggie stir fry (cooked in coconut oil) with chicken or beef
- Big salad with lots of veggies, chicken or fish and a homemade oil- or nut butter-based salad dressing
- Golden milk latte made with full-fat coconut milk, turmeric, cinnamon and a scoop of collagen
- Bone broth – with abundance of amino acids, bone broth prevents muscle breakdown and increases your metabolism
- 1 or 2 Chocolate Chia Protein Balls
After finishing a cardio workout, your body is more insulin sensitive and carbs are less likely to be shuttled to the liver and converted to fat. Instead, they are likely to end up getting ushered by insulin into the muscles and stored as glycogen.
That said, there may be downsides to consuming insulin-stimulating carbs (like bread, pasta, white rice, sugary sports drinks, etc.) after exercise.
For some people, eating a high carb snack will result in an insulin surge followed by rebound low blood sugar and subsequent stress response (cortisol increase) that can manifest as carb cravings, fatigue, impaired mental performance and suboptimal recovery. Over-stimulation of insulin by high GI carbs also can also throw a wrench in your fat burning efforts by diverting glucose (from the high carb snack) directly to fat storage. This is obviously not conducive to most people’s exercise goals!
With this in mind, I recommend steering clear of refined carbs and sugar and instead getting your carbs from complex, high-fiber, nutrient-dense sources such as starchy veggies, fruit and gluten-free whole grains.
Here are a few post-workout meals and snacks that are a good source of healthy carbs:
- Smoothie – a piece of fruit (i.e. banana), 1 tablespoon almond butter, 1 scoop of protein powder, generous dash of cinnamon and unsweetened almond or coconut milk or try this one
- Half sweet potato drizzled with coconut oil and topped with baked chicken and some leafy greens
- Quinoa fried rice – 1/2 cup cooked quinoa, egg and lots of veggies
- An apple with a tablespoon or two of almond butter or a handful of macadamia nuts
- Raw coconut water (like Harmless Harvest) and a scoop of collagen powder mixed in