As a nutritionist and a coach of competitive runners and cyclists, I’ve seen it all when it comes to different approaches to sports nutrition. But on top of that, I’ve LIVED it all. There have been many phases in my life — and particularly throughout my competitive running career — that shaped and informed my perspective on the role of food in training.
Ultimately, I’ve learned what’s truly backed by science, not just because of my nutrition education, but also through making mistakes myself. And I’ve watched my athletes and clients make them too — of course, not without me doing my BEST to drill the science into their heads! That’s the other thing I’ve learned. Sometimes people just have to learn the hard way before they will try something new.
Well, here’s hoping that if you haven’t yet made too many nutritional mistakes, maybe this post will help you avoid them! And hey, if you read this and realize “OMG, that’s ME! She’s talking about ME”, then don’t fret — there is so much you can do to support your body and get back to a mentally and physically healthy place with food and exercise.
Before we get too specific, and if you only take one thing from this whole post, it is that you should eat food after you work out. This is a prime example of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Just get in some food. Now, every person reading this post is going to have a different body and different needs, so we will keep it general here. If you want to dial in your unique nutritional needs, I can’t fine-tune that in a blog post 🙂
Key things to know:
- The harder (or longer) you are working out, the more you are demanding from your body, and the more energy you need to provide it.
- Remember: exercise is a stressor. If you approach it with the right mindset, and fuel it appropriately, you are giving your body the tools it needs to recover and adapt from that stress, thereby gaining fitness/endurance/strength/health (whatever it is that you’re after!). Without proper fuel, that stress is no good — you’ll be effectively wasting your efforts, and in time putting your body in a chronic state of stress. Not good. Please don’t!
- Carbohydrates and protein are what you should focus on with post-workout nutrition. Combined, they serve to restock lost glycogen in your muscles. Your muscles will be highly receptive to carbohydrates within 30-60 minutes after exercise. This is your opportunity to deliver nutrients directly to your muscles.
If your workout isn’t particularly hard or long, then don’t overthink it. Just have your next regular meal within an hour or so. But when you’ve really sweated and pushed yourself, that’s when you need to be more timely and specific about replenishing what you’ve lost. There are plenty of opinions on this, but women tend to need fuel on the earlier side of that 30-60 minute window.
Finally, don’t skimp on those carbs. They’ve been demonized lately, much to the dismay of this coach who likes to see her athletes perform well in their races, feel good in LIFE, prevent injury, support their metabolism, and avoid hormonal or digestive issues. I’m here to tell you that carbs are your best friend when it comes to exercise. They are your body’s preferred source of fuel, and they go hand in hand with protein to help you recover faster, reap the benefits from your workout, and perform better. Not to mention, you’ll feel better the rest of the day (for example, feeling a little bonky or having crazy cravings that could have been avoided if you just ate some dang food earlier!).
So, what foods are good for recovery?
Here are some of my favorite post-workout carbs:
- Roasted starchy veggies like sweet potatoes, white potatoes, winter squash, and parsnips
- Oatmeal (if you’re a smoothie eater, throw in a big handful of oats into your smoothie)
- Rice (white or brown, whatever you prefer!)
- Pasta (if you eat gluten-free, go for a rice-based pasta. I see a lot of folks eating the bean-based pastas, and that’s not quite as beneficial for this purpose)
- Toast! Duh. Always toast.
Here are some of my favorite post-workout proteins:
- Eggs! You had to know I’d say that. Not only are they delicious and nutrient-dense (hello Vitamins A, D, B12 & selenium, iodine, biotin, etc), but they are FAST and EASY. Two things I love after a workout. These go great with toast, rice, or roasted potatoes.
- Yogurt (goes great with oatmeal)
- A juicy burger. Grass-fed beef or turkey, both are delicious!
- Salmon. I loooove salmon. Enough said.
- Sardines! Powerhouse nutrient-packed food that doesn’t get enough credit. I make mine like a tuna salad and serve on toast.
- Protein powders are good, but I’ll always suggest real food where possible! Whey protein (if you tolerate dairy) has been shown most effective for recovery.
Like I said earlier — if you take one thing away from this, I hope it’s just that you give your body some love and respect for all it does for you in your workouts — whether that’s a Dryft class, a bike ride, a walk with your dog, or a long run. If it wasn’t clear, that love & respect = food in this equation 🙂