How important is your post-exercise nutrition?
Post-exercise nutrition plays an important role in how our body recovers from exercise and paying attention to what and when you eat after exercise can help you to recover as efficiently as possible.
Recovery time from exercise will vary between individuals and can continue for several hours and even days post-exercise. It is very much dependent on the duration and intensity of the exercise performed and other factors such as fitness levels, sleep and nutrition.
Whilst physical activity is extremely beneficial, it is a stressor on the body and during exercise, we will experience loss of fluid through sweat, damage to muscle fibres, inflammation and a depletion of energy stores in the body.
What is recovery?
Recovery involves replacing the lost fluid and energy mentioned above and allowing our body to repair itself. It ensures that we can perform at the same or a similar intensity in our next training session. When we think of recovery from exercise and nutrition we should consider ‘the 3 R’s’:
During exercise, our body will use up the energy that we have consumed from foods and fluids. Our primary energy source during exercise is carbohydrate which is stored in the liver and muscles as ‘glycogen’. Our body will use this glycogen during exercise and in order to replace it post-exercise, we must consume some carbohydrate-rich foods. These foods include fruit, bread, rice, pasta, potatoes, milk, yoghurt, cereal and oats.
Repair and rebuilding of damaged and tired muscles with some protein is an essential element of the recovery process.
Protein can come from animal sources such as chicken, fish, meat, eggs and dairy or plant sources such as tofu, tempeh, edamame, seitan, lentils, chickpeas, beans, wholegrains, nuts & seeds.
‘Amino acids’ are the building blocks of protein and these play a key role in repairing the body post-exercise. Some of these amino acids are called ‘essential amino acids’ as they cannot be made by the body and must be obtained from food. Protein from animal sources is often referred to as a ‘complete’ protein as these foods usually contain all of these essential amino acids. On the other hand, protein from plant sources is sometimes referred to as an ‘incomplete’ protein as these foods often lack one or more of the essential amino acids. Therefore, those following a vegetarian or vegan diet may benefit from consuming two sources of plant-based protein together in order to obtain all of the essential amino acids that our bodies need. For example, this could be a mixed bean curry with wholegrain rice or oats with some nuts or seeds.
People will often underestimate how much fluid is lost during exercise, particularly during higher intensity and longer duration exercise and especially if the environment is warmer. Monitoring your urine can be a helpful way to estimate your hydration levels and when your urine is clearer, you are more hydrated. Continue to sip fluids before, during and after exercise to ensure that you are well hydrated and that any lost fluid is replaced. Note that fluid intake is not limited to just water and includes other fluids such as milk, juice (aim for no added sugar versions), tea etc.
When we sweat we also lose electrolytes such as sodium, calcium, magnesium and potassium. If it is warmer or you have exercised at a higher intensity or for a long period of time you may also benefit from replacing some of these electrolytes. Add a pinch of salt, squeeze of lemon and spoon of honey to your drink to make a cheap, homemade electrolyte drink and ensure that you maintain a well-balanced diet to help to replace these lost electrolytes through food.
Here are the top 3 questions I am regularly asked about post-workout nutrition:
I’ve just finished training and I feel really hungry – what can I eat which is quick to make and filling?
Aim to eat some protein, carbohydrate and rehydrate with plenty of fluids after training. An example of a post-workout main meal could be:
I don’t feel like eating after training – what should I do?
Do not worry if you don’t feel like eating immediately after exercise! As mentioned, the recovery process can continue for some time so try to consume some fluids as soon as possible. In this instance, you could aim to consume an easily-digestible snack rather than a big meal. Some examples of post-exercise snacks which are easy to consume and quick to make would be:
Should I consider a protein shake for after exercise?
Whilst a protein shake is a convenient way of consuming protein quickly, it is not absolutely necessary and adequate protein can be obtained from whole food sources such as those mentioned above.
It is important to note that if you are exercising again in less than 8-12 hours you need to be a little stricter around post-exercise nutrition and ensuring that you are adequately refuelled and ready for your next training session.
Also bear in mind that your overall food intake over time plays an enormous role in recovery from exercise, rather than one or two meals. Maintaining a well balanced diet with adequate protein, carbohydrates and fluids, particularly around exercise, will ensure you can recover properly and be ready to tackle each training session!
Hello! My name is Emma Brennan and I am a Registered Associate Nutritionist (ANutr, BSc) with a special interest in Performance Nutrition. In September 2020 I will begin my Masters in Applied Sports & Exercise Nutrition to complement this passion. I am also a certified Personal Trainer & Fitness Instructor.
My role as a Nutritionist allows me to work with many athletes, teams and within corporate settings. My goal is to educate each person and group about nutrition and the benefits that food can provide to us on a daily basis.
When I am not working I love being outdoors and regularly hike in various places around Ireland and abroad. You can find me on Instagram @emmabnutrition where I am always happy to chat and answer any questions!
Emma Brennan (ANutr, BSc)