If you’re like a lot of people, you might not feel like eating soon after an especially long or hard workout. And then you might well find yourself struggling on a much easier workout a day or two later, and wondering how you suddenly got so out of shape.
That’s because you didn’t take advantage of the recovery window—the period immediately after a workout when your body is most receptive to refueling. “Eating soon after a workout will support, strengthen, and protect the body’s ability to adapt to training and demand more out of training,” says Jackie Dikos, a sport nutritionist in Indianapolis and a two-time Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier. Let’s look at when paying attention to the recovery window is most important, and how to easily take advantage of it.
The top priority after any workout is rehydrating to replace the fluids and electrolytes you lose during even the shortest, easiest workout. Quickly returning your body’s fluid status to normal ensures good functioning the rest of the day, and a better workout tomorrow. Elite athletes such as this year’s Boston Marathon champion, Meb Keflezighi, are dedicated to immediate post-workout hydration. It’s the sort of habit that might not seem crucial on any given day, but that, over time, has a significant effect because of how often you feel better than you otherwise would have.
The First 30 Minutes
After long and/or hard workouts, you’ll recover more quickly if you take in some calories, and the sooner, the better. Research has found that, in the first 30 minutes post-workout, muscles are extraordinarily receptive to refueling—calories in the form of carbohydrates are converted to glycogen, your muscles’ stored form of carbohydrate, with up to 300% greater efficiency during this short period. Muscles’ sponge-like properties remain elevated up to 90 minutes after a workout, but start falling off after the first hour. (Hence the term “recovery window.”)
The ideal food during the recovery window contains 300-500 calories and has a carbohydrate-to-protein ratio of 4:1. The small amount of protein helps to speed glycogen resynthesis.
Who Needs it Most?
Dikos says that, while anyone who works out can benefit from paying attention to the recovery window, people who work out twice a day or do ambitious workouts over consecutive days should be most interested in recovery nutrition. At the least, you’ll want to be diligent about post-workout calories after your longest aerobic effort of the week, during which your muscles’ fuel stores are most drained. Harder workouts, such as a normal-length bike ride at a higher intensity, use more carbohydrates than easier workouts, so they’re also a good time to focus on recovery nutrition.
Taking advantage of the recovery window is especially important if you’ve felt low on fuel (as opposed to just normally fatigued) over the last part of a long workout. This includes athletes who do depletion rides or runs, in which you purposefully start a long workout without much in the gas tank in the hope of teaching your body to become more efficient at burning available energy stores. Doing these workouts occasionally, such as once a month, can be an effective training tool, but require special attention to post-workout nutrition so that your recovery isn’t delayed.
Some sport bars are formulated in the 4:1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio. But many people are deterred by sport bars’ cost, the idea that it’s better to eat “real” food or a lack of interest in eating something so dense so soon after a long or hard workout.
Many people like chocolate milk as a convenient form of calories with some protein. As an alternative, Dikos recommends low-fat kefir, a fermented milk. Like chocolate milk, kefir provides carbohydrate, protein and electrolytes, but in addition, she says, “kefir contains beneficial live cultures to support a healthy gut and immune system for potentially exercise-induced immunosuppressed athletes. In addition, it is 99% lactose-free and better tolerated by those who have trouble digesting milk.”
Other quick mini-meals Dikos recommends: fruit and cottage cheese or Greek yogurt; a bowl of cereal; chicken noodle soup with crackers; a sandwich and piece of fruit; or a sweet potato topped with plain Greek yogurt.
Wait: What About Weight?
If one of your motivations to work out is weight control, all this talk of post-exercise refueling might seem counterproductive. After all, don’t you want to create a calorie deficit? Isn’t the recovery window just an excuse to snack?
“Recovery nutrition doesn’t necessarily mean adding snacks or calories to the day,” says Dikos. Her solution, which works well for busy people scheduling their workouts in conjunction with their many other responsibilities: “I suggest for workouts to occur just before the next main meal, such as prior to breakfast, lunch, or dinner, as to not add a significant calorie load while supporting recovery and weight-management goals.”