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Refuel during the post-workout recovery window to supercharge your next session.
It’s easy to do—drive to meet a group for a hard workout, spend several minutes chatting afterward, then by the time you make it home to choke down a protein shake, you’ve already missed your chance for optimal refueling. The first few minutes after a workout are critical for replenishing your glycogen stores and repairing your muscles—missing out could hurt the quality of your next workout.
How it works:
The 30 (and some research says up to 45) minutes immediately following a workout has shown to be the time frame that the body can best absorb carbohydrates and protein. After a workout, “your muscles are torn, you’ve used up a lot of your stored carbohydrate or glycogen,” Dallas-based sports dietitian Christina Strudwick says. “Nutrients can enter them a lot easier in that window.” Also that brief timeframe is when levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, are increased and your body’s in a state of tension—“taking that nutrition is what begins to reverse that.” It’s especially critical, she says, if you’re exercising more than 60 minutes, if you’re doing two-a-day workouts (almost unavoidable in triathlon training), or if you have less than 12 hours between training sessions.
To best take advantage of the recovery window, you need to consume a meal or snack that has a ratio of three or four parts carbohydrate (to replenish glycogen stores, which is what fueled your workout) to one part protein (to repair torn muscle). Ideally, she says, you should be getting about 70–100 grams of carbs, and 20–25 grams of protein (any more protein and your body won’t be able to effectively use it). There’s also a second window—about 2–3 hours after your workout—when you should get in a second snack or meal with a similar carb-to-protein ratio. “After those two refueling times, that’s when you’ve really [nutritionally] recovered from a hard workout,” she says.
What if you missed the window? “You still want to get something in as soon as you can,” Strudwick says. Put something in the car for such situations—a small bar, a piece of fruit, a hard-boiled egg, a bottle of chocolate milk or some nuts. You could also start by at least rehydrating—whether it’s water or a sports drink. “Any of those things—sports drink, fruit, a small bar—would start the healing process,” she says.
Powdered sports drinks aren’t the only way to consume the optimal proportion of nutrients. Dietitian Christina Strudwick recommends these whole-food snacks and meals—each of them meets the ideal 3:1 or 4:1 carb-to-protein ratio—for post-workout refueling.
Smoothie: Greek yogurt + fruit (such as berries and banana) + a little 100 percent juice + spinach
Breakfast tacos: Whole-wheat tortillas + eggs + 2 percent cheese + a little avocado + (on the side) banana or other fruit
PB&B sandwich: Whole-grain bread + peanut butter + banana + (optional) honey
Breakfast sandwich: Whole-wheat English muffin + egg + 2 percent cheese + (on the side) low-fat milk and fruit
Oatmeal bowl: Oats + tablespoon of peanut or almond butter + banana + (on the side) 1–2 eggs
Greek yogurt + fruit
16 ounces low-fat chocolate milk
Simple smoothie: Low-fat milk + fruit
Got chocolate milk?
Corroborating the hype surrounding chocolate milk as a recovery tool, Strudwick says it’s in fact a great recovery choice. “It fits that ratio of three or four parts carbohydrate to one part protein pretty perfectly,” she says. Also, it contains leucine, which is one of the amino acids that’s been shown to best help muscles recover post-workout. Just make sure you go low-fat, she says—whole milk has too much fat and could hinder your recovery.