Why Choosing What You Eat After a Workout is So Important

By John Hansen | Oct. 30, 2018, 11:25 a.m. (ET)

So you have done a great job to fuel and stay hydrated prior to your long workout or your race but afterwards you don’t eat for three hours, or you take in a big cheesy burger and fries and you only have a couple glasses of water. You go for an easy spin the next day and wonder why your energy is low and you don’t feel recovered.   

Executing a successful nutrition and hydration plan after your workouts is one key element to successful training and racing. When considering nutrition and hydration after a workout and race, it is important not only to choose the right type of foods and fluid but also the amount of food and hydration to optimize your recovery. 

This is particularly true for triathletes who:

  1. Trained or raced longer than 60 minutes
  2. Complete two or more workouts per day
  3. Workout with less than eight hours between sessions
  4. Train and compete as long course athlete who often meet criteria one through three

The following are the goals for fueling and hydration after a training session or race:

  • To replenish the body’s fluid and electrolyte levels
  • To restore depleted muscle and liver glycogen (stored carbohydrates)
  • Help the muscle tissue rebuilding process with protein intake
  • To improve energy balance for subsequent training

Fuel and Fluid Intake

The timing of your fuel and fluid intake post workout is a key aspect to a productive recovery.  Within 30 minutes post workout, begin fuel and fluid intake for optimal recovery. Your body can restore lost carbohydrates more readily within this time window and the longer you wait the longer that process takes. 

Use the following guidelines to help you choose the right protocol for your particular needs:

Fuel: within 30 minutes post workout, consume a mix of carbohydrates and protein and little to no fat. Optimal ratio of carbohydrate to protein is 3:1 to 4:1 or 0.5 -1.0 grams CHO with 0.15 - .25 grams protein per pound of body weight. For a 154-pound athlete this would be 56 grams of carbohydrate and 14 grams of protein. For higher intensity workouts aim for the top end of the range.

Food choices, immediate post workout, can include low fat chocolate milk, most fruit, pita bread with hummus, energy bars, fruit smoothie with protein powder and Greek yogurt. In addition, several manufactures have created recovery drinks which aid in workout recovery when solid foods cause GI complications.

Specific options include:

Smoothie: Greek yogurt and fruit (such as berries and banana) and 4 ounces of 100 percent juice plus spinach

Oatmeal bowl: Oatmeal and tablespoon of peanut or almond butter and banana

One of my favorite options is a bowl of whole grain cereal. This is a great way to get the right combinations of carbohydrates, and proteins with the right amount of calories that is generally well tolerated by the stomach.

Fuel: One to two hours, but no more than three hours post workout, consume an additional 300-500 calories — food choices should come also be in carbohydrate to protein ratio of 3:1 or 4:1 striving for exactly 20grams or 80 calories of protein for optimal protein re-synthesis.

Suggestions:

Breakfast tacos: Whole-wheat tortillas plus one egg scrambled, plus low fat cheese, plus a little avocado and a banana or other fruit

25 grams whey protein isolate (or vegan protein), plus 4-8 ounce milk (of your choice) and 1.5 cups cereal (ex. corn flakes cereal)

2 hardboiled eggs + 1.5-2 cups rice

Breakfast sandwich: Whole-wheat English muffin plus 1 egg and low fat cheese and  low-fat milk and fruit1 cup cooked quinoa + 2 tbsp nutritional yeast plus 8 ounce orange juice

Fuel: 4 plus hrs post workout consume a full meal - 600 plus calories - food choices should come from your current healthy eating pattern and should be good distribution of carbohydrates, protein and fats.  This meal does not have to focus primarily on carbohydrates. 

Wrap:  two slices bread or 1 potato with 4 ounce chicken, 2 scrambled eggs or 4 ounce tempeh, veggies/leafy greens, ¼ cup smashed avocado

Fluid: 30-min -2hr post workout consume 20-24oz of fluid, primarily water, per pound of body weight loss but drink it with your food so you also get sodium intake which helps with water absorption.  If you lose 2 pounds of weight during the workout intake 40-48 oz of fluid within 2hrs post workout. Fluid and electrolyte balance can be restored with sports drinks as well (best options are those with 100-150 mg of sodium per 8 oz or).  If your sweat rate is high aim for a total of 500 mg of sodium post workout.  Avoid caffeine and alcohol.

These consumption values and time frames can vary in the recommended ranges depending on personal food tolerance, and individual experience. For example, you may find it is better to consume liquid nutrition in the first 30-60 minutes post exercise to avoid GI issues, especially if it is a higher intensity workout in warm conditions.
Triathletes should also assess how they feel and recover using their protocol, adjusting food/hydration choices, the amount and timing as needed. For instance, if you are getting GI distress from your low fat chocolate milk, try a non dairy food source such as hummus and pita bread.

Proper fueling and hydrating is essential to the recovery from a quality workout/race and by applying the above information into your daily training program, you will take additional steps toward optimizing your abilities as a triathlete.  

John Hansen, USAT, and USA Swimming Level 1 Coach and USA Cycling Level 3 Certified coach, Folsom California, with 23 years of coaching experience. Hansen has an MS in Exercise Physiology and previously worked at the UC Davis Sports performance lab for five years. Hansen has coached athletes from beginner to pro level, competing at many major US Age Group National Championships and World Championships, as well as the US Men's Pro championships. Hansen currently coaches the UC Davis Collegiate Club Triathlon team with multiple teams placing in the top 12 and several athletes placing in the  top 20, in the past eight years at the Collegiate Club National championships. Hansen also has his own coaching business, primarily coaching long course athletes, 70.3 and 140.6. Visit HansenMutlisport.com or email john1hansen@sbcglobal.net.


References:

Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 48(3):543-568, March 2016.

USAT – Level 1 Coaching Manual Nutrition Science for the Multisport Athlete, Jennifer Hutchins and Sports Nutrition for Triathlon Coaches, Bob Seebohar, 2017

Nutrition to Support Recovery from Endurance Exercise: Optimal Carbohydrate and Protein Replacement.  ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26166054

Nutritional strategies to promote post exercise recovery .ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21116024

The Proper Recovery Fuel for Every Type of Workout, Marni Sumbal, R.D. / Traithlete Magazine Jan 24, 2018