Workout Recovery Foods: What to Eat Before & After Exercise
Whether it’s a marathon run, a barbell-heavy bro sesh, or a pilates class, workout recovery foods are essential to your ability to get the most out of your training. We know about protein, but like any other nutrition principle, post-workout nutrition for recovery is a lot more complicated than a blanket statement about a single macronutrient. To sort it out, we talked to nutritionist Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN and Founder of Real Nutrition NYC. If you check out her Instagram account @realnutrition, you’ll see — between photos of healthy eats — Amy engaging in every type of exercise from boxing to weight lifting to yoga to makeshift workouts on playgrounds. And each type of exercise requires different workout recovery foods based. Here’s why.
Workout Recovery Foods Replenish Your Body in 3 Ways
That’s because working out depletes your body in three ways.
Exercise Depletes Glycogen Stores
The carbohydrates in our diet break down into the simplest form of sugar, glucose, which is stored in our liver and muscles as glycogen. As glycogen provides 100% of our fuel during anaerobic exercise and 50% of our fuel during longer-duration aerobic exercise, our stores of it are depleted after workouts. We need glycogen to power our bodies through daily activities, so it’s important to replenish after a workout so we have the energy to get through the rest of our day. We do this by consuming carbohydrates immediately after exercise.
While ordinarily most nutritionists advise consuming macronutrients from whole food sources, workout recovery foods may be an exception. The most recent research says that there is a short window post-workout to consume carbohydrates for maximal cellular replenishment, and it’s only 30 minutes. After that, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, the uptake wanes significantly with muscle glycogen synthesis decreasing by 66% when carbohydrate consumption is delayed by 2 hours.
And that doesn’t just mean eating carbs quickly; it means digesting them immediately after a workout. That’s why liquid carbohydrates are so popular after workouts. They contain simple sugars like dextrose and maltodextrose that are quickly digested and transported to to the cells to be stored as glycogen. Whole food carbohydrates often include fiber, which slows digestion. This is great for everyday satiety and the maintenance of continual energy without crashing, but it is not as effective in penetrating the cells within the post-workout window.
Exercise Breaks Down Muscle
This is not a bad thing as damaging our muscle tissue is what makes us stronger, fitter, leaner; it’s what facilitates adaptation to our training. But we have to repair it. That’s where protein comes in. Exercise breaks down the protein in our muscle, so to facilitate protein synthesis (the creation of new muscle protein needed to strengthen and grow our muscles), we need to consume protein after our workouts. Like carbohydrates, we have a short window to do so, leading to the popularity of fast-digesting whey protein powder that can be mixed with water in a shaker bottle and taken to the gym.
Before the body can use protein for muscle repair, it must break dietary protein down into its constituting amino acids. Of the 20 amino acids that our bodies use to perform various processes, some are produced in our bodies (nonessential) while others are not (essential). In order for a food protein source to aid in protein synthesis, it must include all the essential amino acids. That is known as a complete protein and examples include whole eggs, milk and milk products (including whey protein), meat, fish, and poultry. Plant-based protein sources are incomplete, so if you eschew animal foods, you may need to pay careful attention to the amino acid composition of your plant protein workout recovery foods to ensure that you are eating a blend that contains all 9 essential amino acids.
Exercise Can Leave You Dehydrated
If you’re sweating, you’re losing water and salt. You need adequate fluids in your body to transport nutrients, like the carbs and protein that replenish your muscular stores. Nutritionists, trainers — really, everyone — recommends drinking water during and after a workout.
Workout Recovery Foods Contain Critical Micronutrients
On the most basic level, drinking a whey protein powder-sugar water shake immediately after exercise is a decent workout recovery food. People looking to optimize their recovery and who are conscious of food quality, however, look at the micronutrients when selecting workout recovery foods.
Let’s get back to hydration for a minute. When we sweat, we don’t just lose water, we also lose electrolytes. These electrically charged sodium, magnesium, calcium, and potassium molecules monitor the fluids in our cells. Without them, our cells would either explode like overfilled water balloons or shrivel up into raisins. Either way leads to cell death. They also help stimulate muscle contractions and maintain proper pH.
You know how sweat is salty? Well, that’s sodium being lost from our bodies. We lose potassium, magnesium, and calcium as well, but significantly more sodium, making it the most critical electrolyte to replace. So, now your post-workout shake may include a sprinkle of Himalayan pink salt.
This is where the research starts to get contradictory, and it seems there is logic on both sides. Researchers started investigating antioxidants for their role in possibly reducing the dreaded DOMS (Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness) that occurs 12-48 hours post-workout. You want to get the most out of subsequent training sessions, so debilitating soreness from a previous session can hamper that ability.
So, you’d think that antioxidants in workout recovery foods and supplements, with their ability to facilitate the repair of damaged tissue (in this case, the muscles) by donating electrons to free radicals that are caused by stress (exercise) would decrease muscle soreness. That’s what researchers thought as well… until they started researching. Numerous studies have found that the antioxidants may do too good a job of combatting oxidative stress, thereby not allowing the muscle cells to repair themselves and adapt to the training, which leads to gains in strength and size. Now, an important caveat here is that most of these studies were conducted on muscle fibers from animals like mice, not whole animals and not humans.
In a recent controlled study, researchers found that men who supplemented with “Master Antioxidant” Glutathione and L-Citrulline (more on this amino acid below) saw more lean muscle mass and strength gains over a 4-week period than the control group.
Then there’s the immune system issue. Intense exercise temporarily suppresses the immune system (for about 3 hours), leaving you more vulnerable to infection during this post-training window. Exercising makes us release the hormones norepinephrine and cortisol, the former of which is partially responsible for the mood enhancement that exercise provides (a.k.a., “runner’s high”) and the much-maligned latter of which is critical to muscle repair. These hormones also suppress the immune system. Antioxidants support the immune system. While exercise supports the immune system overall — partially due to its ability to lower the stress that threatens our immunity — it does leave us a little vulnerable during the time we’re enjoying our workout recovery foods.
Fitness pros and bodybuilders have been using one antioxidant in particular for quite some time: Alpha Lipoic Acid. That’s because it enhances insulin sensitivity, which is critical post-workout as insulin is responsible for transporting glucose to the cells where it can be used to feed the depleted muscles. If we are desensitized to insulin, glucose just sits in fat deposits, anathema to the bodybuilder. A 2003 study even found that ALA helps creatine supplements get to muscles where it is needed to stimulate protein synthesis, which is required for increasing muscle strength and size. And yet, Alpha Lipoic Acid is an antioxidant.
One of the most well-known antioxidants is also a critical nutrient for our joints, which can get a bit worn down from the repetitive movements of exercise. Our joints are surrounded by connective tissues composed primarily of collagen and, as you’ve probably heard, Vitamin C is critical to the production of collagen. Without adequate Vitamin C, our bodies just can’t produce it.
These building blocks of protein come in two forms: essential and non-essential. Our bodies don’t produce the essential ones, so we need to get them from diet. Three of essential amino acids — leucine, isoleucine, and valine — are called branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs in supplement bottle parlance) due to their composition of a central carbon atom bound to three or more carbon atoms. While BCAAs are marketed for their recovery properties, recent studies have indicated they do not enhance muscle recovery after intense exercise. That is not to say that these three amino acids aren’t critical to recovery. As we discussed in the protein section, all 20 essential amino acids (including the BCAAs) are necessary to make a complete protein. And all 20 can be found in a whey protein shake anyway, making additional BCAA supplementation unnecessary.
The amino acid that has the most science behind it is actually a non-essential one: L-Citrulline. Aside from its ability to enhance nitric oxide production (beneficial for athletic performance due to increased oxygen and blood flow to the muscles), researchers found in a 2010 study that it helped to relieve muscle soreness. The name Citrulline is derived from the Latin word for watermelon (though the image of a Roman Centurion eating a watermelon seems absurd), which should give you a pretty good indication of the dietary sources of this amino acid.
This one doesn’t get a lot of attention, but it’s a key ingredient in workout recovery foods as exercise depletes our bodies of this essential nutrient. Athletes have higher iron needs because, like electrolytes, iron is lost in sweat. It can also be lost through repeated pounding of feet on a hard surface (e.g., running).
“It’s important to have iron after weight training because it’s an essential part of hemoglobin, which transports oxygen from the lungs to the muscles,” Amy says. “In order to make sure that the iron is being absorbed, it’s best to be consumed with Vitamin C. For example, after a session at the gym, make a smoothie with leafy greens (spinach, kale, etc.) and add a packet of the Lypo-Spheric® Vitamin C to help absorb the iron in the greens.”
At least 4 different studies have shown a relationship between supplementation with L-Carnitine and decreases in muscle soreness and damage after exercise. This does not necessarily mean it needs to be taken post-workout. And, with all the research backing L-Carnitine and its variants, including Acetyl L-Carnitine, for endurance athletes, it could be most beneficial prior to training.
“Most people think of Carnitine as a fat loss supplement but runners can benefit from it too,” Amy says. “Carnitine helps remove lactic acid from the body (goodbye cramping) and it also may help to create more red blood cells, leading to better oxygen use. Finally, it helps to create more ATP (what cells use to create energy) and therefore improve output and endurance.”
Amy likes to combine her Carnitine and iron consumption by “enjoying a bison burger on a whole wheat bun, of course, with lettuce, tomato and avocado! Bison is a lean red meat that also contains omega 3 fatty acids which helps to protect the heart and brain and the acid from the tomato helps to absorb the iron from the meat even more efficiently.”
Workout recovery foods are critical to our ability to get the most out of our training. At its most basic level, it’s a fast-digesting (read: liquid) blend of complete protein, carbohydrates, and electrolytes.