We all know how important it is to eat well and often to ensure you have enough energy before a training program. But how many of us really think about what to eat after we’ve done our session at the gym?
Good eating and drinking habits are vital if you want to perform well and keep injury at bay. And it’s not just important what you eat beforehand, but it’s just as crucial to eat right afterwards.
Having the right diet will help you recover from a workout or heavy session, it will help to repair muscle, and help you to prepare for your next session, so knowing what to eat straight after a training session will help you get fitter and stay stronger.
It’s easy to eat high energy foods with “empty” calories – those that burn off really quickly, high in sugar and give you a quick fix – which can be useful when mid-training or racing, but it’s better after a training session to eat specific types of food – not necessarily high in sugar and salt, but specifically designed to do certain jobs.
Depending on how hard you workout you will lose a lot of fluids in an average exercise session and you’ll lose fuel in the way of calories, protein and minerals. Carbohydrates are what our body uses during exercises to give us the energy we need. We store carbs so they are available to us when we need them. This is why you may have heard of athletes “carb-loading” to get all the energy they need for an upcoming event.
The sooner you eat after a workout the quicker your body replaces the lost carbohydrate stores – found in starchy foods, and this can best prepare your body for the next training session.
When you train, your body stimulates a particular gene that encourages a process known as “adaptation”. Adaptations within the body include building new muscle fibres or mitochondria – essential for muscles. Without proteins the body cannot build these new tissues, so it is vital to take on proteins fairly soon after exercise.
They say you a never wait until you’re thirsty before you drink, and this is good advice. Thirst is a bad way to gauge your hydration, and you should aim after each exercise session to replace the amount of fluids lost. Make sure you take regular breaks to rehydrate and refuel.
It depends very much on how hard you train, which event you train in and the time between training sessions as to how much and how quickly you eat and drink after exercise, but research has been done to suggest that eating 0.3-0.6 grams of carbohydrate for each pound of body weight within two hours of endurance exercise is vital. This builds up adequate glycogen stores for continued training. Waiting longer than two hours to eat leads to 50 per cent less glycogen being stored within the muscle.
As soon as you finish exercising you should be drinking 20-24fl oz water for each 1lb in weight lost. The best way to work this out is to weigh yourself before and after a workout. Also it’s important to combine protein with carbohydrates within 30 minutes of exercise, as by doing so it nearly doubles your body’s insulin response – resulting in more stored glycogen.
Researchers have found that the optimal ratio is four grams of carbs for each gram of protein. However eating any more protein than this can actually have a negative impact as it can slow rehydration and glycogen replenishment.
The need for protein is due to it providing the amino acids necessary to rebuild tissue damaged during intense exercise. It can help increase resistance from colds and other infections and is therefore essential within that 30 minute window after exercise.
Taking this overload of information on board it seems the best way to refuel your body after is to take on the 4-1 ratio of carbohydrate and protein and make sure you get it within a 30-minute window.
Don’t forget though that as important as it is to eat right just after a workout, you must try and maintain healthy eating habits even when you’re not training. Sometimes when you know you’ve got a big race, or an intense training session coming up it’s easy to think that eating a lot of sugary, processed and stodgy foods is the best way to get energy. Remember to still ensure you take on lots of green leafy veg, fruit, fish and meat and try and keep the junk to a minimum. Replace caffeinated drinks with water and fresh juices will also help.
A healthy diet throughout training and after is the best way to set you up for success and to help you prevent injury and illness.