What's the Best Thing to Ingest After Working Out?

How can you maximize your recovery after a workout?

Here's a new article that's part of my Health, Lifestyle & Culture series.

Water Is #1

The quick answer to this question should be obvious. Both during and after a workout, the most important thing to ingest is of course, water. It facilitates digestion, aids in the transportation of nutrients and the elimination of waste products. Water also lubricates the body's joints and tissues, and helps to regulate body temperature. And let's face it, after a hard workout there's nothing better than a nice tall glass of water. But what about sports drinks and energy bars? Is there anything else essential to helping the body recover quickly after a workout?

Electrolyte Balance & Glycogen Supply

When we sweat during exercise, water isn't the only thing the body loses. We also sweat out electrolytes like sodium, potassium, phosphate and magnesium. If these aren't replaced quickly after exercise you are likely to feel weak and it will take longer to properly recover. This is where sports drinks come in. They are specifically designed to provide an appropriate balance of electrolytes to the body. The simple sugars in these drinks are also beneficial, especially for endurance athletes, as they help kick-start the body's process of replenishing glycogen supply. By the way, many nutritionists disagree on whether or not 100% fruit juices are just as good or better for post-workout recovery as sports drinks. Juice is lower on the glycemic index and therefore will restore glycogen more slowly. Yet, most experts believe that the pros of drinking real fruit juice, like natural anti-oxidants and vitamins, outweigh the cons. In the end, it's complex carbs, like those found in breads and cereals, that are the most effective at replenishing glycogen stores. Go ahead and drink sports drinks or juice after training. But also consider eating something like a whole-grain bagel. But what should you spread on your bagel?

The Protein Issue

To keep the body healthy we need to eat a balance of macro-nutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats). For the athlete, adequate protein is important, as they are constantly breaking their bodies down. Protein is needed to rebuild the body's tissues. The newest science reveals that consuming a complete protein meal post-workout (that is one that contains all 20 essential amino acids, the building blocks of proteins) is a great idea. The body is signaled that you've just ingested these useful amino acids and will consequentially begin manufacturing new proteins. Stimulating the body in this way inevitably speeds up recovery, and is just a good all around routine for someone who exercises regularly.

Post-Workout Snacking 

Danny Mackay, an M.S. in exercise physiology comments on snacking:

“What to look for...are foods with complete proteins. All animal proteins are complete proteins, but it is not easy to put down a steak (immediately a workout)...some plant proteins are complete like brewer's yeast, certain nuts, soybeans, cottonseed, and the germ of grains...energy bars should work, but combining foods is good to...think whole wheat bread and peanut butter. Just check out the label and the bar should note if it contains complete proteins. “

Here are a few simple snack ideas that are easy to pack into a gym bag:

  • The Protein Shake: Adding some whey or soy protein powder to milk, water or juice is a simple and efficient way to get that much needed post-workout nutrition.
  • Energy Bars: These may be a little over-priced, but they're handy.
  • Chocolate Milk: With the perfect ratio of carbohydrates to protein (3.5 to 1), chocolate milk is 'in' as a post-workout snack of choice.
  • Juice & Nuts: Some 100% fruit juices and small bag of nuts is a wholesome combo.
  • Cold Cut Sandwich: Stick to whole grain bread and lean meat and you'll jump start your recovery off right with this old-school favorite snack.

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