What to eat after exercise: Best refuel meals

Best post workout meals at Hannah Gets Hench

Many of us will eat something before the gym, and drink a protein shake afterwards with little thought to how what we consume is affecting our bodies. What if we could significantly improve the results of our workouts through the exact science of post-workout nutrition?

Now I can’t speak for everyone, but I don’t take my post-exercise nutrition as seriously as I should. This is probably due to the time of day that I exercise, as I tend to hit the gym last thing at night after work and don’t return home until around 21.30pm. Unless I have prepared my dinner the night before, I usually opt for something quick – and carby – as my refuel meal of choice. Think crumpets, with ham, spinach and eggs. My refuel meal is basically brunch.

If my workout consisted of a particularly strenuous session of high intensity interval training (HIIT), then I often don’t feel like eating anything for a good few hours, and by that point it’s usually bedtime so I often go to bed without dinner (minus the red face and tantrum). That means I’m skipping meals and depriving my body of nutrients at one of the most crucial times for me to eat!

I know, I know, I’m really dumb! When you exercise you can use up all your stored glycogen, easily sweat out over two liters of water, and break down both muscle AND red blood cells. This is why it’s SO important to properly fuel yourself with the right things.

I have to admit, I do suffer the consequences. My most used phrase is probably “DOMS”, or just “ouch” because my muscles kill after the majority of my workouts. Now this could also be due to improper stretching, but let’s just tackle one thing at a time shall we?

What should I eat to boost my recovery?

Ok, so according to Breaking Muscle online, recovery is classified by:

  1. Replenishing the muscle and liver glycogen stores
  2. Consuming protein to boost muscle repair
  3. Restoring fluid and the electrolytes lost in sweat

No biggie then?

It’s also important to note that the clock starts ticking as soon as you cool down and finish exercising, so the quicker you consume the right things the more of an impact it will have on your recovery. Although, sometimes you can feel quite ill straight after exercise so don’t force yourself to eat until you feel ready, just be sure to drink plenty of water.

Restoring glycogen stores

Carbs, carbs, carbs! If you’re familiar with Joe Wicks, aka The Body Coach, you’ll know how important eating carbs is after you workout.

bread roll with chocolate in

Carbohydrates replace essential glycogen stores that are used up during exercise. These provide you with energy and help to restore the muscle that has been broken-down during exercise, and if you don’t eat enough of these post-exercise you may feel weaker the next day.

The first building block of your post-workout meal should be a grain carbohydrate – although it should still be healthy, unfortunately Profiteroles will not do. Choose a grain with a low glycemic index so your blood sugar won’t spike such as brown rice, wholewheat pasta, sweet potato or quinoa.

Did you get all excited thinking about carbs like I did? Well let’s not forget that vegetables are carbs too and an important part of your post-workout meal. There are no specific types of vegetables you should eat, but broccoli, spinach, peas, kale and asparagus are green powerhouses filled with iron, protein and multiple vitamins. Bell peppers, tomatoes and red onions are great to roast or saute in a pan.

Help muscle repair with protein

When you workout your muscle protein is broken down due to the intensity of the exercise, so we need to put that protein back into our bodies to help it repair. Ingesting amino acids from eating high quality sources of protein is the best way to do this and start recovery.

Depending on your size, weight, and your goals, you should aim to consume around 20-30 grams of high quality protein post-workout. This roughly works out as a large chicken breast, tuna steak, beef steak, or a salmon fillet.

So now you have your carbohydrates to restore glycogen and protein to help rebuild muscle.

Replenish fluids

Around 75% of your body is made up of water, but when you exercise you lose this through sweat as your body tries to cool itself down. According to the American College of Sports Medicine you should start drinking water around two hours prior to exercise and continue drinking throughout, to ensure your body is fully hydrated.

Signs of dehydration during exercise can include muscle cramps, nausea, dizziness and actual thirst, but they can actually produce the same effects if you don’t re-hydrated properly too. A hydrated body is able to transport nutrients and oxygen to muscles to aid repair, remove lactic acid build up and eliminating nitrogenous waste. That’s a fancy science way of saying that drinking enough water after exercise will rid you of a gym goer’s worst nightmare – DOMS!

Sports drinks have also gotten a bad rep in the past, but they can be really beneficial if you are completely strenuous or high-intensity exercise for over 60 minutes. They contain carbohydrates, which as I mentioned earlier helps restore energy to the muscles, and electrolytes (such as sodium and potassium) which encourages fluid intake and absorption.

What I’ve learnt

What I’ve learnt from my research is that decent post-exercise meal should consist of grain, a large portion of protein, non-starchy vegetables and a whole lot of water!

Meals could include:

  • Salmon with brown pasta, broccoli and green beans.
  • Chicken with brown rice and peas.
  • Tuna steak with sweet potato, roasted peppers and tomatoes and asparagus.
  • Beef steak with sweet potato, carrots and broccoli.
  • Poached eggs with salmon, tomatoes, spinach, avocado on brown toast.
  • Chicken with quinoa, beetroot, red onions and spinach and carrot.

As you can see, all of these proteins and carbs are interchangeable so you can easily mix things up. Add different sauces, dressing, herbs and spices to add flavour and get creative to make your own dishes.

If anyone has a post-workout meal that they love then please comment below so I can try them out!