Whether your goal is to lose fat, get faster, be healthy, or gain performance, the foods you consume post-workout can be crucial to helping you reach your potential. While a hotly-debated topic in fitness land, there is one solid, unchanging truth about post-workout fueling that applies to everyone:
Optimal post-workout fueling is different for everyone.
Profound, I know. The reality is, we are all cocktails of varying genetic and ethnic backgrounds, and we each received individual upbringings (nutrition and stress levels throughout gestation, childhood, and puberty) that set the stage for how our human machine would operate in adulthood. So, just as people respond differently to specific types of workouts or programming, every human body responds differently to specific macronutrient ratios or types of food in post-workout fueling.
To figure out what works best for you, you can follow a few general guidelines while experimenting with what you eat. In general, post-workout fuel should consist of protein, carbohydrates and smaller amounts of fats based on the volume and intensity of your workout and your goals. Generally, the higher the volume and intensity of the workout, the greater the need for carbohydrates and the more important post-working fueling becomes to recovery.
Focus on getting more protein after sessions that are focused on muscle building (lifting), and more carbohydrate after sessions that focus on endurance activity. If your goal is to lose body fat, you’ll want to include less carbohydrate in your post-workout meal. If your goal is to gain performance, you’ll want to include a higher ratio of carbohydrate. Also, for those with performance goals, eating a post-workout meal within 30 minutes of completing a workout is important to overall recovery.
In terms of hydration, if you don’t replace the water lost during your activity, you’re ultimately hindering the overall operation and recovery of your body. In fact, exercise performance is impaired when an individual is dehydrated by as little as 2% of body weight. Without proper rehydration post-workout, we can’t synthesize the food we’re eating. As a result, the repair of muscle and tissue damage is stunted. As a general guideline, try to drink 20-30 oz of water or electrolyte drink per hour of activity depending on the temperature and your sweat rate.
I highly recommend always consuming whole food sources of nutrition over any sort of supplemental protein shakes. Most protein shakes (and supplemental protein “bars”) are made of isolated fractions of horrendously low quality food, and contain added preservatives, stabilizers, and artificial sweeteners. As Amy Kabul points out, protein powders are not regulated for purity or content, and popular brands were even found to have concerning amounts of arsenic, lead, mercury and cadmium. Awww hell no. Even if you do get your isolated fractions of protein from a high-quality source, because it is a pre-digested food, it causes a spike in blood glucose and insulin, decreasing overall insulin sensitivity and making it especially hard to lean out.
I do understand the convenience of protein shakes, especially for athletes doing multiple workouts in a day or for those who have a hard time putting on weight. So, if protein powder concoctions work for you and your goals, try to go with a grass-fed whey protein that doesn’t contain any synthetic sweeteners or additives labeled as “natural flavors.” Try out whole food sources first and see how well they work for you in comparison to powdered foods.
Now, let’s get on with the experimenting.
20 Post-Workout (Real) Foods
1. Sweet Potato or Squash: Pre-cook baked sweet potatoes in large batches in the oven, slow cooker or pressure cooker, or dice up squashes like pumpkin or butternut squash and roast in the oven. Both taste great when eaten chilled and topped with a little cinnamon.
2. Vegetables: Toss raw vegetables like carrots, broccoli, or pepper slices in olive oil, salt and pepper, or sauté a variety of vegetables like kale, spinach, and mushrooms ahead of time to serve on top a protein source.
5. Smoothies: Make a smoothie using coconut milk, pumpkin or sweet potato, coconut oil, berries and/or nut butter for a post-workout source of both carbohydrates and fats.
6. Applesauce: Make your own apple sauce “mash” in large batches and separate into travel-friendly jars so they’re easy to grab when you need them.
7. Fruit: Easy go-to fruits include pre-washed fresh strawberries or raspberries, watermelon, apples, peaches, and bananas depending on the season. These should be utilized second to starchy carbohydrates like sweet potatoes as fruit is high in fructose which metabolizes differently in the body.
8. Homemade Bars: Make your own homemade bars with ingredients like sweet potatoes and eggs for a post-workout source of both carbohydrates, protein and fats.
9. Meat: Pre-cook a variety of meats like chicken or steak and cut into strips, or make meatballs, patties, or sausages from ground beef or pork so they’re easy to grab when you need them.
10. Hard Boiled Eggs: Cook large batches of hard boiled eggs and section throughout the week accordingly. If you pack your post-workout meal the night before, peel the eggs ahead of time so they’re ready to eat and “less messy” when you’re at work or the gym.
11. Canned Tuna or Salmon: Get wild-caught tuna or salmon packed in water (without added soy or preservatives) for an easy protein that doesn’t need refrigeration. Mix with guacamole or avocado to give it extra flavor.
12. Shrimp or Fish: Pre-cook large batches of shrimp or fish like cod and salmon. Remove the tails (shrimp) or skin (fish) so they are easy to eat post-workout.
13. Coconut Oil: Add coconut oil to sweet potato or squashes, or add into smoothies.
14. Nut Butters: Nut butters like almond butter can be added to smoothies or sweet potatoes, or used as a dip for raw vegetables like carrots.
15. Coconut Milk: Drink strait, add into smoothies, or top on top of berries or fruit.
16. Avocado: Cut open and eat solo with a spoon, or add slices on top of meat.
17. Guacamole: Use guacamole as a dip for meats, raw vegetables or mix with canned tuna or salmon.
18. Homemade Nut Mix: Make your own nut mixes using raw nuts, dried unsweetened fruits, and coconut flakes. Note: Nuts should be utilized second to other fast burning fats like coconut.
19. Coconut Water: Coconut water is the liquid extracted from young, green coconuts that contains vitamins, electrolytes, amino acids, enzymes, antioxidants, and the obvious – water. Coconut water is the richest source of naturally occurring electrolytes like sodium and potassium that help our cells (nerve, heart and muscles) maintain impulses that are responsible for important things like muscle contractions. For this reason, coconut water is great during longer workouts or post-workout after you’ve lost a significant amount of sweat. Known as nature’s gatorade, coconut water is superior to conventional sports drinks that contain synthetic vitamins, minerals and processed sugar and carbohydrates. Make sure to purchase coconut water without added sugars or preservatives.
20. Homemade Sports Drink: You can easily make your own homemade sports drink with lemon and/or lime juice, honey, sea salt, and of course, water. In similar fashion to coconut water, homemade sports drinks will help you replace the water and electrolytes lost without additives or processed sugars.
While not ideal, there’s always the need to have something immediate or in a emergency when life get’s the best of you. Below are pre-packaged foods we personally utilize from time to time that are conveniently available at most grocery stores. (Note: The items below may contain GMO ingredients, added sweeteners or meats that are not pastured/grass fed.)
Larabars: Available at conventional grocery stores, or here.
Steve’s Paleo “Crunch” Bars and Kits: Available at Whole Foods, or here.
Wellshire Turkey Sticks: Available at Whole Foods, or here.
Raw Revolution Bars: Available here.
Coconut oil Single Packs: Available here.
What foods do you like to eat for recovery? Share your experiences below!
Keepin’ it human,