Figuring out what to eat before, during and after workouts (and thus ensuring the proper practice of nutrient timing) can make the world of difference in our energy and recovery. What you eat (or don’t eat!) post-run plays a large role in determining how you’ll feel afterwards and how much energy you’ll have for your next workout – particularly if you’ll be working out again later that same day or the next day.
Why (and how soon after) should you eat post-run?
You’ve likely heard the advice to refuel as soon as possible post-exercise, within 20-45 minutes is best. It’s true! The sooner you can get nutrition into you the better, as your glycogen replenishment rate will be at its peak immediately post-exercise and slowly decrease from there. Let’s dig a little deeper on why refueling asap is such a good idea…
1. It helps to refill glycogen stores quickly
We burn primarily stored glycogen as fuel during intense exercise and tend to use it up during exercise of a long duration (more than 90 minutes). So after an intense or long workout, those depleted glycogen stores need to be refilled before you are recovered and ready to workout again.
During the first 2 hours post-exercise, glycogen replenishment occurs faster (about twice as fast) the normal rate. This is due to the fact post-exercise muscles are more permeable to glucose – meaning your muscles are able to accept and store carbohydrates as glycogen at a higher rate than normal immediately after a workout.
This faster than normal storage rate is made possible because consuming carbohydrates stimulates the release of insulin (which in this case – immediately post-exercise – is a good thing). The insulin not only increases the amount of glucose taken up by muscle cells and ensures fast as possible replenishment of glycogen store, it also promotes glycogen and protein synthesis.
While it’s possible to completely refill glycogen stores in as little 20 hours, if you miss that post-exercise window you might be looking at 2 days or more before you’re completely recovered and ready to go again.
2. It helps prevent excessive muscle breakdown
Refuelling with carbohydrates and protein helps to prevent excessive muscle breakdown (it blunts the rise in cortisol and thus is anti-catabolic). It’s the insulin that is released in response to eating carbohydrates that is in part behind this anti-catabolic reaction, and consuming some protein along with the carbohydrates stimulates an even greater output of insulin, therefore faster and better recovery. It doesn’t take much – in fact, consuming carbohydrates to protein in a ratio of between 4:1 to 3:1 is all it takes to maximize muscle repair. This typically means about 15 to 25 grams of protein in a recovery shake or snack (that is also providing between 45 to 100 grams of carbohydrate).
3. It stimulates muscle protein synthesis
Consuming carbohydrates with protein creates an environment conducive to building muscle (it promotes an anabolic hormonal environment) and has been shown to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. While the consumption of carbs alone or protein alone is better than nothing, it’s ideal to consume carbohydrate mixed with protein as it will increase the rate of muscle building sooner.
It’s interesting to note that the higher your level of fitness is, the more efficient you’ll become in refueling. A higher level of fitness also means an increase in glycogen storage capacity, by as much as 20%. To add another variable to the mix, it happens that very long and strenuous activity (that causes excessive muscle damage) will result in a longer than normal timeframe before glycogen stores are restored. This is because muscle damage delays glycogen storage. For example, after a marathon it may take up to 7-10 days before the muscle damage is fully healed and therefore glycogen stores can be filled to capacity again.
4. It helps you feel less sore and have more energy afterwards
While filling glycogen stores and preventing excessive muscle breakdown will help you feel less sore post-run, so will ensuing you consume antioxidant rich foods that reduce inflammation. For example, including tart cherry juice into your post workout snack or shake will help you recover faster and feel less sore afterwards. Or adding any of the phytonutrient rich “extras” such as raw cacao powder, turmeric, matcha, spinach or kale, spirulina/chlorella, maca powder, etc will help do the same.
5. It curbs the ‘runger’ that can last for 24 to 48 + hours after a long run
You know what I’m talking about – that need to eat ALL THE FOOD for the rest of the day (and sometimes the next few days too) following a really big workout! By refilling glycogen stores and kickstarting protein synthesis right away, you can effectively mitigate the crazy hunger that some runners experience post long run.
What should you eat after your run?
Many athletes aren’t hungry or don’t feel like chewing and digesting food immediately post-run. Therefore often the best option may be a recovery shake – drinking something is often much easier than eating, plus it helps with rehydration!
Try any of the following:
- Chocolate Cherry Berry Recovery Shake
- Coco Banana Recovery Shake
- Creamy Chocolate Peanut Butter Recovery Milkshake
If time doesn’t permit putting together a shake, at least drink some tart cherry juice (or in a pinch, any all-natural no-sugar-added juice) and snack on a handful or two of almonds or sunflower seeds (or other nuts or seeds). If it was a long or tough workout, have a banana or some dates alongside the juice and nuts/seeds too.
I tend not to recommend chocolate milk (an often recommended recovery beverage in the sports nutrition world) because it contains added, refined sugars (such as HFCS / glucose-fructose) and sometimes added colour, modified corn starch, and/or artificial flavour. Further, some people are lactose intolerance and/or have dairy intolerances that would only serve to exacerbate inflammation (delaying recovery), let alone cause digestive distress. Plus, all milk contains naturally occurring hormones (and some milk contains additional synthetic hormones) such as estrogens, androgens and insulin like growth factors that can cause imbalances and possibly eventual health conditions.
That said, SOMETHING immediately post-workout is nearly always better than nothing.
If your run or workout wasn’t hard or long enough to be drinking down a whole recovery shake, you can simply go straight to your next meal or snack. For example, after an easy to moderate 30-45 minute evening run, you’ll do well to follow that up within the hour with a good antioxidant rich dinner complete with leafy greens, lots of veggies, a good protein source and some healthy fats – something like a Curry Bowl or The Big Salad or Pesto Pasta or Hearty Rice Salad. Or if it was an easy morning run, you might follow it up with oatmeal or Banana Oat Pancakes or an egg scramble or Scrambled Tofu or an Almond Berry Breakfast Shake.
Essentially, the take home message is to get carbs and protein into your body asap post-run! Certain food sources of these macronutrients are better than others, and sometimes liquid form is best (particularly after hard or long runs), but anything is better than waiting an hour or two or more to finally eat.
How much should you eat after your run?
The duration and intensity of your workout determines how low your glycogen stores get, and therefore how much you need to consume afterwards to replenish them. After most workouts, consuming 1 gram of carbohydrate per kg of bodyweight (alongside 15-25g protein to meet the 4:1 carbs to protein ratio) will be adequate. However, if your workout was particularly intense or very long, you may need up to 2 grams of carbohydrate per kg of bodyweight.
The shakes recommended above contain anywhere from about 50 to 90 grams of carbohydrate, depending on the ingredients. To give you an idea, consider the following good sources of carbohydrates used (or that could be used):
- 1 banana = ~25g carb
- 1 large medjool date = ~18g carb
- 1 cup (250ml) tart cherry juice = 35g carb
- 1 cup (250ml) coconut water = 10g carb
- 1 cup frozen berries = ~20g carb
- ½ cup rolled oats = 28g carb
Depending on your weight, you may choose to manipulate the ingredients to match your exact needs, although it’s usually adequate to consume an approximate amount. However, do take the time to calculate exact amounts and formulate your personalized recovery shake if you find a general recipe is still leaving you feeling depleted, hungry and struggling to feel recovered (or on the flip side if it’s feeling like too much).
Part of recovering well is continuing to consume good quality sources of carbohydrates, proteins and healthy fats throughout the rest of the day too. Sitting down to a complete meal about 2 to 3 hours after your recovery shake (or snack) is nearly as important as that recovery shake is. Particularly after very long or hard workouts, continued consumption of carbs is required for full glycogen store replenishment. One study showed cyclists consuming an overall low carb diet failed to fully replenish muscle glycogen while those who consumed a high carb diet succeeded in fully replaced glycogen stores. Therefore, part of good recovery is considering overall daily needs as well.
Nailing pre-during-post run nutrition can be very useful in ensuring good energy and recovery from all those tough runs and workouts you put yourself though – making it more than worthwhile to spend the time on setting yourself up for success and implementing these beneficial nutrient timing habits!
To deliciously healthy food and stronger faster running… Cheers,
Sarah J Cuff, RHN