Train Hard, Play Hard, Refuel Intelligently

high carbohydrate foods

“What should I eat post-workout?”

I receive this question quite often during my daily client training. A considerable amount of advertising money seems to be devoted to on-the-go sports drinks, shakes and protein bars these days, and it is little wonder that clients become overwhelmed in the miasma of the decision-making process.

Being familiar with many of my clients’ personal lives and schedules, I try to answer in the simplest manner possible. If a client is a recreational exerciser who trains two or three times a week, for 30 to 60 minutes, chances are his body does not become depleted during fitness workouts. In addition, there is ample time to refuel between trips to the gym.

However, many trainers work with competitive swimmers who will be participating in multiple events in the same day. Triathlete clients, who engage in two-a-day workouts, or soccer players working towards a weekend-long tournament, typically meet with a personal trainer more often as their big day approaches. For these athletes, who need to rapidly recover from one intense exercise performance bout in preparation for the next one, the recovery diet deserves to be in as excellent shape as their bodies.

Planning a recovery diet, and having the right foods and fluids readily available, is the key to being able to easily and adequately replace calories, carbohydrates, protein, fluids and sodium lost during serious training. With this in place, along with correct planning of the workload and the recovery time, the marvels of adaptation allow the body to become fitter, stronger and faster over time. A proactive recovery means providing the body with all the nutrients it needs, in a speedy and practical manner, to optimize the desired processes following each session. If the important elements of a recovery meal are readily available, the body is more inclined to utilize them in an efficient manner. By providing these nutrients, an athlete can signal his body that post-exercise is the perfect time to rebuild.

We improve recovery nutrition availability in two ways:

  • Increased blood flow to skeletal muscle during and after exercise means that more nutrients are floating around more quickly.
  • Providing an amino acid and glucose dense blood supply during and after exercise means that the rate of protein synthesis increases.

Post-exercise nutrition has evolved into a science; yet there is by no means a one-size-fits-all solution. The optimal amount of macronutrients, as well as the ratio of these nutrients, can vary greatly for each athlete. Whether you are armed with a degree in competitive sports nutrition, or have done a tremendous amount of research on the topic, your recommendations may want to be based upon the client’s age, gender, body size, physical condition, duration and type of events in which he will be participating, and environmental factors such as temperature and altitude (very important considerations for outdoor athletes).

In addition to these parameters, consider the following:

  • How much fuel was utilized during training?
  • What was the approximate extent of muscle damage and sweat loss incurred while exercising?
  • Was a stimulus presented to increase utilization of muscle protein?

An easy way for clients to fully realize what is happening at a cellular level during recovery is by encouraging them to think in terms of the 3 R’s:

  • Refuel
  • Rebuild
  • Rehydrate

Each of these critical recovery concepts calls for a different combination of fluids, electrolytes, carbohydrates, and protein—each playing a specific role in the process.

Although not a cookie-cutter determination, a few general guidelines for clients of this caliber might be:

  • 15-60 minutes The amount of time following training or competition during which he should commence his recovery nutrition routine
  • 2:1 The minimal carbohydrate to protein ratio desirable to consume after activity, in order to jump-start recovery. Depending upon the nature of the activity, its intensity and its duration, I have seen references that support ingesting anywhere from a 2:1 to 4:1 ratio. Experimentation over time will end up dictating what works best for each client.

Recovery encompasses a complex range of processes, aside from simple muscular adaptation:

  • Refuels the muscle and liver glycogen stores
  • Replaces the fluid and electrolytes lost via sweat
  • Manufactures new muscle protein, red blood cells and other cellular components as part of the repair and adaptation process
  • Allows the immune system to handle the damage and challenges brought about by the training session or participation in the competitive event.

Muscle glycogen is the main fuel utilized by the body during moderate and high intensity exercise.  Inability to adequately replace glycogen stores through carbohydrate consumption will lead to compromised performance in subsequent sessions. Therefore, the major dietary consideration when planning post-exercise refueling is the amount of carbohydrate ingested.  Depending upon the fuel cost of the training schedule, or the need to fuel in the time leading up to race, a serious athlete may need to consume a slight excess of carbohydrates per kg body weight each day to ensure adequate glycogen stores. The type and form of carbohydrate that is most suitable will depend upon a number of factors:

  • The athlete’s overall daily carbohydrate and energy requirements
  • Gastric tolerance, access and availability of suitable food options
  • The length of time before the next training session

In general, within the immediate post- exercise period (ideally the first hour), athletes are encouraged to consume a carbohydrate -rich snack or meal that provides at least 1-1.2 g of carbohydrate per kg body weight. During this time frame, the rate of glycogen synthesis is greatest. The importance of this becomes highlighted when the time between prolonged training sessions or performance events is less than 8 hours.

high carbohydrate foodsAnother inquiry I often receive from clients is the best choice of carbohydrates to facilitate his goals. Research has demonstrated that the following whole foods (not supplements) tend to produce optimal results:

  • Sweet potatoes
  • Oats
  • Wild rice
  • Bananas
  • Chickpeas

Consuming some protein along with the carbs stimulates faster glycogen replacement. The protein optimizes muscular growth, since it is the nutrient that drives the body to repair damaged muscle tissue. Protein is also desirable in the recovery time following training sessions or competitive events, as it will facilitate the synthesis of muscle protein, a key process for building muscle. Consuming protein along with carbohydrates during recovery from endurance exercise appears to afford the body its best chances for recovery. As the glycogen is being replaced with the carbs, the lean protein source provides the body with amino acids (building blocks of protein) on signaling pathways that control muscle protein synthesis. I like to utilize the metaphor of a shuttle system when I explain this to clients. The protein gets shuttled into the bloodstream to do its important work, with the carbohydrates serving as the rocket.

The amount of protein required for the post-workout period is often overestimated, again as a result of media hype from supplement providers. More protein in a recovery nutrition meal does not always equal increased muscle building. The average body is unable to digest, and therefore not able to utilize, much more than 20-40 grams of high quality lean protein at any given time. Excess consumption, sadly, often gets stored in the body as adipose tissue. In addition, it is important to switch up protein choices on a regular basis, in order to reduce the chances of developing of any potential food intolerance/allergy.

During the recovery phase, the athlete’s body experiences a reduction in catabolic (breakdown) processes and a gradual increase in anabolic (building) processes, which continues for at least 24 hours after exercise. Recent research has shown that early intake of essential amino acids from good quality protein helps to promote the increase in lean muscle mass rebuilding.  Ongoing studies are still addressing the optimal type of protein (casein, whey, or vegan sources such as pea and hemp) to ingest during this window of opportunity. To a large extent, this choice depends upon an individual’s tolerance, allergies, and scheduling for the remainder of the day. Consuming complete sources of protein in meals and snacks after this time frame will promote further protein synthesis, although not at the same voracious rate as is exhibited during that first critical hour.

The most recent evidence points to carbohydrates as one of the most promising nutritional immune protectors.  Ensuring adequate carbohydrate stores before exercise, and consuming carbohydrate during and/or after a prolonged or high-intensity workout, have both been shown to reduce the disturbance to immune system markers in the body.  The carbohydrate seems to reduce the stress hormone’s response to exercise, thus minimizing its effect on the immune system, as well as supplying glucose to fuel the activity of the myriad of white cells within the immune system.

If your client indicates that he has trouble tolerating solid food after vigorous training, he may have to resort to experimenting with liquid recovery foods. A surprisingly easy and convenient choice is chocolate milk, which has often been suggested as an ideal option during recovery since it very simply combines carbohydrates and protein. The International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism reported that athletes who drank chocolate milk after an intense bout of exercise were able to work out longer and with more power during a second workout as compared to athletes who consumed commercially prepared sports drinks.

“Our study indicates that chocolate milk is a strong alternative to other commercial sports drinks in helping athletes recover from strenuous, energy-depleting exercise,” says Joel M. Stager, Ph.D., Professor of Kinesiology at Indiana University. “Chocolate milk contains an optimal carbohydrate to protein ratio, which is critical for helping refuel tired muscles after strenuous exercise and can enable athletes to exercise at a high intensity during subsequent workouts.”

Another recent study, this one published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, concluded that cereal and non-fat milk is as good as a commercially-available sports drink in initiating post-exercise muscle recovery.

While this does in fact seem like an ideal solution to the quick and easy recovery meal conundrum, there is an interesting point to consider on the topic of chocolate milk: Intense exercise tends to create an acidic environment throughout the body.  Animal protein (as is found in dairy products) is acid forming. If the acid is not properly neutralized during the refueling meal, the body may compensate by pulling the necessary calcium from skeletal bones and nitrogen from muscle tissue. Greens, sprouted vegetables, and certain fruits will have a neutralizing effect on the body, and make great food options to enjoy along with the chocolate milk.

Greek yogurt has double the amount of protein than that found in most regular yogurts, and is a great source of carbohydrates. “Mix it with cereal or fruit,” recommends Dr. Louise Burke, Head of Sports Nutrition at the Australian Institute of Sport and coauthor of The Complete Guide to Food for Sports Performance: Peak Nutrition for Your Sport. Fresh berries pack micronutrients that have been proven to help fight muscle soreness. Pineapple is also known to have anti-inflammatory properties to further aid in muscle recovery. Kiwis help facilitate digestion and provide necessary dietary fiber. Try experimenting with fruit that offers anti-oxidants as well as a neutralizing effect, and stir into a cup of yogurt.

The benefits of post-exercise nutrition, regardless of gender, include:

  • Improved recovery
  • Less muscle soreness
  • Increased ability to build muscle
  • Improved immune function
  • Improved bone mass
  • Improved ability to utilize body fat

Repair and rebuilding occurs through the breakdown of old, damaged proteins and the construction of new ones — a process known collectively as protein turnover. Muscle protein synthesis is increased slightly (or remains unchanged) after resistance workouts, while protein breakdown increases dramatically. During this time frame, it seems that the body is doing much more breaking-down than building-up. The relationship between these two parameters represents the metabolic basis for muscle growth. Muscle hypertrophy occurs when a positive protein balance can be established during recovery — in other words, when we make sure we have enough raw materials available for protein synthesis to occur, so that it doesn’t lag behind protein breakdown. Studies show that this trend can be reversed. Specifically, protein synthesis may actually be stimulated and protein breakdown suppressed when the right type of nutrients are consumed after exercise.

With so many positive reasons to pay close attention to the post-exercise meal, you will be providing a valuable service to your clients by being able to answer their questions about timely and high-quality recovery nutrition.

Learn More About Personal Trainer Certification



Cathleen Kronemer is an NFPT CEC writer and a member of the NFPT Certification Council Board. Cathleen is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, ACE-Certified Health Coach, former competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for over three decades. Feel free to contact her at [email protected] She welcomes your feedback and your comments!
Get 35% off certification packages

Celebrating 35 years

We’re celebrating 35 years with 35% off!

Our biggest discount EVER!

Get 35% off certification packages.