Refuelling after exercise

Oct 24, 2019

Muesli and yoghurt

Healthy eating after you exercise, especially after intense exercise or an event, is important to ensure you adequately replace:

  1. Energy from carbohydrates and protein mainly
  2. Fluids
  3. Salts (electrolytes)

So when is it important to consider a recovery meal plan?

  1. You regularly exercise 2 days in a row or twice in one day.
  2. Your exercise regime is very intense. For example, heavy weight lifting or long-distance running can cause muscle damage.

Here are some tips to help you plan your recover meals after you’ve hit the tar or the trails:

  • Have your recovery meal or snack within 30 minutes to 2 hours after finishing your run. This helps to speed up muscle repair and refill energy stores in the muscle.
  • If you exercise for a long time or intensely, you may need to eat every 2 hours for up to 6 hours after your workout to fully recover. Focus on small regular meals for that day or days.
  • Include carbohydrate-rich foods. This will help to replenish carbohydrate stores, also known as glycogen, in the muscle and liver.
    • Examples include:
      • whole grain foods, bread, bagels, pitas, crackers, pasta, rice, and quinoa, whole fruit or 100% fruit juice, starchy vegetables such as potatoes, sweet potatoes and winter squash
  • Quinoa as listed above is a great gluten-free substitute for other grains and can be incorporated into your diet in a variety of ways, from salads to side dishes or even breakfast cereals. It is also high in protein which serves as a good recovery meal option.
  • Non-starchy vegetables like salad greens, broccoli, asparagus, sweet peppers and spinach are nutritious and also contain water that can help with rehydration, but are low in carbohydrates. This can make it hard to meet your recovery needs if eaten on their own. Combine them with some carbohydrate-rich foods listed above to help with recovery.
  • Protein is important to repair, maintain and build new muscles. Protein provides amino acids, which are the building blocks of muscles.
      • Examples include lean meats, poultry, milk, yogurt, cheese, or cottage cheese, eggs, nuts and seeds, beans, peas and lentils.
  • Adding protein to your meal plan, together with increased consumption of carbohydrates, actually helps with glycogen ‘resynthesis’, basically correcting glycogen stores quicker.
  • Eating more carbohydrate or protein than you need does not mean that you will build more muscle. Too much protein, carbohydrate or fat is stored as fat in the body. Always take into account the severity of your training regime.
  • Drink enough fluids to replace what you lost in sweat during exercise. Aim for 500 to 750 mL (2 to 3 cups) for 0.5 kg of body weight you lost during exercise (mainly water). This is especially important if you plan to exercise again within the next day. If you don’t know how much weight you lost, use your thirst as a guide.
    • Example: if your actual weight is 65kg, but after training you weight 63kg, then you will have lost 2kg, mainly through water. This will mean you should consume more or less 2 litres of water extra per day.
  • If you don’t exercise intensely, choose water to rehydrate.
    • Sports drinks are a good choice if you sweat a lot and your training is intense. The sports drink will not only correct hydration, but also correct your electrolytes losses through sweat.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, here are a few recovery meal and snack ideas to try:

  • Greek-style yogurt with low-fat granola and fruit salad
  • Whole grain cereal or oatmeal with low-fat milk and fresh fruit juice
  • Whole grain pita with chicken/tuna and low-fat mayonnaise mixed with green salad
  • Medium-sized baked potato with lean steak and a side salad
  • Grilled or roasted chicken on a whole wheat tortilla with low-fat cheese and mixed raw vegetables
  • Brown rice or quinoa with grilled fish/lean beef and steamed vegetables
  • Smoothie made with Greek-style yogurt, banana, and mixed berries.

With every recovery meal, you need to include a protein, carbohydrate and fruit and vegetable to ensure you replenish:

  • Energy, (Mainly from Carbohydrates and Protein)
  • Fluids
  • Salts (electrolytes)

Heste-Mari Viviers from SEMLI

SEMLI (Sport, Exercise Medicine & Lifestyle Institute) was established at the University of Pretoria in 2015, under Professor Martin Schwellnus. They enable people from all walks of life reach their full potential through health, wellness and physical activity, by providing clinical services, information and learnings backed by research evidence. Read more about Heste-Mari here


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