Are You Sabotaging Your Workout with Your Post-Exercise Snack?

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You’ve been working out like crazy, and the scale isn’t moving. You’ve been eating your vegetables, religiously reading fitness mags, and have passed by the office break room ‘diet death’ table filled with doughnuts for 3 weeks in a row. AND you’ve been refueling after every workout just like you read in all those magazines. What gives? Perhaps it’s what you’re eating right after your rendezvous with the Stairmaster that’s thwarting your efforts. You have likely heard about the importance of refueling your muscles after a workout. Capping off your sweat session with the right combination — and right amount — of nutrients can make a huge difference in your sports or fitness performance. It also helps maintain the energy levels you need for your active lifestyle. But I’ve seen people deliberately skip a post-exercise snack, thinking this would further their weight loss efforts — when in fact their bodies desperately needed the nutrients after a grueling workout. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve seen beginning exercisers embrace the concept of refueling with far too much enthusiasm and self-righteousness — and then wonder why the scale is moving in the wrong direction, or why they can’t seem to bust out of a fitness plateau. Understanding your body’s refueling requirements will help you get it right — and continue making headway toward your goals. Refueling Right When considering your plan for post-exercise refueling, keep in mind that a brutal workout doesn’t entitle you to raid the refrigerator, finish up leftover birthday cupcakes, or scarf down a mammoth plate of pasta. Yes, you need calories, carbohydrates, and protein after a long, hard exercise session — but not in excessive amounts. Fluid replacement is an important part of refueling, but that’s a topic for another post. So, let’s talk about food. Just to be clear, there’s no need to refuel if you’re walking for 30 minutes at a moderate pace, or participating in a 45-minute fitness class at the gym.* Unnecessary refueling will only frustrate your efforts to lose weight, keep your blood sugar stable, or maintain a healthy weight; you simply don’t need the extra calories. The truth is that your body is very good at storing energy (in the form of glycogen) in the muscles and liver. If you exercise at a low-to-moderate pace for less than 90 minutes, you probably won’t need to refuel before your next meal. But if your training involves 60-90 minutes or more of higher-intensity exercise, refueling is essential for optimal health and performance. Carbs + Protein Carbohydrates help restore glycogen reserves, and protein helps with muscle repair and growth — so it’s important to include both in your post-workout snack. For best results, aim for 0.5 g carbohydrate per pound of body weight; and 0.1-0.2 g protein per pound within 30 minutes of ending your workout. The amount of each nutrient you need for optimal refueling depends on your body weight; for a 150-pound person, this comes out to 75 g carbohydrate and 15-30 g protein (equal to 1 cup of muesli with 1 cup milk). After you know how much you need based on your body weight, use the nutrition facts label on your foods to help you determine portion sizes. Examples of smart refueling snacks include:
  • A berry Greek yogurt smoothie
  • Fruit with granola on yogurt
  • A glass of milk with a Zing bar
  • A turkey sandwich on whole-grain bread, fruit
  • A homemade oatmeal cookie with hemp milk
  • An all-natural peanut butter and banana sandwich
When done correctly, regular refueling after long or intense workouts can truly transform your fitness performance, help you achieve your wellness goals, and enable you to feel your absolute best. What do you like to eat after a good, challenging sweat session? *If you have diabetes and are on blood sugar lowering medications, consult a dietitian for instructions for carbohydrate intake before, during, and after exercise. Beth Shepard, MS, ACSM-RCEP, ACE-PT, has a master’s degree in Exercise Physiology from the University of Arizona. Beth is an expert in fitness and health promotion and a certified wellness coach, helping people thrive by adopting sustainable lifestyle changes. She and her family love to hike, bicycle, and try new sports.