We eat first with our eyes. Which is probably what’s so disappointing about the often-numerical answer when we ask: “What should a recovery meal look like?”
When I ask what I can eat after a workout, I don’t want a number of grams, I want a meal. Ultimately I want my post-workout nutrition to be like all the other things I eat; healthful, yes, but delicious, craveable, beautiful and fun to eat and cook. Maybe that’s what we all want: a foolproof recipe for the best damn post-workout meal on the planet. But I have news for you – it doesn’t exist. Instead, there are one million and one best damn post-workout meals on the planet. They’re mouthwatering meals, with sound nutrition. But as it turns out, nutrition, specifically for athletes, is highly personal. My best post-workout meal might not be yours, but yours will be easy to create if we set a few guidelines.
If we understand what happens to our bodies during and after we exercise, and learn what nutrients are needed to replenish and restore our systems, it’s a whole lot easier to pick ingredients to build the image of that mouthwatering burger, or big bowl of noodles (Ahem, my personal favorite recovery meals).
How do we build a great post-workout meal?
When we exercise, we become catabolic, and our bodies break down fuel sources like the sugar or glycogen stored in our liver and active muscle, fat stored in muscle and adipose cells, and, if the activity is long and hard enough, we break down precious protein from tissue. Our bodies also dehydrate, losing water and salt. Effectively, we’ve burned our stores and so, from a nutritional perspective, we will need to replenish those stores if we want to be ready for tomorrow’s workout.
The muscles in our bodies are particularly sensitive and receptive to sugar or glycogen within a short 45-minute window after exercise, and they absorb these nutrients readily in that window (as fuel for muscles, instead of storing them as fat) so it’s important that we start to replenish these stores as quickly as possible. That means intaking sugars – effectively, carbohydrates – in that small window is paramount. Protein and bit of fat help our bodies to synthesize the glycogen we eat in our foods so these are good nutrients to consume in that window as well. Salt will help us to rehydrate, so let’s sprinkle it on too. And remember you’ll want that all within a 45-minute window. Ready? GO!
In reality, though, not many of us get home from a workout and have the immediate ability to whip up a beautiful meal. For those of us in this boat, the best way to tackle the slim window of recovery is to have a quick, carbohydrate rich snack immediately after exercise to start resynthesizing. Something like a recovery drink, chocolate milk, crackers with cheese or a banana with almond butter will do. Then start preparing your recovery meal so you’re eating it as close to that 45-minute window as possible.
Eat Between the Numbers
When you’re eating real foods, it’s tricky to count your calories or macronutrients because a carrot, say, doesn’t have a nutrition label. You could research just how many carbohydrates and proteins are in each ingredient you’re cooking with, but this is a real time suck. The truth is, your body is smarter than the math. If we listen in, our bodies will tell us and we’ll FEEL when we’ve consumed enough carbohydrates, proteins and salts because we’ll be firing on all cylinders.
Quite simply, if we’ve put the right stuff in, our hunger will be sated.
That said, macro and micro nutrient counts can be helpful to guide us in the right direction. In Dr. Allen Lim’s The Feed Zone Cookbook he suggests that 4 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram is appropriate after a 4 hour ride, and that 2 grams of carbohydrate after a 2 hour ride would suffice. For a 150-lb man, this amounts to about 500 calories of carbohydrate that ought to be consumed immediately post exercise. For reference, a cup of cooked sushi rice alone has about 70g of carbohydrate and about 300 calories.
Take it personally. It’s about YOU.
A recovery meal rich in carbohydrates, and supplemented with some protein and a bit of fat and salt is what we’re looking to eat. And this can look like a LOT of things. But these details – specifically surrounding quantities and particular ingredients – are all things we need to learn to navigate using the queues our bodies give us. Are you hungry? Eat! Not hungry? Don’t! If you have uncontrollable gas after eating corn tortillas, the lesson is probably that they don’t agree with your disposition as well as something else. Consider steering clear.
When we combine a bit of science with our nutritional intuition, it’s pretty easy for us to fuel our bodies with those ingredients they need most by using a “recipe blueprint,” basically a food format where we can swap out any ingredients to make something totally new, but not completely dissimilar. Savory and sweet grain bowls are an example of this; basically they’re both bowls of grains with stuff on top. The stuff determines the flavor, but the nutritional details could be very similar.
The best news? We can be as creative as we like in our blueprint design. And, once we’ve drawn them up, the sky’s the limit and our post-workout recovery meals will never again be boring, bland or frightened little bowls of plain oatmeal, naked pasta or microwave burritos. The three post-workout meal blueprints below are a few of my favorites and literally just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to beautiful, delicious food as recovery fuel for any time of day.
Bircher Muesli with Coconut Milk, Strawberries + Almonds and Hemp and Sea Salt (The Grain Bowl Blueprint)
Bircher muesli is basically oats soaked overnight in milk or juice and sometimes honey, so it’s packed with complex and simple carbohydrates your body can use right away to replenish glycogen stores, plus the fiber and complex carbohydrate in oats will burn all day. By soaking the oats in coconut milk, you get a bit of healthy fat that assists in nutrient absorption and flavor. Hemp seed is one of the only complete plant proteins out there, so sprinkling some seeds over your oats after you top with berries, nuts, and sea salt add a healthy protein punch. This would be a great place to stir in a favorite protein powder if you have one, or you could always add an egg. That said, this is a grain bowl blueprint so you could easily swap out each of the key ingredients for something else. Don’t like oats? Try 1 cup of rice, polenta or even farro instead. Swap out the berries, and maybe even use savory carrots or sauteed broccoli instead! For a protein source, pick one that offers all nine amino acids. Meat, fish, dairy and eggs contain them, as do hemp seed, quinoa and soy. Pick a favorite protein, and have yourself a great grain bowl for breakfast!
Carrot-Sesame Hummus Tartine w/Egg + Rapini (The Tartine Blueprint)
Many athletes benefit from squeezing in their workout before lunch, so they don’t need to worry about digestive distress during their training. An open faced tartine is a great twist on the stand-by sandwich, and it’s easier to assemble. Plus, you never have to worry about soggy bread! To make a tartine, toast 1-2 slices of your favorite bread to your liking, then spread the toast with something delicious. Here, a quick carrot-sesame hummus is a nice little backdrop for sauteéd rapini or baby broccoli, a poached egg and hemp seeds. Double down on eggs for additional protein – remember you’re eating to fuel your body midday, not just your workout. You could substitute guacamole, beet hummus, straight avocado or almond butter for the carrot hummus, which serves to provide fat and flavor more than protein here. For those athletes who workout after lunch but before dinner, a serving of whole fat greek yogurt with berries (and maybe a drizzle of honey) is a delicious idea.
Farm Greens Salad w/Yogurt-Herb Dressing + Salted Red Quinoa w/Flank Steak (The Meat + Three Blueprint)
Similar to lunch, most athletes benefit from being able to slip their training in before mealtimes. For those athletes, a “meat + three blueprint” loaded with lots of fixings, greens and proteins with some salt and fat is a great choice. Here, a pretty green salad acts as a flavorful background to steamed red quinoa and grilled flank steak – carbohydrates and protein at their simplest. A swipe of greek yogurt acts as a bit of extra fat and protein. You could just as easily swap in rice or couscous for the quinoa, chicken, fish or tofu for the beef. If you happen to be the type of athlete heading out for a late night run or gym session, don’t forget to replace what you’ve burned when you get back – you’ll sleep better and be ready for training the next day. A glass of chocolate milk is a great option!