Olympian Dara Torres recently attributed some of her amazing swimming success to an amino acid supplement that she feels helps her recover better. You may wonder if you need to pay the same attention to what you put in your mouth after a workout. If your exercise routine consists of a 30-minute walk three times a week, just make sure you get some water or other fluid after you work out. But if you're training for a marathon, say, or a century bike ride, or putting in a lot of time at the gym lifting weights, you might want to pay at least some attention to what you eat to get the most out of your workouts. Still, you don't need to buy pricey recovery drinks (which I wrote about last year) or special supplements.
When you work out hard or long enough, you deplete the body's glycogen stores. You may also be breaking down muscle tissue if you're lifting heavy weights or doing an endurance workout that includes running down hills or doing interval training, says Monique Ryan, a nutritionist and author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes.
For those reasons, it's important to take in some carbohydrates and a little bit of protein after you do a heavy or long workout—especially if you're going to work out again the next day. Protein "enhances repair and recovery, so you get stronger," says Susan Kleiner, a dietitian who owns High Performance Nutrition in Mercer Island, Wash., and is a spokeswoman for the American College of Sports Medicine.
There's been a lot of debate on how much of one to take versus the other. One camp believes strongly that a ratio of 4 grams of carbs to every 1 gram of protein is key; the other says you don't need to worry so much about the exact math but should just aim for mostly carbs and a bit of protein.
Either way, timing seems to be key for more frequent or intense exercisers. Aim to get the food in 15 to 30 minutes after the end of a workout, says William Kraemer, a kinesiologist at the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. That's the period of time in which the body seems to get the most bang for its buck from ingesting carbs and protein.
If you're not planning on another big workout the next day (or later in the day, for some serious athletes), you can worry less about the timing of the meal and more about making sure you get adequate carbs and protein spread over the rest of your daily diet. This will vary depending on your goals, workouts and other factors. Ryan's book recommends a range of between 0.45 grams and 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, depending on activity levels, and as little as 0.4 grams of carb per pound of body weight for a sedentary adult all the way up to 5.5 grams per pound for an athlete working out for many hours a day. The elderly should be especially careful to include protein during the day, says Kraemer, since they might not be eating enough of the nutrient to get all the benefit of a strength training program.
The source of your post-workout food is up to you. Regular food like yogurt or chocolate low-fat milk is fine, says Richard Kreider, head of the department of health and kinesiology at Texas A&M University in College Station. (In one small, dairy-industry-funded study, chocolate milk outperformed Gatorade and recovery drink Endurox R4 in helping athletes bounce back from a hard workout.) Many people find a drink a handy way to get in a hit of carbs and protein, says Kleiner. She makes her own smoothies when she gets home from working out, using, for example, skim milk, half a banana, a little cocoa powder, and whey protein powder. Whey is an excellent source of essential amino acids, it's easy on the stomach, and it's very rapidly digested and absorbed, she says. There's no need for supplements of individual amino acids, like the ones Torres takes. (This analysis from Slate questions their contribution, as well as that of Torres's super-duper stretching routine, and notes that the supplement's listed ingredients don't include the essential amino acids that are known to rebuild muscle.)
Even if you aren't working out intensely enough to make it essential you get in a specific post-exercise meal, eating immediately after a workout can keep you from overeating later in the day. People trying to lose weight often skimp on food before and after a workout, when in fact they should do the opposite, Kleiner says. Her advice: Take in a pre-workout snack and a small post-workout meal, then eat more moderately during the rest of the day. Just be sure you count your post-workout food in your daily calorie budget.