Optimize Your Exercise with the Best Post-Workout Foods

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By Dietitian Cassie, RD, LD

As a Registered Dietitian and fitness fanatic, I’m constantly asked which foods are the best to eat before and during a workout in order to maximize performance. What I’m not asked nearly as much is a question we should all be pondering: Which foods are best after a workout?

You worked your tail off at the gym, so don’t sabotage your results by neglecting your post-workout nutrition. Following up your routine with the right foods will help maximize your workout results and reduce your recovery time—while the wrong ones could undo all your hard efforts! I’d even argue that what you choose to fuel your body with after your workout could be just as important as the workout itself.

Crossfitters, especially, should pay extra attention to what we eat after a workout due to the intense type of exercise we’re doing. That’s why it’s important to eat the right foods after a workout. Otherwise you’ll never be maximizing your workouts or making the most of your sweat-filled time at the gym.

There are two things to keep in mind when it comes to post-workout fueling:

1. Timing.

It’s not just about what you eat, but when you eat. Waiting to eat 30 to 60 minutes post-workout is ideal. You want to give your body that buffer so it has time to transition from the “fight or flight” mode it’s in while you’re exercising to “rest and digest” mode. This allows for optimal nutrient absorption and utilization, because once your parasympathetic nervous system can take over in “rest and digest” mode, healing and regeneration can occur. But you don’t want to wait much longer than an hour after you wrap up your workout to refuel, or your body won’t be able to maximize your post-workout meal. This is because your cells are more sensitive to insulin after your workout, enabling the efficient movement of quality fuel into cells for refueling and rebuilding.

2. Making it PFC balanced!

The absolute best post-workout fuel includes a combo of all three macronutrients: protein (P), fat (F) and carbohydrate (C). While each macro plays an important role in your recovery, having your P, F and C together provides the nourishment, balance and recovery nutrition your body needs to get the most from your workout. When you exercise, your body is breaking down muscle fibers, and post-workout is the time when your muscles are repairing. Provide your body with everything it needs to rebuild, repair and recover so that you’re making the most of your exercise efforts.

So why is each macronutrient (P, F and C) important?

Protein has been given most of the spotlight in the world of sports nutrition, and for good reason. Protein aids in muscle recovery, is necessary for healing, maintains your immune function as your body recovers from the stress of your workout, and boosts your metabolism. Protein is critical for Crossfitters since so much of the workouts involve strength training and muscle building. A good rule of thumb is to aim for eating a portion of protein equivalent to the thickness and circumference of the palm of your hand at meals (2-3 eggs, 4-6 oz. of chicken, beef, or fish) and about half that amount for snacks. Your body does not store protein, so you need to make sure you’re eating it throughout the day.

Fat is needed to lubricate your joints from your high impact workouts and to support your bones, too. Fat also keeps your metabolism turbocharged for hours after your WOD. It reduces post-workout inflammation, thus reducing your recovery time, too. Generally, the more you exercise, the more sensitive your muscles are to insulin, which can cause you to experience fluctuations in your blood sugar levels. Fat helps keep your blood sugars stable and your metabolism turbocharged—not just immediately after your workout, but for hours after. Healthy fats are butter, olive oil, avocado, coconut oil, nuts, seeds, olives and cheese. A good starting point is including 2 to 3 tablespoons of healthy fat every single time you eat — meals, snacks, whenever. This could mean sautéing your veggies in a couple tablespoons of coconut oil at dinner and topping your salad with sliced avocado, or having a heaping spoonful of almond butter on your apple at snack time.

Carbohydrates replenish your muscle glycogen and give you immediate energy following your workout by bringing your blood sugar levels back up. Good carbs are also full of important antioxidants and nutrients for optimal recovery. Generally, the more intense the workout, the greater the need for carbohydrates. Filling up your glycogen stores immediately after a workout is a pretty hot topic in the sports nutrition circuit, and the reality is, while refueling with carbs is important, protein and fat are important, too.

Carbs fall into 2 categories: starchy and non-starchy.

For starchy veggies and fruit, sticking to a half cup at meals and snacks is a good place to start—on the days you aren’t working out. On the days you do Crossfit, you’ll want to have at least half a cup of starchy veggies and/or fruit in your meals before and after your workout. Starchy vegetables are corn, peas, beets, squash, yams, sweet potatoes and plantains and are denser and have a greater effect on blood sugar levels.

You don’t need to limit non-starchy vegetables at all. Aim for at least a cup (or two or three!) at your meals. These are your broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, cabbage, kale, peppers, green beans, cucumbers, and asparagus.

The Best Post-Workout Foods

Top 3 Ps:

Eggs: Not all protein sources are created equal, and if the perfect post-workout food exists, it might be the incredible egg. Eggs, yolk included, provide your body with the most bioavailable form of protein—egg protein is the easiest to digest, break down and absorb, so your body can use all of it. Eggs are a “complete” source of protein, meaning they contain all of the essential amino acids your body requires. They help your body repair and recover completely from your workout by building your muscles back up—perfect if you’re looking to gain lean muscle mass or lose weight. Hard-boil a dozen eggs for a portable protein source, or fry ‘em in coconut oil with a side of sautéed sweet potatoes for a PFC-balanced post-workout meal.

Salmon: Salmon is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which aid in calming post-workout inflammation and leading to a quicker recovery. Wild Alaskan salmon is your best bet. Bake a fillet or crack open the canned kind for a quick and easy post-workout protein source. Make it PFC balanced by mixing canned or chopped salmon with olive oil or avocado for healthy fat, and chopped celery and grapes for your carb. Or, if you’re bored with fish fillets, mix it up by keeping some travel-friendly salmon jerky in your gym bag.

Grass-Fed Beef: Once held behind bars by nutrition police everywhere, beef is back. The nutritional value of beef extends beyond the punch of quality protein: Nutrients like B12, iron and zinc are involved in boosting your metabolism and helping your body utilize the rest of the nutrients you’re eating with your beef. Precook and cut into strips, or make meatballs and freeze or refrigerate so they’re ready to grab and eat post-workout! Stir-fry strips of steak in coconut oil for your healthy fat, and add veggies for your carb to make it a PFC-balanced meal.

Top 3 Fs:

Coconut Oil: Coconut oil contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), a type of fat that’s digested quickly and has great energy- and metabolism-boosting effects. Coconut oil can boost your metabolism while providing you with awesome energy after your workout, and because of its anti-inflammatory properties, it can reverse inflammation, speeding up your recovery. Rule of thumb: Unrefined things are always better for you than refined things. Make sure you’re picking up unrefined coconut oil! Cook a batch of spinach and other greens in coconut oil, then pair them with your hard-boiled egg or serve with a can of wild-caught salmon over greens.

Avocado: Avocado makes for excellent post-workout fuel because it provides your body with a variety of vitamins and minerals for recovery—ones like magnesium, potassium and vitamin K—as well as phytosterols and healthy fat, which have anti-inflammatory properties. If you don’t feel like eating after your workout, make a PFC-balanced protein shake by blending half an avocado with a handful of frozen berries and a scoop of your favorite protein powder, or drop in an egg.

Olives: Rich in antioxidants and healthy fat, olives are fantastic for post-workout, as well as an easily portable but sadly forgotten source of healthy fat. You can eat ‘em straight or add them to a dish or a big salad with your choice of protein and carbohydrates to make it PFC balanced. You can find olives pre-packaged, making ‘em easy to toss into your workout bag!

Top 3 Cs:

Sweet Potato: Starchy veggies like sweet potatoes, yams, squash and pumpkin provide antioxidants, fiber and complex carbohydrates to replenish your glycogen stores after a tough workout. Precook large batches of sweet potatoes, pumpkin or butternut squash in the oven, then freeze or refrigerate to have a quick, nutritious real-food carbohydrate on hand for your post-workout meal. Top a half cup with a couple of tablespoons of coconut oil and a sprinkle of cinnamon, and pair with your favorite protein source for a PFC-balanced meal or snack.

Blueberries: High in antioxidants, blueberries are also one of the lowest-sugar fruits, so they can bring your blood sugar levels back up after a workout and help keep them stable for hours. This means high energy levels and a faster recovery without the crash. Blend frozen berries into a smoothie with coconut milk and protein powder, or have them on the side of a salmon fillet cooked in coconut oil.

Dried fruit: A quick, easy, portable, nutrient-dense source of carbohydrates, dried fruit makes it easy to get in your post-workout carbs! Keep in your workout bag and pair with dried salmon or dried beef and nuts or seeds for a PFC-balanced post-workout snack.

In a Hurry? 3 Ideas:

1. Cut up strips of dried beef and mix with dried fruit, nuts, seeds and a few chocolate chips for a portable, PFC-balanced post-workout trail mix!

2. Sardines are another great portable protein source, and they’re also one of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids on the entire planet! These smaller fish are rich in vitamins B12 and D, which support your bone health, reducing the risk of fractures. They pack in a big punch of protein—a 1-cup serving has about 37 grams! Look for sardines packed in olive oil (instead of soybean oil), dump a can over a giant pile of spinach and you’ve got yourself a PFC-balanced meal!

3. Those Rx Bars you see at the gym? They’re a great (and yummy) PFC-balanced post-workout snack!

There you have my best post-workout strategies. Now go check out my exclusive Top 10 Nutrition strategies for Crossfit where we’ll talk pre-workout, portions, snacking, hydration and more!

Download this video (for free) at dietitiancassie.com/crossfit — see ya there!

Bio

Dietitian Cassie is a Registered, Licensed Dietitian and CEO of DietitianCassie.com. In her #1 international best-selling book, Why Am I Still Fat? The Hidden Keys to Unlocking That Stubborn Weight Loss, Cassie reveals the 14 never-talked-about elements that are either helping or hindering your weight-loss battle. Cassie is also an avid Crossfitter and Twin Town Fitness member.

References

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3. Huskisson ES, Maggini S, Ruf M. “The role of vitamins and minerals in energy metabolism and well-being.” Journal of International Medical Research. 35.3 (2007): 277–89.