If you came to this article looking for a simple list of foods that are perfect for every human to recovery efficiently from exercise, it might be best to flick to a fad diet forum where they will be quick to sell you on a subjective bias list of foods that meets a certain trend. A reminder that although we are all human, our physiologies vary based on your age, gender, genetics and metabolic condition. With variations in physiology comes variations in nutrition. So what should you actually be eating after exercise?
To determine which foods are the best in assisting us from recovery after exercise we need to delve into what nutrients we use for energy during exercise and what happens to our physiological state. When we exercise our body utilises multiple endogenous energy sources to sustain energy demand to keep us moving. Pending on if we have eaten beforehand or not, if we are male or female or if we are pre or post menopause, what our body decides to use for energy will change. Complicated right!
Exercise places a physiological stress on the body as we pound the pavement, lift some steel or move through water. When exercising we increase our circulating free fatty acid and glycerol levels in the blood to sustain energy (1). We mostly use carbohydrates and fats within the body for longer slower endurance exercise, while for short intense exercise we favour mostly carbohydrates (2). Protein sometimes come into play as an energy source but plays a small role in energy production, yet a big role in muscular and cell reparation. Simply put, when we increase the intensity of exercise we burn through more carbohydrates for energy. If we go slower fats become more dominant (2). However for all exercise intensities males use a higher percentage of carbohydrates for energy overall compared to females who use more fats (2).
So if males use more muscle glycogen (stored carbs) during exercise and females use more fats during exercise than of course the recovery nutrition needs to be different. Let’s delve into the different nutritional strategies after exercise based on your physiology.
FOR MALES OF ALL AGES
During long bouts of exercise your body will have emptied most of your glycogen stores in your liver and muscles. It is important to replenish these post workout. The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends males eat within 0.6 grams to 1 gram of carbohydrates for every kilogram of body weight as close to finishing exercise as possible (3). In addition to getting in good quality carbohydrates you also want to supplement this with about 25-35g of good quality protein. What does this look like in food though?
100g light cottage cheese
+ 2 Tbsp of 100% peanut butter or other nut butter + 12 strawberries
+ 2 slices of sourdough toast
[615 Cal. 32g Pro. 24g Fat. 67g Carbs]
110g of salmon
+ 1 cup of rice
+ 1 cup of baby spinach
+ 30g roasted and salted cashews [615 Cal. 35g Pro. 19g Fat. 73g Carbs]
+ 1.5 cups of milk
+ 1.5 banana’s
+ 1 handful of nuts
[ 660 Cal. 40g Pro. 22g Fat. 81g Carbs]
FOR FEMALES UNDER 40 YEARS (DAY 0-21 OF CYCLE)
For females who are currently menstruating we need to replace carbs and protein, however we also need to replenish the fat stores that we used during exercise. Straight after finishing exercise we need to have around 60-100g of carbs, 15-20g of fat and 30-40g of protein. This will help replace glycogen and fat stores is your muscles, increase protein synthesis, reduce cortisol levels and regulate hormone synthesis which prevents long term catabolic state and menstrual disturbances (4,5,6).
Rates of glycogen depletion are higher in females during the follicular phase as glycogen is utilised more due to the lower hormone levels (5). The follicular phase starts from the day we start menstruating for about 14 days. During these 2 weeks go for the higher intake of carbs post exercise.
1 cup of oats
+ 1 cup of almond milk
+ 1 scoop Pure Sports Nutrition - Whey Protein Pouch OR Science In Sport (SIS) - Whey Protein + 1 banana
[ 560 Cal. 35g Pro. 17g Fat. 66g Carbs]
1 lentil patty (120g) [Coles pumpkin and corn patty or Been Supreme are good brands]
+ 1 cup baby spinach
+ 2 cups of other veg
+ 1/2 cup brown rice and quinoa
+ 1/2 avocado
+ 40g Bega 50% country light cheese [660 Cal . 40g Pro. 24g Fat. 72g Carbs]
FOR FEMALES OVER 40 YEARS OR FEMALES UNDER 40 THE WEEK BEFORE MENSTRUATION (Day 22-28)
For females who have gone through menopause or are peri-menopausal we have one extra thing to worry about. Since our hormones are either very low or very high our ability to recover from exercise is compromised. Branched chain aims acids of Iso-Leucine and valine are the most important amino acids researched for muscle growth and recovery and should be ingested as close to exercise as possible for the best exercise adaptations. This is even more important for females post menopause and/or females under 40 years old in the week before your period. Ingesting good quality protein after long duration exercise is important for recovery and preventing delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS) (6). Good quality protein is found mostly in dairy products, whey protein isolate and vegan protein blends. Good meal options are below;
+ 1 Tbsp 100% peanut butter
+ 1 scoop Radix Nutrition - Whey Protein DIAAS Complex + 100g of plain greek yoghurt
+ 1/4 cup of overnight quinoa flakes OR GF oats
+ 100mL of unsweetened almond milk
[510 Cal. 44g Pro. 18g Fat. 55g Carbs]
100g extra lean mince
+ 40g light cheddar cheese OR 3 Tbsp of nutritional yeast + 1/2 avocado
+ 1/2 cup of rice or quinoa
+ 1/4 cup plain greek yoghurt
[560 cal. 49g Pro. 40g Fat. 33g Carbs]
(1) Hausswirth C, Lehénaff D. Physiological demands of running during long distance runs and triathlons. Sports Med. 2001;31(9):679-89. doi: 10.2165/00007256-200131090-00004. PMID: 11508523.
(2) Impey SG, Jevons E, Mees G, Cocks M, Strauss J, Chester N, Laurie I, Target D, Hodgson A, Shepherd SO, Morton JP. Glycogen Utilization during Running: Intensity, Sex, and Muscle-Specific Responses. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2020 Sep;52(9):1966-1975. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000002332. PMID: 32168106.
(3) Kerksick CM, Arent S, Schoenfeld BJ, et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: Nutrient timing. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017;14:33. doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0189-4
(4) Michaela C. Devries, Mazen J. Hamadeh, Stuart M. Phillips, and Mark A. Tarnopolsky. Menstrual cycle phase and sex influence muscle glycogen utilization and glucose turnover during moderate- intensity endurance exercise. 291, R1120-1128 (2006).
(5) Roy, B. et al. “The influence of post-exercise macronutrient intake on energy balance and protein metabolism in active females participating in endurance training.” International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism 12 2 (2002): 172-88 .
(6) Jäger, R., Kerksick, C.M., Campbell, B.I. et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 14, 20 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8