At times, the prospect of refueling your body after an intense workout can seem more daunting than the exercise itself, whether it’s a challenging HIIT session or an extended yoga practice.
You might have come across discussions about the importance of macronutrients in your post-workout snack selection. However, there’s often uncertainty about the specific macronutrient ratios, particularly when it comes to carbohydrates. While there has been some debate about the role of carbohydrates after exercise, both scientific research and expert consensus lean toward the idea that consuming carbohydrates can expedite the recovery process.
In summary, incorporating carbohydrates into your post-exercise nutrition is a wise choice. Discover how, when, and why to include them in your diet in the following sections.
Are Carbs Necessary After Exercise?
After a moderate activity like a brisk walk or a lunchtime stretching session, you typically don’t require immediate carbohydrate refueling. However, if your workout was more intense, it likely depleted your glycogen reserves, which serve as the body’s primary energy source during vigorous exercise.
When muscle glycogen stores run low, it can lead to muscle tissue breakdown. Introducing carbohydrates into your post-workout nutrition becomes crucial for supporting the body’s repair and recovery process. According to Anthony DiMarino, RD, CPT, a nutritionist and personal trainer at Eat Move Improve, “Post-workout carbohydrates assist the body in releasing insulin, which, in turn, replenishes the glycogen stores that were depleted during your training session.”
Pairing carbohydrates with protein enhances their effectiveness in this regard. The combination of protein and carbohydrates accelerates the rate at which the body replenishes glycogen.
Benefits of Post-Workout Carbs
Carbohydrates are a vital macronutrient for post-workout recovery. Here are four compelling reasons to savor a plate of potatoes or a serving of pasta following an intense exercise session.
Carbs Promote Muscle Recovery
While you might think that protein is the sole macronutrient contributing to muscle gain, carbohydrates also play a crucial supporting role in this process. Amino acids serve as the building blocks of protein, and carbohydrates assist in their swift delivery to muscles, expediting muscle growth and recovery. Furthermore, they enhance protein synthesis and diminish protein degradation.
Carbs Help Reduce Cortisol
Restoring your carbohydrate stores to maintain stable blood sugar levels may have the added benefit of reducing cortisol levels. Cortisol tends to increase in response to low blood sugar and is commonly known as “the stress hormone.”
Carbs Help Prevent Post-Workout Fatigue
When your glycogen stores are depleted, you may feel like you’re low on energy because your body prefers to use glycogen for fuel during intense physical activity. Reintroducing carbohydrates into your diet can help you recover faster and reduce fatigue.
Furthermore, research shows that consuming carbs after a workout can enhance endurance for future sessions. Having a high-carb snack today might lead to improved performance tomorrow.
Carbs Help Blood Sugar Control
Exercise typically leads to a decrease in blood sugar levels. To prevent uncomfortable hypoglycemia symptoms such as shakiness, headaches, mental fog, and a rapid heartbeat, it’s important not to delay in consuming a carbohydrate-rich food to raise your glucose levels back into a healthy range.
Carbs to Choose After a Workout
You might wonder if all carbohydrates are equally suitable for post-workout consumption now that you know they’re acceptable after your exercise session. Well, not exactly. According to DiMarino, complex carbohydrates are preferable because they can be readily converted into glycogen. Complex carbohydrates are abundant in fiber-rich foods like whole grains, vegetables, legumes, and potatoes.
However, consuming high-fiber foods shortly after an intense workout might occasionally lead to digestive discomfort. DiMarino suggests that simple carbs may be better tolerated after exercise. To determine the foods that work best for you, it’s important to experiment with different combinations during your workouts.
In terms of the ideal carbohydrate intake, DiMarino offers the following recommendations: “Typically, consuming 15 to 45 grams of carbohydrates (with more carbs after harder sessions) after a workout would be reasonable. A ratio of 3–4 carbs to proteins has been shown to be beneficial. This combination allows your body to replenish depleted glycogen stores from exercise and repair muscle damage, aiding in recovery.”
Post-Workout Meals and Snacks
Consider these meals and snacks for a mix of carbohydrates and protein after a sweat session:
- Turkey sandwich on whole wheat
- Crackers and hummus
- Peanut butter and banana
- A smoothie with Greek yogurt and berries
- Tuna salad with apples and almonds
When to Eat Carbs After Working Out
Eating carbohydrates within a particular timeframe after your workout is essential to reap their benefits. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends consuming carbohydrates within an hour after intense physical activity. However, it’s important to be mindful of your own post-exercise eating preferences; some individuals may opt for complete meals, while others may find that a snack followed by a meal later suits their body better.
Consuming carbohydrates (paired with protein) after exercising is a wise choice that facilitates recovery, muscle repair and growth, and replenishment of glycogen stores.
If you’re aiming to maximize the effectiveness of your post-workout meals and snacks, it can be highly advantageous to consult with a licensed dietitian specializing in sports nutrition. These professionals are well-versed in the intricate details of macronutrient-based meal planning tailored to various types of physical activities, whether it’s strength training or endurance sports.