If losing weight, building up muscle, and getting more aerobically fit was as simple as hitting the gym or getting out for a run three times a week, a lot more people would probably be reaching their goals. But right alongside doing the heavy lifting and pounding the pavement, there is an equally important component that you need to take care of that is often neglected.
It's your nutrition. In fact, if you don't get the right nutrients at the right time then you are basically doing the equivalent of driving a car with the handbrake on – you might see some movement, but it's not sustainable, and it's not going to give you good results over the long term.
Your Body After Exercise
After you engage in intense exercise like the kind we get you to do with our results-oriented program at Max's Challenge, a few dozen processes start happening in your body.
Any carbohydrates you have eaten are stored as fuel cells to be consumed during periods of exercise. During and after a tough workout, these fuel cells are depleted as your body converts the stored energy into usable energy.
It only makes sense that to refuel adequately, you need to replenish these cells. Otherwise, your recovery period will be longer, more painful, and you won't be able to back up as well for your next workout.
The technical name for these energy stores is glycogen.
After a workout, your body is also much more receptive than usual to nutrients. This is especially true of your large muscle groups. Scientific research suggests that muscles are most responsive to increased nutrients in the 30 to 90 minutes after a workout.
The Rules of Thumb
So that's the technical stuff out of the way. But what do you actually need to remember when it comes to refueling your body? We've boiled it down to three essential factors.
Hydrate – this is the most basic and the one that you're probably already doing. Almost everyone finishes a workout lacking in hydration because it's impractical to replace the fluids lost while working out because of the heavy feeling that most of us get when drinking too much water too quickly.
If you work out in the morning, it is worth paying particular attention to hydration. When we wake up in the morning, we haven't consumed any fluids for between seven to ten hours. But our bodies continue to need water. This is especially true if you live in a humid location or any location where you sweat during the night. Pay attention to your hydration both pre- and post-workout and aim to drink until your urine is light-coloured again.
Refuel – with everything you know about carbohydrate "fuel cells" and glycogen now, it's probably no surprise to find out that you need to replenish these as well. If you don't replace the glycogen stores adequately you can expect to feel foggy and lightheaded after a workout, and probably a little lethargic too. That's why sports drinks taste so good after a workout – your brain is telling your body to crave easy-to-digest, sweet carbohydrates, and sports drinks are loaded with sugar (simple carbs).
Heal – good workouts cause damage to your muscles. That means that they will break down and then build themselves back up stronger to adapt to the stimulus of the exercise you are
But they can't do that without adequate protein. If you think of your body as a building, then protein-rich foods are the bricks. You can't have a good one without enough of the other.
Putting It All Together
Post-workout nutrition should build on the principles of the rules of thumb: hydrate, refuel and heal.
Invest in a decent reusable water bottle that is at least 800mL and keep it in the fridge at all times. That way, when you're headed out the door you can grab it, have it with you through your workout, and start rehydrating as soon as your session is done.
Post-workout food also benefits from a little preparation. A mix of carbohydrates and protein is the best blend for muscle repair and growth. A large banana and some dried fruit (carbs) paired with a protein shake using your protein of choice is an ideal example of something that is simple to prepare, portable, and can be consumed within 90 minutes of your workout ending for maximum benefit.
Other options for healthy carbs are brown rice, rice cakes, wraps, honey and apples or pears. Any of these can be paired with protein-rich foods like eggs, peanut butter, yoghurt, chicken or tuna for a simple, effective post-workout meal.
Getting your nutrition right is the single most important thing other than working out that will propel you towards your fitness goals.