The skinny on post-workout nutrition

My favorite thing to do after my weekly basketball workout is to reward myself with a post-workout meal – pizza and a nice, cold beer. If it’s been a really strenuous session, and I fear my knees will be sore the next day, I might take a couple of ibuprofen before I go to bed that night.

Little did I know – until recently – that some of those choices are among the worst decisions I could be making when it comes to post-workout nutrition. Turns out I should be replenishing myself with a snack or meal specifically designed to help my muscles recover. The pizza is bad, the beer might or might not be a no-no, and the ibuprofen? I should definitely be waiting until the next morning to see if my muscles really are sore before I pop those pills.

Many studies, and most fitness websites, proclaim that the protein breakdown that occurs in muscles during and after a workout can be reversed if you consume the right types of nutrients after exercise, within a couple hours of working out. While most of us assume this advice applies only to serious weight lifters and body builders, sports nutritionists say all exercisers (who have completed at least 45 minutes of strenuous exercise) would do well to sit down to a post-workout meal or fix a healthy snack that helps, rather than hinders, their body’s recovery process.

“Your muscles are depleted of amino acids after a workout, so you need an adequate supply of protein to help build them up,” says Kristin Reisinger, a New Jersey-based sports nutritionist who is a consultant with Fitness Magazine.

So what’s the right stuff? According to, a woman’s post-workout meal should consist of 20-25 grams of protein and a mix of simple and complex carbohydrates that minimize protein breakdown. The meal should also be as fat free as possible, since eating fat may slow the digestion and absorption of those proteins and carbs. So much for that greasy pizza.

Since liquids are more quickly digested than solid meals, many nutritionists recommend a protein shake made from whey protein and water. Reisinger suggests adding a half of a banana to the shake because it is a high-carbohydrate source that contains potassium and will help replenish your energy rapidly.

Marc Perry, the founder of the website and the book, “Get Lean Guide: Losing Fat, but not Muscle,” agrees that whey protein is digested much more quickly than regular milk.

“For every gram of protein, milk has 1.5 grams of carbs in the form of lactose, which is slower releasing than a simple carb like dextrose,” Perry writes on the Men’s Fitness magazine website. He adds that the “window of opportunity” for building muscle after a workout only lasts an hour.

Whey powder may be the gold standard, but the latest craze for a post-workout recovery drink seems to be a treat we clamored for as kids after a hard day on the playground – chocolate milk. A study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, and reported on, calls low-fat chocolate milk an “optimal post-exercise recovery aid,” especially for endurance athletes, because of its mix of proteins and carbohydrates. In the study’s small sample, nine cyclists biked to exhaustion and then drank either Gatorade, another high-carb energy drink, or chocolate milk before biking again (four hours later). Results showed that the chocolate milk drinkers did just as well, and in some cases better than the other cyclists.

Another old-fashioned food choice that still gets high marks as an after-workout aid is the (incredible, edible) egg. Both the white and the yolks are high in protein. Adding some veggies to the pan and making a sandwich out of your mini-omelet provides the 2:1 ratio of carbs to protein that nutritionists recommend. Tuna and hummus are two more sandwich ingredients that provide lots of protein.

If you work out right before dinner, you can’t go wrong by cooking up some salmon, a fish high in protein that also provides omega 3, an aid in alleviating joint inflammation. Adding a salad and a complex carbohydrate such as sweet potatoes round out the muscle recovery meal.

While beer does contain some complex carbohydrates and has been touted as a good post-workout drink for long-distance runners, other studies show that consuming alcohol after an intensive strength-training workout can decrease protein synthesis as much as 40 percent. Not to be denied, though, a Canadian company is working on a “recovery” beer called Lean Machine Lager that has about half the alcohol of a regular beer with added ingredients designed to aid in the recovery process. According to food scientists, the idea is not so far-fetched.

“A properly formulated beer beverage is likely to do you no more harm than you are likely to get from a sports drink,” Ben Desbrow, an Australian researcher, told last March. “In fact, it probably is likely to do you more good, because it’s got a lot of these sort of natural compounds, like polyphenols, that are actually good for your health.”

The bottom line seems to be that if you eat the right things after a workout, like grilled chicken salad instead of pizza, your muscles will reward you by recovering faster and getting stronger. You may not even need that ibuprofen the next day.

Lemon Garbanzo Salad with Feta

1?2 cup boiling water

1/3 cup uncooked bulgur

11?2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, divided

1/3 cup canned chickpeas (garbanzo beans), rinsed and drained

2 tablespoons chopped peeled cucumber

2 tablespoons chopped celery

2 tablespoons diced red onion

11?2 tablespoons crumbled feta cheese

11?2 teaspoons chopped fresh or 1?4 teaspoon dried dill

2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Combine boiling water, bulgur and 1 tablespoon lemon juice in a medium bowl. Let mixture stand for 15 minutes. Add chickpeas, cucumber, celery, diced red onion, feta cheese and dill. Toss gently to combine. Combine 1?2 teaspoon lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper, stirring with a whisk. Drizzle over bulgur mixture, and toss gently to coat. Cover and chill.

Source: Maureen Callahan,

Cooking Light

July 2004

Protein Pancakes

1 scoop chocolate protein powder (vanilla works also)

1?2 cup gluten-free oats

2/3 cup egg whites

1 banana

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 tablespoon cinnamon

1 cup of mixed berries

1 tablespoon almond butter

Agave syrup or maple syrup to top

Blend all the ingredients together and preheat a medium-sized non-stick pan to medium heat. Place cooking oil in the pan, preferably coconut oil, and pour in half of the mixture and cook one side. Proceed by flipping the pancake once to cook the other side. Remove from heat and begin cooking the second pancake. Top pancakes with almond butter in place of regular butter, melted berries, agave syrup and a dash of cinnamon. These pancakes can be made in advance for weeks ahead and kept frozen for convenience.


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