The instant that you cross the finish line ending one athletic event, you begin your preparation for the next. From that moment forward, if you are not planning ahead by consuming the right foods, you may miss out on the prize.
Carbohydrates After Exercise
If your next exercise session is less than 24 hours from your last one, you need to put a bit more thought into what you eat and when you eat it in order that you fill your energy stores adequately. To optimize energy refueling, together the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the American Dietetic Association (ADA), and the Dietitians of Canada recommend the consumption of carbohydrate beginning immediately after exercise. If you consume 1.5 grams (g) carbohydrate per kilogram (kg) every 2 hours, refueling is more successful than when food is withheld for 2 hours. It seems that the best strategy for refueling is consuming 0.4 g carbohydrate/kg every 15 minutes for 4 hours (approximately 2,000 calories) after exhaustive exercise.
If your exercise sessions are more than 24 hours apart, eating ample carbohydrates – about 1 to 1½ pounds per day – as part of your training diet will replenish your glucose stores adequately (read my other article about how carbs and protein boost performance). How much carbohydrate you eat in the 24 to 48 hours after an event is more important than when you eat it.
All of these calculations can seem daunting. Fortunately, nutrition labels list carbohydrate content in grams and the information can be taken directly from food packaging. Divide your weight in pounds by 2.2 to convert weight to kg and multiply that number by the carbohydrate coefficient. For example, if you weigh 140 pounds, your calculation should look like this:
- 140 ÷ 2.2 = 63 kg
- 63 X 1.5g = 95g of carbohydrate
Consuming enough carbohydrates soon after exercise ends reduces the amount of muscle that is broken down and encourages muscle growth, helps to maintain body weight for those who struggle maintaining adequate weight with intense training, and increases time to exhaustion (TTE) during a subsequent bout of endurance exercise.
Protein After Exercise
Immediately after exercise, muscle cells are extremely sensitive to insulin, a hormone that plays a key role in both the transport of sugar (glucose) into the cell and in muscle synthesis. If dietary protein is made available during this time, insulin will quickly help to synthesize muscle tissue and very little will be converted and stored as fat. Ivy and Portman have reported that when carbohydrate plus protein is given immediately after exercise, muscle protein synthesis can be increased to as much as 300%, but when delayed by three hours, the elevation in synthesis was only 12%. Roughly two hours after exercise, the body’s cells start to become insulin resistant and continue to be for sixteen hours or longer.
Consuming both carbohydrates and protein after an endurance exercise session can improve your performance next time. While it is true that you need to eat more carbohydrate, protein, and calories to refuel adequately after exercise, if you consume too much, the excess will be converted to fat and stored, and nobody wants that.