In your journey to better fitness, you may have noticed that even reputable sources have different ideas about post-workout fueling. Trying to filter through this information and decide which advice to follow doesn’t have to be as challenging as it seems. The following are some guidelines to help you formulate a post-workout fueling plan that will give your body what it needs, when it needs it.

Why It’s Important

If you’re trying to lose weight, it might see counterproductive to eat immediately after a workout. After particularly intense workouts, you might not even have an appetite, so why force it? The answer lies in what happens in your body after a workout.

After a hard workout at the fitness center, your body starts breaking down muscle. Think of it as your body’s way of remodeling – you have to tear down the old materials first before you can build something newer and better. If you’ve been working out for at least an hour, you’ve also used up your muscle’s stored glycogen (carbohydrates). In order to start the repair process, you need to replenish both protein and carbohydrates.

It also turns out that when you refuel is just as important as the practice. Although there’s plenty of debate about the optimum timeframe, fitness nutrition experts stress the importance of refueling anywhere from 15 minutes to 1 hour after your workout. Studies have shown that this 45-minute range is when your body is most receptive to absorbing carbohydrates and protein in a way that benefits your hard work. Refueling not only gives your body the materials it needs to repair and strengthen itself, it decreases post-workout soreness by relieving inflammation and lowering cortisol (stress) levels.

Determining How Much and When You Need to Refuel

Both the ratio of nutrients and the amount of food you need after a workout largely depends on the length, intensity, and your personal fitness goals. For instance, if you jog an easy 3 miles on the health club treadmill, you won’t necessarily need to worry about refueling within a certain time frame, and you won’t need as many calories. On the other hand, if you’re serious about building muscle, experts recommend refueling within 15 minutes of your workout, with an even distribution of carbohydrates and protein (some say about 30 grams of protein, and 30-35 grams of carbs). After workouts that are particularly intense, such as interval training, your body will need more carbohydrates; for low-intensity, heavy-weight training, less post-workout carbs are necessary. Distance runners, who severely deplete their glycogen after hours of training, need a particular ratio of 4:1 carbs to protein, based on body weight.

For the most accurate information on the best refueling strategy based on your unique workout routine and goals, it’s best to consult a dietician or nutrition coach.

Types of Post-Workout Fuel

Athletes and serious body-builders frequently resort to post-workout shakes because they provide a fast, convenient means of the optimal nutritional balance their bodies need. Although you’re welcome to use these products f you’re not an athlete, you don’t need them to refuel. In fact, most nutritionists recommend eating real food because it provides the ‘clean’ carbohydrates, protein, and fiber your body needs. There are almost limitless options to choose from, but try to avoid sugar and fat immediately after a workout, because they will slow your body’s absorption of vital carbs and protein. Here are a few suggestions:

• Fruit/yogurt
• Peanut butter/banana
• Sandwich wraps with lean meat and veggies
• Salad with some kind of grain (beans, rice, quinoa, pasta)
• Jerky and dried fruit (watch the salt)
• A hard-boiled egg and berries
• Whole-grain cereal with milk or yogurt

As you can see, refueling after a workout is not rocket science, but it’s still an important aspect of reaching your fitness goals faster and healthier than ever.