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If your goal is to get in shape, you should realize working out is only one piece of the puzzle. Intense training puts a lot of stress on your body, which means you need to get the right nutrition after exercising to keep your muscles healthy. But what's the best way to fuel your body for success?

In this article, we'll explore why it's so essential to eat and rehydrate after a workout, along with what and when to eat post-exercise. Keep reading to find out how you can get the most out of your post-workout nutrition and build even more muscle.

Why Eat or Drink After a Workout?

During strenuous exercise, your body uses up its primary energy source — carbohydrates — to help you power through. After burning through the supply of carbohydrates already available in your bloodstream, your body will start dipping into your carbohydrate reserves, which is the glycogen stored in the muscles and liver. While you have limited glycogen stores, it is typically enough energy to get you through a workout.

Once you've finished your workout and depleted your glycogen stores, it is crucial to replenish them to help your body recover. Refueling after an exercise session with recovery foods will combat low blood sugar while giving your body the energy it needs to build muscle. If you don't replace your glycogen stores, you risk fatigue, excessive soreness or even injury.

On the other hand, eating the right foods after exercising can aid in recovery and give you that extra edge in your fitness journey. For those looking to build muscle or lose fat, the post-workout meal may be the most essential meal of the day.

Rehydrating After a Workout

While you exercise, your body loses much of its fluids through sweat. These fluids carry electrolytes — electrically charged minerals — that help keep your body's systems functioning properly. When the amount of water in your body changes, you can become dehydrated and experience a drop in electrolytes, resulting in symptoms like headaches, fatigue and muscle cramping or weakness.

However, take a strategic approach to your post-workout beverages. Instead of reaching for a sugar-loaded sports drink or a cup of coffee after a sweat session, be intentional about replacing your fluids with drinks that are low in sugar and high in hydration. When choosing post-workout drinks, water is your best option for rehydrating after exercise and cooling your body from the inside out.

Consuming water throughout your workout will also help you stay hydrated and improve your performance. Health experts recommend drinking eight ounces of water every 15 minutes of your sweat session.

What to Eat Post-Exercise

To get the most out of your post-workout meals, you need to eat the right foods. After a challenging workout, you need to focus on what macronutrients — carbohydrates, protein and fats — you consume. Getting the three macros from the right sources will supply your body with the nutrition it needs to rebuild and recover. Understanding and prioritizing post-workout nutrition is essential in order to fuel your body.

Here is how each macro replenishes the body.

  • Carbs: Because working out uses up your body's glycogen stores, it's vital to put some gas back in your tank by consuming carbs. Simple carbs, such as white rice and sugars, are quick to digest, making them perfect for recovery and fueling your muscles to prevent further breakdown. Complex carbs, such as whole grains and vegetables, take longer to digest and provide long-lasting energy for later use.
  • Proteins: Protein is the secret to promoting muscle repair and growth after a workout, especially strength training. As you exercise, your muscles endure micro-tears that break down the protein in your body. Getting enough amino acids through protein will help your body repair this damage and build more muscle. Make sure you stick with lean proteins like poultry, fish and Greek yogurt to maximize your protein sources.
  • Fats: Though your body most likely won't deplete its storage of fats during a workout, consuming a small portion of healthy fats after exercising may provide anti-inflammatory properties that aid in recovery. While there's no need to avoid fats after working out, be careful not to overindulge. Remember, not all fats are the same — ensure you're consuming unsaturated fats with your post-workout snacks.

Meal Ideas for After Exercise

Finding the right balance of macros can be challenging. To make your post-gym meal planning simpler, try one of these nutrient-rich, muscle-building meal ideas:

  • Scrambled eggs, whole-grain toast and a side of mixed fruit
  • Grilled chicken with green beans and a small baked potato
  • Whole-wheat spaghetti topped with a tomato-based meat sauce made from lean ground beef along with a side salad
  • Baked fish with mixed vegetables and brown rice
  • A turkey sandwich on whole-grain bread and an apple
  • A large salad with grilled chicken and low-fat dressing alongside a whole-grain dinner roll

On some days, you don't have time to cook an entire meal after hitting the gym. For times when you need something a bit quicker to tide you over before a full meal, here are a few of the best post-workout snack suggestions:

  • Peanut butter spread on graham crackers
  • Greek yogurt topped with fresh fruit
  • An apple or banana with some nut butter
  • A serving of protein-packed trail mix full of nuts and dried fruit
  • A smoothie made with fruit and Greek yogurt

Regardless of which recovery snack you pick, make sure you follow it up with well-balanced meals throughout the day.

Is There a Right Time to Have Your Post-Workout Meal or Snack?

In addition to getting the right nutrients after exercising, you need to ensure you eat your post-workout meal or snack at the right time. According to the widely popular anabolic state theory, there is a limited 30-minute window immediately after working out in which the body increases blood flow and delivers nutrients more efficiently. Eating carbs and protein within this window is critical for boosting protein synthesis, reducing muscle protein breakdown and replacing muscle glycogen as fast as possible.

Though many fitness and nutrition experts promote refueling soon after working out to replenish the body and repair muscle as quickly as possible, the anabolic window is still a bit of a gray area. Research has found nutrition timing often depends on variables like age, individual fitness goals and workout intensity. For example, if you tend to work out on an empty stomach, you must refuel your body quickly before the anabolic window closes. However, it is still up for debate whether timing matters as much for other fitness fans.

Let the Gateway Region YMCA Help You Track Your Nutrition

At the Gateway Region YMCA, we have the resources you need to get in a quality workout and refuel properly. After using top-of-the-line fitness equipment at the Y, you can hop on our Y mobile app to create a personal nutrition plan and make sure you're getting all the nutrients your body needs. While on the app, you can also choose a workout plan, join a challenge and connect with other Y members.

Plus, you can embark on a delicious journey towards a healthier you with YMCA Nutrition Services. At the Gateway Region YMCA, our team of Registered Dietitians will whip up personalized nutrition plans that make your goals a reality, while sprinkling in sustainable lifestyle changes that stick. RDs are licensed to tackle the toughest of challenges, from busting diabetes, to conquering cholesterol, obesity, CHF, malnutrition, kidney disease, and high blood pressure. Learn more about Nutrition Services at the Y today or get started by finding a nutrition session or package

Find the Gateway Region YMCA nearest you to start making the most of your post-workout nutrition today.