What you eat after your workouts is just as important as what you eat before

The most important thing you can do for your body after an intense workout is to eat properly as soon as possible.

Yet, many active people focus on pre-exercise nutrition and not enough on consuming food and fluids afterward.

And that's unfortunate, because eating the right foods shortly after physical activity helps your body recover and keeps you from bingeing later on fats and sweets, sports nutritionist Liz Applegate says in her book Eat Smart, Play Hard (Rodale, $16.95).

What you eat after a workout can make the difference in how your muscles feel later in the day or the next morning. You may have less energy for a workout the next day if you don't refuel adequately.

Applegate says one study in England showed that eating after a workout helped athletes increase their exercise intensity the next day.

The longer you wait, the less benefit foods provide.

A mix of carbohydrates and protein is ideal, with a ratio of 3 grams of carbohydrates for every gram of protein. You'll also need fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains, which contain antioxidants that help prevent damage to the body's cells.

Why carbs?

Your muscles use glycogen -sugar stored in the liver and muscles for physical activity. Carbs can quickly restore muscles glycogen supply, says Edmund Burke, exercise scientist and author of Pre-Exercise, Competition & Post-Exercise Nutrition for Maximum Performance (Keats, $3.95).

Burke cites the importance of carbs in a University of Texas study.

The muscles of cyclists who were given glucose (carbs) immediately after exercise synthesized glycogen better than cyclists who were given glucose two hours after exercise. You need protein to boost immunity, repair muscles, and escort carbs to your muscles, Applegate wrote.

There are two phases of post-activity nutrition: immediately after activity and within two to three hours after activity.

Some people don't feel hungry immediately. That's because the body can suppress appetite when you're playing a sport or taking a class at the gym. Others feel nauseated just thinking about eating.

Your first food within 30 minutes of activity can be a beverage such as a sports drink, a glass of milk, or orange juice, says Applegate.

Avoid soda and beer. Eat a meal later.

Some post-workout suggestions from Applegate:

  • One small microwavable bean burrito with 4 tablespoons bottled salsa and a small container of orange juice.

  • A tuna sandwich on large pieces of sourdough bread.

  • Two mozzarella sticks, a toasted whole-grain English muffin, and an orange.

  • Three rice cakes topped with peanut butter, and a glass of orange juice.

  • Low-fat cottage cheese with sliced fruit.

  • Cheese sandwich and fruit salad tossed with walnuts.

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