5 Ways to Maximize Workout Recovery with Good Diet

Do you ever have one of those workout days where you just can’t seem to recover afterwards? Your muscles are extra sore, you feel super tired even after a day off, and you just can’t seem to put as much “oomph” into your next workout as usual. Whether you’re an experienced lifter who’s been hitting it hard, a newbie who is still adapting to your new workouts, or just someone in between who has some off days, there are ways that you can maximize your recovery around workouts to avoid injury, maintain your schedule, and get the most benefit from your workout as possible. Today we’re going to focus on how your diet and eating schedule can best support this goal.

Before we get started, remember that getting enough sleep and water are crucial to long term success and short term maintenance. A great diet won’t replace the other factors in recovering from workouts day to day, and no matter how well you control your protein intake it won’t save you from over-training. Those topics are articles by themselves, so we won’t be going into more detail right now, but keep those things in mind each day.

1. It’s more than just calories in/calories out

Most diets have you paying attention more to calories than anything else. While this is an important factor when it comes to weight management (loss, gain, or maintenance) it’s not the end of the story. What you take in – protein, carbohydrates, and dietary fat – is just as important to your recovery and progress as that final calorie count. Day to day you should be aiming for a good Macro split within your caloric goals. For those who are doing strength training (which should be just about everyone; it’s great for you in general) you need a certain amount of protein in your diet to support muscle growth and maintenance. If you follow a very “American” diet, you probably get most of your calories from carbohydrates (breads, pastas, some fruits/veggies) and then a smaller amount of proteins and fats. Optimally you should be changing that so you get most of your calories from protein (40% or so) and then split your remainder between carbs and fats (30% each), though distance athletes like runners could benefit from adjusting carbs to about 40% and fats to 20%.

2. Meal timing can play a big part in recovery

While you can generally ignore a lot of the “bro science” around never eating after a certain time at night and stuff like that, one thing that can affect your recovery and benefits from exercise is the meal/snack you have directly before and after your workout. Your body will be using whatever you give it most heavily while you exercise, so it stands to reason that your latest meal should be planned out to help you along. Make sure you have good workout meals/shakes ready prior to exercise (30-45 min before) and then again after the workout (within 30 min).

But what should be in those meals/shakes?

3. Eating protein and carbs leads to recovery

About 30-45 minutes prior to starting your workout, have a shake/meal with approximately 20g protein and 30-40g slow digesting carbs, minimizing fat content. This primes your body before the workout starts with both recovery materials (protein) and fuel (slow carbs).

Within 30 min after the workout is done, have another shake/meal with 30-40g proteins and 20-30g fast digesting carbs. Again, absolutely minimize fat content in this meal/shake, as we don’t want to take the chance of storing fat by accident if we have too many calories available. The protein you had earlier has primed the system for recovery, and in fact your muscles began recovering no matter what as soon as you stopped using them. This second meal feeds more materials to that recovery system, so now the recovery that’s already underway has more to work with. Likewise, taking in fast digesting carbohydrates after your workout provides the immediate caloric energy needed to make that recovery happen.

So, why are we cutting out the dietary fat in these shakes?

4. Sometimes you should avoid dietary fat

Dietary fat is pretty neat: it’s high calorie so you don’t need as much to get the same energy as from carbs, it’s able to be broken down to be used by the body in multiple ways that protein/carbs can’t be, and meals that are high in fat are very satiating so you stay full longer. Now, all this is also assuming you get mostly unsaturated fats, minimize your saturated fats, and avoid transunsaturated fats completely (they’re terrible, seriously).

BUT that doesn’t mean that dietary fat is exactly what you need around your workouts. Your body uses what you give it, and that is never more true than during and right after a workout. Giving it carbs and proteins provides the fuel and building blocks, respectively, for recovery and performance. However dietary fats are high calorie and longer term components that we don’t want to spend time “processing” when we exercise. They have the potential to make you feel bloated or nauseated while moving vigorously, and they provide a lot of calories that won’t be able to be used during the exercise since they digest slowly. This generally leads to reduced performance/recovery and longer term weight gain since the calories aren’t being used when they’re most needed (or at all).

Recommendation: as little dietary fat as possible within about 1-2 hours on either end of your workouts.

5. How much you eat in your prep/recovery meals matters

Who likes feeling overfull while they workout? No one we’ve ever met! Above we talked about eating a small meal before and after your workout, totaling about 50-70g of food in each case. Since carbs and protein have 4 calories per gram each, you’re looking at a meal of only about 200-280 calories, though this may jump into the low 300’s depending on how exact you get the split, and if you have dietary fat creep in (which is likely, so don’t panic). This is not a large meal, and most protein shakes/bars have about this caloric content per serving. You do not want to go into a workout feeling full, and most people don’t want to eat until they burst afterwards either. From purely a comfort standpoint, eating only these small meals is a good idea.

But we can also look at it from a performance view: if you’re feeling overfed and crappy, than you’re not going to want/be able to push as hard, and you’re going to sandbag your workout (i.e. intentionally do lesser amounts of work than you’re capable of). Intentionally under-performing has exactly one benefit in most cases: you get to be lazy and sometimes lazy feels good (even though it results it exactly nothing).