Author: Raj Chandler • Fact checked by: Tara D. Thies • Sept. 22, 2020
Cardio workouts are typically associated with weight loss via “burning fat.” And it’s true that cardiovascular exercise like running, biking, or swimming can certainly help you lose weight and shed body fat.
But since everyone’s body and goals are unique, we don’t all use cardio the same way. There are many variables involved with cardiovascular exercise: frequency, type of movement, intensity, etc. One of the most important of those variables when it comes to planning a cardio regimen is nutrition. To maximize the positive benefits of cardio, you should have a plan for what to eat after you finish a healthy session.
Many things go into determining optimal post-workout nutrition, and there’s no one perfect meal to eat after a bout of cardio. Broadly speaking, the best thing to eat after a cardio session is a combination of protein and carbohydrates: the latter for energy (in the form of glycogen) and the former to help with muscle recovery.
A lot goes on in your body during cardiovascular exercise, stemming from the foundation of all cardio: an increase in your heart rate. This causes blood to pump throughout the body, which happens in tandem with a number of different physical effects. Not only does cardio exercise help your body burn calories, which is important for achieving the caloric deficit needed for weight loss, studies have shown that aerobic exercise can also fight cardiovascular disease, depression, diabetes, and more.
Many people engage in regular cardio activity as a tool to help them reach the negative energy state (or caloric deficit) required to reduce body weight. Others may enjoy forms of cardio like sports, hiking and rock climbing for non-health reasons. Whatever the motivation, pairing your cardio routine with a sensible meal can help improve energy levels and prevent the loss of muscle tone.
When you participate in any form of exercise or workout, your body uses long chains of sugar molecules stored in your muscles known as glycogen. After strenuous exercise, you’ll need to replenish the glycogen stores in your muscles to regain energy to workout again. Research indicates that the more you workout, the more your muscles become adapted to refilling the stores of glycogen that help you train.
But a healthy diet is still important to ensure you can refuel properly after a workout. Scientific data indicates that there are two key macronutrients to include in any post-workout meal: carbohydrates and proteins.
You might think first about protein when you think of post-workout supplementation, especially when it comes to strength training with a focus on building muscle. But carbohydrates are valuable sources of fuel for the body as well, especially after strenuous exercise. Studies have shown that carbohydrate and protein combinations are more effective than either carbs or protein alone at enhancing the muscles’ plasma glucose response to exercise – in other words, its ability to restore the glycogen needed for the next workout.
According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), combining carbohydrates with proteins is also good for athletes who have just engaged in exercise and have less than four hours to dedicate to muscle recovery. This is a common situation during an athletic tournament, for example, when multiple games or competitions may be played on the same day.
When it comes to proteins, besides their well-known impact on muscle-building, they are also valuable because of their association with satiety – how full you feel. Most people are familiar with post-workout hunger, a feeling that can be amplified for those who perform intense exercise or fasted cardio. Research indicates that protein makes a person feel more full than carbohydrates or fats. This is why many popular diets today prescribe a high-protein eating style. If you are adding cardio to your routine to help you lose weight, satiety is an important point to consider. To help you feel full while also contributing to muscle growth, research suggests postworkout meals with a ratio of about 1:3 proteins to carbs.
The best way to feed your body with the nutrients it needs at any time – whether before or after a workout – is by eating whole foods. A balanced meal made from natural ingredients, complex carbohydrates and lean proteins tailored to your personal taste preferences is the best way to reward yourself for a great workout.
But obviously, you don’t always have time to source the ingredients you need to prepare an entire meal from scratch after every workout. Most of us have to fit in workouts around important responsibilities that cannot be neglected like work, school and family duties.
Here are a few options for workout snacks that are relatively balanced sources of proteins and carbohydrates:
Greek yogurt. This plain snack is high in protein and can be customized however you see fit. Many people add fruits, veggies, seasonings or other ingredients to help make the snack a bit more enjoyable and broaden the nutrient content.
Trail mix. Good trail mix has an ideal blend of flavor and nutrients to keep you full without any meal prep needed. The nuts in trail mix have healthy fats that the body needs to function properly and help to keep you satisfied. An average grocery store will have dozens of types of trail mix, so take care to read labels if you are shopping around. Besides elevated levels of sodium found in some commercial mixes, many will have added candies which worsen the nutrition profile.
Whey protein shakes. These are typically made from protein powders, which can be derived from a wide variety of different sources from mashed peas to whey – the latter is popular since it has all the body's essential amino acids. Despite the name, many protein shakes are also made with healthy carbohydrates to provide energy. You can also mix it with milk, yogurt, peanut butter, fruit, or avocado, for example, to give a smoothie an extra boost of proteins and carbs.
One way to supplement these “on the go” sources is meal prepping or bulk cooking, which saves time by consolidating the amount of time you spend preparing ingredients and turning them into a meal. For example, a healthy stew or soup is easy to prepare a lot of at once, and can be a great way to balance good whole grain carbs like vegetables and quinoa with lean proteins like free-range chicken and turkey.
While it's important to conduct sufficient research to find out what you need to eat after a workout, remember that the best advice will come from a registered dietitian, nutritionist or medical professional. Consulting a pro is the best way to help you create a post-exercise plan that not only helps you meet your goals but has the flavor to encourage you to stick to the plan. The best foods for your health are the ones you will actually eat consistently.
Whether your fitness goals are about fat burning or you are looking to add muscle mass, it's important to be fueling your body with the right ingredients. While protein and carbohydrates are generally recommended, you should experiment with different kinds of foods until you find a mix that works best for you. The right post-workout food will help motivate you to get through that next intense cardio session so you can reward yourself with a tasty meal that also furthers your fitness goals.
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