Whether you're trying to peak your endurance, pump your muscles or palm off some body fat, choosing the wrong recovery foods can negate all your hard work. Here are some surprisingly common mistakes people make when heading from the kettlebells to the kitchen.
For the modern fitness enthusiast, slurping down a protein shake post-workout in the "anabolic window" is a must, right?
While body builders, vegetarians, pregnant women or people recovering from surgery may benefit from protein supplementation, the average gym-goer will get more than enough protein from the real deal. Think lean sources of meat, fish, eggs, nuts, dairy, legumes and whole grains. Save your money.
Hightailing for high fats
You've just done a 60-minute spin class, so hoeing into peanut butter treats works wonders? Not necessarily. Ingesting only fats (even if they are the healthy kind) fails to provide your muscles with all the raw material they need to replenish and repair. This is mainly because exercise recovery relies on a balanced blend of carbohydrates and protein, too (more on that later).
Despite the popularity of ketogenic diets (high fat, low carbs), as with most diets that eliminate entire food groups (grains, beans and legumes, most fruits, starchy vegetables, sugars), many people aren't able to maintain it for long periods of time.
While keto diets have been shown to help athletes control body weight, reduce body fat, and maintain muscle mass (note most studies are small). Other studies show some negative effects, such as elevated levels of free fatty acids, which may impair metabolism and contribute to central nervous system fatigue. Additionally, there's always a risk for nutrient deficiencies, such as fibre because the diet is low in fruits and grains.
"A high-fat diet might not be right for everyone" adds sports dietitian Ashleigh Brunner from Body Fusion in Sydney. "Carbs are our main fuel source during exercise, and inadequate carb refuelling may compromise training output, intensity and consequently preferable adaptations to get stronger and fitter.
'Low' or 'no' carbs
Whatever you're training for, carbs are not the enemy. If you avoid them in your after-activity feed, you'll fail to adequately replenish the energy you've just burnt, in addition to leaving you under-recovered the next time you hit the gym. Refuelling with carbs is just as important as doing so with protein.
This combination will help you replenish glycogen stores as well as stimulate the growth of new muscle protein. Good post-training options include wholegrain bread with lean protein, such as eggs or tuna and salad; stir-fry with lean meat, vegetables and brown rice; or a salad with sweet potato and legumes. On-the-go options include a milk-based drink with fruit (i.e. smoothie) or oat-based bar with yoghurt.
Supplements over sustenance
Sports drinks or other brightly-coloured beverages have surged into popularity. But are they necessary? If you're doing more than 90 minutes of high intensity training at a time, then suffice to say a sports drink will help replace the fluids you lose.
The electrolytes (e.g. sodium) will help to regulate the body's fluid balance (compared to water alone), while the carbohydrates provide energy to replenish the energy after a session. The reality is though, for the average Australian who exercises, sports drinks are not essential. The excess calories will only end up on your waistline.
Finally, skipping a post workout meal once in a while is not a huge deal, but it shouldn't become a habit. Brunner says "An empty stomach can do the opposite of what you're intending: failing to assist muscle recovery and glycogen repletion. Additionally it could mean a bounce back in appetite leads to over snacking on unhealthier options" The recipe for optimum results is no secret: real food, good sleep and, of course, regular exercise.
Bars with no benefits
You shouldn't judge a bar by its cover; especially an energy bar. Unfortunately, even the most popular post-workout bars are often no better than your average chocolate bar. The reason is many of them are sugar-rich and ultra-processed offering little 'refuel value'.
If you love grabbing a bar on-the-go post-sweat, make sure you scan its nutritional value and swap ultra-processed kinds for ones made of real foods and whole grains. The shorter the ingredients list, the better.
Drinking your way to dehydration
There's a prevalent sporting culture of training your heart out then cracking open a beer. Some people may tell you that it has a similar "refuel" result to a sports drink, but alcohol carries a potentially dangerous effect: dehydration.
As you can imagine, not hydrating effectively after a grind at the gym can inhibit your muscle recovery. Further, drinking is a real culprit for disrupting sleep quality — another physiological function that's critical for post-workout replenishment.
Kathleen Alleaume is a nutrition and exercise scientist and founder of The Right Balance @therightbalance