The hard bit’s done. You’ve gone out. You’ve worked out. You gave it your all. But it’s still not over. Yes, there’s still recovery. It’s easy to forget about the recovery process and refueling after a strenuous workout. But these are crucial aspects of training.
Benefits of Post-Workout Drinks
So why is optimal recovery important? Your ability to perform at your peak depends on how quickly your muscles can recover and repair themselves after intense workouts, practices and competitions. Studies demonstrate that proper recovery nutrition can help:
- Increase strength and muscle mass, thereby improving the quality and results of every workout session.12
- Reduce injury.3
- Decrease vulnerability to illnesses, burnout and overtraining.4
- Improve performance.5
Intense exercise induces micro-tears in the muscle and leaves the body dehydrated and glycogen depleted. If this stressed state is not corrected through proper nutrition (and adequate rest), it increases the likelihood of suffering with:
- Reduced aerobic capacity, which will reduce time to exhaustion and affect the overall performance (and morale).6
- Metabolic fatigue. This is caused by the accumulation of metabolic by-products (e.g. hydrogen and potassium ions) in the muscle due to exercise, which lowers the energy released from ATP breakdown and reducing the muscles’ contractile ability. In short, it results in fatigue and a decline in performance.7
Do You Need a Post-Workout Drink?
Moderately active. If you work out three to four times per week, you don’t need a special recovery diet (food or special beverage) since you’ll have plenty of time in between your workouts to replenish your muscle glycogen store. Drinking water after your session may be enough if you’ve exercised for about 30 to 45 minutes.
However, if you’ve been sweating a lot, exercised intensely for over an hour, worked out in a hot or humid environment, or if you were wearing protective sports equipment, then you may benefit from a recovery post-workout drink.
Very active. If you’re an endurance runner, cyclist or triathlete who covers long distances or trains daily, you need to carefully plan your recovery diet in order to be fit for the next training session.
The same applies to if you’re a football, basketball or volleyball player who needs to practice several times a day, a swimmer participating in several events per meet, or a fitness instructor who coaches several classes every day.
Read more: The Post-Workout Recovery Guide
When & What to Drink Post-Workout
When you consume your post workout drink is almost as important as what you drink. After a hard workout there are two nutritional windows during which you can maximize recovery and and repair, and help your body recover as quickly as possible.
This period is known as the first nutritional window (also called the anabolic window). Try to consume your post workout drink (or snack) within 45 minutes of a workout to help you nourish, repair and build your muscles optimally.89
In a study involving a 12-week strength training program, researchers gave participants a carb-protein mixture immediately after each workout. Their muscle size increased by 8% along with a 15% improvement in strength. However, when the same mixture was given two hours after the session, there was no muscle growth or increase in strength.10
What Should You Drink Post-Workout?
Aim to consume a drink with a carbohydrate to protein ratio of 4:1 (that is for every 4g of carbs, consume 1g of protein) within 45 minutes of working out.
Reduces Muscle Soreness
A post-workout carb-protein drink can help decrease soreness, reduce injuries, and improve overall health. In a 54-day study involving marine recruits, the participants either received a non-caloric placebo, a carbohydrate-fat mixture, or a supplement of carbs and protein after their daily training sessions.14
The researchers reported that the carb-protein group experienced superior muscle recovery and had, on average, 37% fewer muscle and joint injuries. These marines also had, on average, 33% fewer medical visits, 28% fewer bacterial and viral infections, 83% fewer cases of heat exhaustion and significantly less muscle soreness after exercising.
A protein-carb recovery drink may increase performance and reduce muscle damage. In one study, cyclists completed a stationary ride to exhaustion while consuming either a drink containing a 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein or a carb-only sports drink. The next day, they repeated the same workout but at a higher intensity and without drinking anything. Those given the carb-protein drink cycled 29% longer on the first day and 40% longer on the next day compared to those who drank the carbohydrate-only mixture.15
Moreover, before starting the second workout, a blood sample was collected to measure concentrations of creatine phosphokinase (CPK), a marker of muscle damage. The scientists reported that the carb-protein drink reduced CPK levels by 83%, indicating considerably less muscle damage.
With respect to muscle damage, consuming a carbohydrate-protein post-workout drink after an anaerobic workout (e.g. weight lifting, HIIT), will decrease muscle damage significantly more than conventional drinks.16
2 Hours Post-Workout
The next nutritional window is a bit longer – 1 to 3 hours after a prolonged workout.
During this window, choose a meal or drink (about 150kcal) that includes carbs, protein and some healthy fats.
You could make a green smoothie with any leafy green you like; some nuts or grated coconut for fats and protein and a banana for potassium and carbs. Instead of using water, try some chilled, raw coconut water.
If you can, opt for a healthy and balanced meal or snack during this post-workout window.
Natural Post-Workout Drinks
Studies suggest that dehydration can reduce the body’s ability to repair the micro-tears that occur in muscles during exercise.17
So make sure to sip some water during your workout and when you’re done training. Water can also help your post-workout drink settle better in your stomach.
2 Post Workout Shake
Whip up a homemade protein smoothie with sufficient carbs and protein for recovery; water for hydration; antioxidants (from fruits and/or leafy greens) to help reduce muscular inflammation and some salt to replace sodium losses.
Protein shake recipe: Blend 3oz of organic Greek yogurt, 1 banana, 1 cup of mixed berries, 1 cup of spinach (or any green leafy veggie), 1 cup of ice cold water (or coconut water), 1 tablespoon of flaxseeds, hempseeds or nuts and a pinch of salt. If you skip the Greek yogurt (rich in protein) add one serving of protein powder instead.
3 Green Smoothie or Veggie Juice
Thanks to their alkaline-properties, consuming some greens and fruits after a workout can help your body get out of the acidic state induced by intense exercise. If not corrected, this acid state can delay recovery and enhance fatigue.
4 Coconut water
Nicknamed “Nature’s sports drink”, coconut water is great for rehydration due to its high potassium content. Along with sodium, magnesium and calcium, the body needs potassium to maintain fluid balance. Potassium also plays a role in muscle contraction and can prevent muscle cramps after a workout.
Natural coconut water is low in sodium, so not ideal after an intense or long workout. Grab a protein smoothie with a little added sodium instead.
Recovery tip: Enjoy an 8-oz glass of chilled coconut water immediately a moderate training that doesn’t last for more than an hour (such as after a yoga class or a Pilates session).
5 Green Tea
Rich in antioxidants, green tea can help speed up recovery from intense training by fighting off free radicals produced during exercise and strengthening the immune system.18
Recovery recipe: Bring 14 ounces of water to a boil and steep 2 green tea bags for 2 minutes. Discard the tea bags and mix in 1 tablespoon of lemon juice and 2 ounces of ice cold, raw pomegranate juice. Chill.
6 Tart Cherry Juice
In one study, participants ran three separate race segments on steep terrain over 24 hours. They were given either tart cherry juice or a placebo twice daily for one week. Those who consumed the cherry juice suffered from significantly less muscle pain.19
In another study, researchers reported that subjects who consumed tart cherry juice experienced only a 4% loss in strength after eccentric exercise whereas the placebo group averaged a 22% loss in strength.20
The active ingredient in tart cherry juice that works the magic are antioxidants which are able to reduce oxidative tissue damage following intense exercise.21 By decreasing oxidative stress, tart cherry juice may reduce the inflammatory response, alleviate secondary muscle soreness, and speed up recovery.22
7 Chocolate Milk
Research shows that chocolate milk may improve both recovery and performance of endurance workouts.2324 Studies into the recovery effects of consuming low-fat chocolate milk after exercise found that endurance athletes who consumed chocolate milk after their training experienced:
- A boost in performance. Trained cyclists took 6 minutes less to complete a race when they were given a chocolate milk recovery drink.25
- Improved body composition. Compared to athletes who consumed a sports drink, those who drank chocolate milk after exercise gained, on average, 3 pounds of lean muscle and lost more body fat after 4.5 weeks of training.27
How does chocolate milk work its magic? Unlike water, plain milk and most sports beverages, chocolate milk contains a 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio that can replenish worn out muscles as well as antioxidants to quell the effects of oxidative stress.28
Recovery recipe: Blend 8 ounces of chilled raw milk with a teaspoon of raw honey, some ground chia seeds and 1 teaspoon of raw, unsweetened cocoa powder.
One thing to definitely avoid post-workout? Alcohol. Researchers found that when rugby players consumed alcohol four hours after a competition, they experienced a decline in countermovement jump height (peak power) as well as an increase in cortisol levels (the hormone is known to speed up muscle breakdown).29
Alcohol consumption also had detrimental effects on the athletes’ cognitive function and resulted in a slower reaction time.30 (There might a slight exception – moderate amounts of non-alcoholic beer in endurance exercise. Though still not ideal!)
Read more: Complete Guide to Workout Nutrition