It's good to understand what happens during exercise first (besides feeling amazing and terrible simultaneously)
- Perspiration of water and electrolytes
- Expended energy
- Torn and stretched muscles
- Pressure and impact
Food alone isn't going to solve all these issues, but we can solve some of them. In order:
- Rehydrating with water is always best. However, it would help if you also replenished electrolytes, which are salts that your body uses to maintain an electrical charge, an essential aspect of your biochemistry. If you can't send electrical signals, you will feel sluggish and might end up watching reruns of Highlander on the couch. Don't let that happen to you. You could drink a sports drink, but electrolytes are best found in fruits and vegetables. Consider oranges, apples, bananas, grapes, berries, celery, lettuce, pineapple, beans, spinach, avocado, and raisins as numerous options to both hydrate and replenish electrolytes.
- Energy generally comes in 2 ways: carbohydrates and fats. Carbohydrates are more accessible for your body to consume and derive energy from. Fats are stored for the long term, like the wintertime, and boom, there are your love handles! You probably want some of both post-workout. Carbohydrates again are found in fruits and vegetables in their best forms without bogging you down (noticing a theme here?). Also, rice, oatmeal, pasta, and bread are high in carbs. The main problem with some of them is the ingredients that come along with them (lots of cheese, sugar, etc.). You can get fats from beans and other legumes, as well as some lean meats.
- Muscle repair happens through a combination of carbohydrates and proteins. Not to mention soreness, grumpy attitudes, and plenty of whining. Anyway, guess what's high in carbs and proteins, along with other numerous vitamins and minerals? Vegetables! Dark leafy greens are fantastic here. Also, lean meats can be good if you're looking for protein and can afford the additional cholesterol and fat and lack of vitamins.
- Inflammation can be reduced with nuts, seeds, and berries, as well as dark leafy greens, many squashes, and sweet potatoes. Whether or not you would feel like eating those after exercise depends a whole lot on you.
- Pressure and impact are pretty much only relieved with sleep and rest, and maybe some ice. Food isn't going to help there!
If I were going to recommend a single meal after every workout, I would eat this:
- Salad made of dark leafy greens, with some nuts, berries, and avocado or beans on it (400-600 calories, 10-20g of protein). Broccoli, spinach, romaine, and kale are high in protein per calorie.
- A banana (100 calories)
- An orange (60 calories)
- Lots of water
- Cheese fries, which are high in vitamins and low in calories (right?)
If you are doing a workout that is burning more calories, you may need to increase the amount of food you eat proportionally. You will also know if you need more calories if you find yourself dealing with serious and specific cravings for 2-3 hours post-workout.