The last thing you want to do after putting in so much work at the gym or on the road is to compromise your results. Unfortunately, many of us fall into bad post-workout habits that limit our performance gains or weight-loss success.
Here are three common post-workout habits to avoid:
Not eating after a workout is especially common among people who are trying to lose weight. After all, you just burned a bunch of calories, so why would you eat them all back?
First, it’s important to acknowledge that, unless you’re actually hungry, you may not need a post-workout snack or meal if you just finished a restorative yoga class or took a leisurely walk. However, longer (more than 90 minutes) and/or more intense workouts (e.g., HIIT, running, strength training, group fitness classes) typically call for a post-workout snack or meal. As the duration and intensity of your exercise sessions increase, so does your need for post-workout fuel.
After a long or intense workout, your body needs two macronutrients ASAP: carbs (especially fast-digesting) and protein. These macronutrients replenish your stores of glycogen (the storage form of quick-acting carbs your body uses for intense exercise), which not only helps ensure you have the energy needed for your next workout, but also helps repair damaged tissues. Your body is especially receptive to carbs 15–30 minutes post-workout, making it an optimal time to refuel.
So where does protein fit in? Contrary to popular belief, you may not need to down protein immediately after your workout to see muscle gain. Research suggests it’s your total daily protein intake that matters, and that so long as you’re replenishing every 3–4 hours, you don’t need to worry too much. That said, ingesting a bit of protein along with carbs immediately post-workout can help your body replenish glycogen stores and kick-start your muscle recovery process, according to a paper from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN).
Skimping on post-workout protein and carbs can make it much harder to build new muscle and recover from your workouts efficiently, says Katie Dunlop, a California-based personal trainer, and the founder of Love Sweat Fitness.
From a weight-loss perspective, skipping a post-workout meal or snack may save you calories in the short-term, but you risk overeating once hunger kicks in.
The Fix: If you have a hard time getting whole foods after a workout, keep a protein shake on-hand. “While I am all about getting your nutrients from whole foods, sometimes it’s not easy to get a healthy protein and carb when you’re on the go,” Dunlop says.
If solid foods aren’t an issue, Callie Exas, certified personal trainer and an NYC-based dietitian and founder of Callie Exas Nutrition and Wellness, likes a serving of Greek yogurt with some fruit and/or honey. “It’s one of those perfect foods to have after a workout,” she says.
Exactly how many grams of carbs and protein you’ll need immediately following your workout depends on the workout itself (in general, endurance activities use more glycogen than strength training). However, the ISSN suggests that consuming 1.2 grams of carbs per kilogram of bodyweight over the course of 4–6 hours immediately following “exhausting” exercise can replenish your glycogen stores, especially if you couple that with 0.2–0.5 grams of protein per kilogram bodyweight.
To put that into real numbers, a 155-pound person needs roughly 85 grams of carbs and 14–35 grams of protein. To determine your numbers, take your bodyweight and divide it by 2.2 to get your weight in kilograms. Then, multiply that number by 1.2 to get your carb count, and 0.2–0.5 to get your protein range.
At the other end of the spectrum, you have people who eat too many calories post-workout. As Exas notes, many people reach for a giant protein smoothie without realizing how many calories and how much sugar is actually in it. “A lot of people will rationalize, ‘Well, I just worked out, so I can go and have a 600-calorie smoothie,’” she says. Unsurprisingly, regularly overdoing it on the post-workout snack or meal can lead to weight gain over time.
The Fix: Beware how many calories you’re consuming post-workout; don’t follow a 30-minute run with a 600-calorie smoothie and call that a “snack.” If you’re having a snack to tide yourself over until your next meal, try to keep it to 200 calories Exas says.
Watch out for added sugars as well (many protein bars and smoothies contain surprisingly high amounts). The American Heart Association recommends no more than 100 calories per day (that’s about 6 teaspoons or 25 grams) for women, and no more than 150 calories per day (that’s about 9 teaspoons or 36 grams) for men.
Going straight from your workout to the shower without stopping to stretch or foam roll may not seem like a big deal, but do it often enough and your workouts suffer. According to Dunlop, most clients who skip stretching experience increased muscle soreness, decreased mobility and flexibility, and face a greater risk of injury, “which means those few minutes you saved not stretching might mean you’ll miss out on several days of working out.”
After a workout, your muscles are not only warm, but they’re also tense and shortened from contracting over and over again. If you don’t stretch and roll out your muscles when they’re warm, they won’t be able to achieve a healthy blood flow, circulate nutrients or get rid of waste products, all of which contributes to muscle soreness.
The Fix: Even 5–10 minutes of stretching and foam rolling after your workout can make a big difference. Hold stretches for 15–20 seconds, focusing on areas that are especially tight. Don’t try to force a stretch — doing so only defeats the purpose of stretching in the first place. Not to mention, you’ll risk a muscle strain or tear.
As Dunlop notes, lack of time is the number 1 reason people skip their post-workout stretch session. So, if you’re short on time, schedule your warmup and cooldown into your workout. “If that means you only get 20 minutes running through your circuits, that’s OK — you will get more out of your workout if you warmup and stretch properly than if you were to just bang out 20 minutes and go,” Dunlop says.