You’ve just run a zillion miles in your Saturday morning football or netball game and don’t think you’ll ever be able to move another muscle again, or you’ve cycled till your legs ache, or pounded the pavement till your feet are numb… Whether you are a social or competitive athlete, all this exercise has a profound impact on your body, which needs to recover. Here are the foods and drinks that will help you get back to tiptop condition.

So why do you need to refuel after exercise? Simply put, your body has to mend and replace what it has lost. It must replenish carbohydrates (muscle and liver glycogen); replace the fluid, along with electrolytes, lost due to sweat; repair cellular damage and manufacture new muscle protein; and protect the immune system from the pounding it gets following intensive work-outs.

Not all athletes feel hungry after they work out, especially if they’re very tired, so it’s important to find the right combo of foods/drinks and nutrients to satisfy your particular body’s requirements. Training and playing schedules also change constantly, adding to the need for carefully chosen nutrition. Some factors you may like to consider are:

  • do you require an on-the-go snack at your training venue?
  • how long will it be before your next big meal?
  • are you travelling and need food that requires minimal storage?
  • can you carry your desired snacks interstate or overseas?

All athletes are recommended to follow a high-carbohydrate diet as well as keep up their protein stores and fluid intake. A deficit in any of these following an exercise session could negatively impact the next session.

Why carbs? 

When you work your body hard during a game or exercise, your body burns muscle glycogen. These stores must be replaced. Therefore, within the first hour of completing moderate or intense exercise, the Australian Institute of Sport encourages athletes to have a carbohydrate-rich snack or meal that provides 1-1.2g of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight. This is the period of time when the rates of glycogen synthesis are the greatest.

Why protein?

Muscle protein breaks down during exercise, but recent research shows that consuming essential amino acids from good-quality protein foods within the first hour after exercise will greatly help in rebuilding this protein breakdown. Having protein after this hour will still be beneficial, it’s just that the rate at which protein synthesis occurs will be less. Resistance and endurance athletes should try and have 15-25g of high-quality protein in the first hour post-exercise. And did you know that if you add carbs to your protein intake, you’ll reduce the degree of muscle protein breakdown even further?!

Why fluids?

Most athletes post-exercise will have a fluid deficit due to sweating and going to the toilet. Drinking water alone is not enough as you also need to replace the electrolytes (especially sodium) lost in sweat. The sodium helps to reduce urine losses and promotes thirst encouraging you to drink, therefore enhancing fluid balance post-exercise. Athletes should aim to consume 125-150% of their estimated fluid losses in the 4-6 hours after exercise, with 50-80mmol/L of sodium, for optimal rehydration.


Below are 10 foods and drinks that contain either carbs or protein (or both) and will help your body recover. Most of these are items suggested by the Australian Institute of Sport. Some you may already consume; others you may want to try out the next time you give your body a real work-out – such as flavoured milk! Try to reach for a least one of the following within the first hour after you finish your exercise so that you can reap the most benefits.

TO EAT

  • boiled eggEggs – We all know eggs are a good source of protein, but they’re also a great vessel for choline. The Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences studied choline and found that it affects muscle membrane lipid composition and intracellular lipid metabolism, therefore making choline-rich foods significant for proper muscle function. Eat two eggs for 10-12g protein and 230mg choline. Pack an egg sandwich, or boil them and simply peel and eat.
  • Bread with a sweet topping – Bread’s main function is as a source of carbohydrates for fuel. Top it with a sweet spread or fruit and you’ll add to the carb count. Eat it fresh or pop two slices of bread into the toaster, then smother it with a fruity jam, nutritious honey or sliced banana. 
  • Energy bars – The high-carbohydrate content in these bars provides fuel for muscles, the protein helps with muscle repair, and the low-fat/low-fibre content makes them easy to digest. Look for energy (or sports) bars that contain high-quality quick-release carbohydrates and adequate protein. One or two bars should do it (Endura Performance Bars and Hammer Bars look good).
  • turmericTurmeric – It’s the compound curcumin that gives this spice its vibrant colour and its extraordinary health benefits. Clinical trials have shown that curcumin can decrease joint pain, decrease inflammation and improve joint mobility and function. A 2014 study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine also found it reduces exercise-induced oxidative stress. Mix 1/2 teaspoon of turmeric into three cups of cooked rice and you’ll enjoy the benefits of the spice plus 10g of protein, too.
  • Fruit and yoghurt – Fruit is easy to stomach if you don’t feel like something too heavy and it provides you with carbs, fluids and nutrients all in the one go. Meanwhile, yoghurt contains protein plus leucine, fondly known as the endurance amino acid. Leucine has a major impact on muscle recovery, and while all amino acids are necessary to build protein, if there isn’t enough leucine, muscle growth is not nearly as great. Just 1 cup of Greek yogurt contains 2.5g of leucine, as much as you’d obtain from more than four eggs. Go for a 300g bowl of fruit salad topped with 200g fruit-flavoured yoghurt.
  • Canned fish – This is a great source of portable nutrition – think a payload of protein, omega-3 fatty acids (which may reduce exercise-induced muscle inflammation) and calcium (if you eat the salmon bones). Canned fish is also leucine-rich (see Fruit and yoghurt, above). Consume 50g of canned tuna/salmon or cooked fish. Pile it on a bread roll and you’ll have the carbs covered as well.

TO DRINK

  • Sports drink – The backbone of every sports drink (read Sports Drinks: Facts To Drink Up) is its carbohydrate content. This along with much-needed electrolytes (sodium, magnesium, potassium and calcium) – proper functioning of the digestive, nervous, cardiac and muscular systems depends on adequate electrolyte levels. As the amount of sodium considered optimal for rehydration (50-80mmol/L) is more than that found in most commercially available sports drinks, try drinking a 700-800ml sports drink while you eat food which contains sodium.
  • chocolate milkFlavoured milk – Yes, the Australian Institute of Sport actually recommends this. Why? Well, it’s probably because it works! Joel Stager, an exercise physiologist at Indiana University, put chocolate milk to the test and found it was a super fuel for exhausted muscles. He studied it on cyclists and discovered it performed better than Gatorade. Compared to plain milk, water and most sports drinks, it has double the carbohydrate and protein content, which is ideal for replenishing tired muscles. Drink 600ml low-fat flavoured milk.
  • Sports Energy Gels These are a specially formulated concentrated energy source, whereby the carbs they contain can be more easily absorbed by the body post-exercise – sometimes by up to 50% more. They’re a great way to restore your glycogen levels and they’re very convenient for popping into your training bag and travelling, as they don’t require refrigeration. These gels are best consumed slowly over 20 minutes, or as you drink a glass of water, to prevent any gastric upsets.
  • coffeeCoffee – There’s no reason why you can’t have a caffeine boost before you work out, but it actually performs better afterwards. A 2008 study published in the Journal Of Applied Physiology saw athletes who ingested coffee after exercise had about 66 per cent more muscle glycogen than those who took a placebo four hours after exercise. ‘If you have 66 per cent more fuel for the next day’s training or competition, there is absolutely no question you will go farther or faster,’ said Dr Hawley, the study’s senior author. Start with a strong cup of coffee and add milk and sugar for a little extra protein and carbs.

Do you consume any of the above foods and drinks after you exercise? Let us know how they work for your, and whether you have any others to add to the list.

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