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Working out at lunch? Here's how to eat to recover

Story Highlights

• 3 keys to post-workout replenishment: fluids, carbohydrates, protein
• Best post-workout fluid source is water
• Get carbs from fruits, legumes, whole-grain bread products
• Many complex carbs provide carbohydrate, protein in same food
By Maureen Callahan
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Since squeezing fitness pursuits into an already busy day isn't easy, it makes sense to use the lunch hour for double duty. Work out, then eat. Trouble is, there's not much time for both. So save time by preparing a quick, high-caliber meal the night before.

Three key elements come into play when replenishing the body post-workout: fluids, carbohydrates, and protein.

"It's tough for muscles to work and recuperate when they're dehydrated," says sports nutritionist Jackie Berning, Ph.D., R.D., an associate professor at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. The best post-workout fluid source is water, of course, but soups, fruits, and vegetables also help hydrate muscles.

Next, muscles need carbohydrates to replace the carbs that were stored as glycogen and used during exercise. "You can fuel muscles on gummy bears, Cokes, and Twizzlers," says Nancy Clark, M.S., R.D., senior sports nutritionist at Healthworks Fitness Center in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, and author of "Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook." Of course, the downside of that sugary strategy is that there aren't any other redeeming nutrition qualities, such as vitamins. Better choices, Clark says, are fruits, legumes, and whole-grain bread products. Not only do these complex carbs replenish muscles, but they're also loaded with fiber and other nutrients. ( The athlete's pantryexternal link )

Clark also likes the fact that many complex carb foods, such as edamame and garbanzo beans, offer carbohydrates and protein in the same package. Preliminary studies suggest that this protein-carb combination may enhance muscle recovery and muscle refueling after exercise more effectively than carbs alone. The final word isn't in, Clark admits, but she sees a lot of advantages to adding protein to a pre- or postworkout meal. "It might optimize the healing of the tiny muscle injuries that happen [normally] while people exercise," she says. "Also, protein is satiating." Lots of people exercise because they want to lose weight, she says, and a little bit of protein at a post-workout lunch may help keep them full so they won't need a snack later. ( Snacking strategiesexternal link )

Berning, who has counseled Olympic athletes and routinely teaches sports nutrition to the Denver Broncos, the Cleveland Indians, and other sports franchises, says the three-point strategy of carbs, fluids, and protein after a workout basically amounts to a balanced meal. And it doesn't need to be a big production. You could grab a carton of yogurt and a banana, she says. Or make one of these eight quick lunchtime offeringsexternal link. Just remember, you need to refuel the body correctly in order to reap the benefits of your workout. "I am a proponent of the notion that something is better than nothing," Berning says. "I would rather see someone put together a balanced meal." That way the muscles are refueled and afternoon energy levels stay high.

Replenishment specifics

After an hour of physical activity, here's what your body needs for nutrition.

Fluid: Replace what's lost through sweat. Use foods that are full of fluids (fruits, salads, soups) or fluid alone. Ideally you should drink before and during exercise, too.

Carbs: The American College of Sports Medicine recommends refueling muscles with 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate in the first 30 minutes after an hourlong workout. "If you wait more than 30 minutes, it will take the body longer (about 24 to 36 hours) to refuel muscles," says sports nutritionist Jackie Berning.

Protein: Contrary to popular belief, the amount of exercise you perform during a normal lunch break doesn't increase protein requirements. But protein is satisfying, says sports nutritionist Nancy Clark, who recommends that exercisers include a little protein at each meal.

Food writer and registered dietitian Maureen Callahan trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. She lives near Denver, Colorado.

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A nutritious meal within 30 minutes of finishing a workout is the ideal way to nourish tired muscles.


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