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Refuelling after exercise? Here’s how to get it right

What you reach for from the kitchen cupboard after you’ve smashed out an online workout or enjoyed a run in between study sessions is key to supporting your physical performance and long-term health. But when time or fatigue gets in the way, it can be tempting to satisfy your post-workout hunger with a quick meal that’s more convenient than nutritional.

Deakin Senior Lecturer in Sport Nutrition, Dr Dominique Condo, explains why carbs and protein are important for recovery, what to consider when reaching for a post-workout snack, and how these healthy decisions contribute to our overall immune health.

How much protein should you be eating post-workout?

Protein is very important for post-workout recovery. But contrary to some healthy eating myths, more protein doesn’t always mean more muscle.

‘It’s ok to eat more than 30 to 40 grams at a meal, but we really can only use a certain amount for muscle protein synthesis,’ Dr Condo says, referring to the period of time after exercise where your body produces protein to repair muscles.

Ensuring you eat the right amount of protein helps with this process, and reduces the urge to reach for sugary foods in between meals by keeping you fuller for longer.

But as Dr Condo explains, a consistent intake of protein throughout the day is what’s key. If you’re short on time and need to up your protein intake between meals or gym sessions, consider a healthy snack you can prep to have on hand.

‘Protein balls are a healthy snack that’s ticking that protein box. They’re convenient, and a lot of the time it can help with those sugar cravings as well because they are a bit sweeter with the flavoured protein powder,’ Dr Condo says.

Using a good quality protein powder in your protein balls means higher quantities of leucine, one of the essential amino acids obtained from our diet that helps with muscle recovery and growth.

If protein balls sound good to you, Dr Condo suggests including ingredients such as:

  • Good quality whey-based protein powder, as it will be higher in leucine.
  • Oats for carbohydrates.
  • Nut butter (such as a natural peanut butter or an almond butter) or coconut, for fats.
  • Natural honey.
  • Dried fruit, for added vitamins and minerals and carbs.
'It’s ok to eat more than 30 to 40 grams [of protein] at a meal, but we really can only use a certain amount for muscle protein synthesis.'

Dr Dominique Condo,
School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences

Why are carbohydrates important after exercise?

Whether it’s brown rice or white rice, it’s all the same, right? Not quite. While both are a good source of carbs, they have different glycemic index (GI) scores, meaning they work differently to replenish and refuel our bodies after exercise, Dr Condo explains.

‘Post-exercise, if you’ve got some time for recovery and you’re not going to be exercising again in the next few hours, then low GI is always going to be a preferred option because it tends to be wholegrains that are higher in fibre, and that are slowly digested long-lasting energy which avoid spikes in sugar and insulin levels,’ Dr Condo says.

‘It’s recommended you go for a low GI carbohydrate such as brown rice, wholegrain bread, quinoa or legumes.’

But if time is of the essence and you’ve got back-to-back sweat sessions with shorter recovery times in between, Dr Condo suggests carbs that are high GI, such as white bread or white rice, to replenish the carbohydrates used more quickly to recover and refuel faster.

And depending on the intensity and duration of your exercise, your age, gender, and weight, the recommended carb intake will be different for each person. The more you weigh, the more carbs you will need, and as the intensity of your workouts increases, so does the amount of carbs you will require after exercise.

For example, carb requirements after moderate intensity exercise up to 60 minutes a day can be between five to seven grams per kilo and after high intensity exercise for over 60 minutes, the recommended carb intake can range from six to 10 grams per kilo.

Making healthier choices for your immune health

Ensuring proper intake of carbs and protein to recover after exercise is all part of maintaining a healthy diet that helps support our immune health. And whether you’re an aspiring athlete or a non-committal gym enthusiast, the recommendations are just the same.

‘We can’t boost immune systems but we can definitely help support them, and the number one thing that we need is to make sure that our diet is actually supporting our immune system,’ Dr Condo says.

Additionally, a good variety of fruits and vegetables across your daily meals, drinking plenty of water, and getting enough rest are also key supporting your immune system.

‘Having enough water is important for our immune health as well, and optimising sleep and trying to get in the recommended seven to nine hours a night because that’s how our bodies recover, which supports our immune systems,’ Dr Condo recommends.

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Dr Dominique Condo
Dr Dominique Condo

School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, Deakin University

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