What do you typically reach for after working out? Is it a granola bar? A banana? I've long wondered what the absolute best foods are to reach for after a sweat sesh, to truly refuel and replenish my system. What is my body craving after I've done hot yoga, boot camp, or an epic hike? What does it need to feel and function its absolute best? Well, I got the answer to all those questions and more, from cult-famous plant-based nutrition company Vega's national educator and RHN, Emma Andrews. Keep scrolling to learn what the best food choices are for your body when it comes to proper post-exercise recovery!
Andrews explains that exercise recovery involves six key elements: inflammation reduction, immune support, replenishing muscle glycogen, soft tissue repair, hormonal support, and rehydration with electrolytes. There are ideal foods that help meet each of the six key elements of recovery, detailed in the next few slides. However, you do not need to eat all of the foods after every workout, at once. It's more about aiming to get them in the course of a week. Explains Andrews, "The best way to think about how often and when to eat these foods is to think about them like you would the exercises in a strength-training program.
Throughout the course of a week, you do a variety of exercises for well-rounded fitness"—for example, you may focus on arms one day, butt and legs the next, abs the next, etc. "It's the same as you eating a variety of these foods throughout your week to address the variety of post-workout nutritional needs. Just like some exercises need to be repeated within a week to establish improvements (like a pull-up or a down dog), so too do nutrients. And nutrients stay in the body for a period of time (some longer than others), so while you certainly could plan to eat all these foods every day, it’s more realistic to think about eating them throughout the course of the week (hopefully more often than not!), and as you establish a foundation of these foods, your body has the components it needs to recover properly.
Just like consistency in your training program is key to results, consistency on your plate is too," she says.
So in short, aim to eat each of the following six recovery food combinations once per week, and your body will have what it needs to holistically recover itself after your workouts all week. Keep scrolling for the rundown!
Inflammation is how your body heals from the micromuscle tears caused as you break down muscle during a workout, explains Andrews. "While inflammation is necessary, it also inhibits training progress, as it temporarily limits muscle function due to increased muscle soreness and stiffness." To reduce inflammation, choose foods rich in antioxidants, omega-3 essential fats, and anti-inflammatory compounds to overcome excess inflammation.
Foods to reach for: Turmeric, tart cherry, walnuts, and hemp hearts. Turmeric contains the active compound curcumin—used in traditional herbal medicine to help reduce inflammation.
Glutamine is an amino acid that helps fuel immune cells, the levels of which naturally occurring in your blood are often reduced during intense exercise, explains Andrews. Consuming 5000 mg of Glutamine after exercise can help to support your immune system, as well as consuming foods with zinc, a mineral that supports immune system health and muscle regeneration and is therefore a valuable component in an athlete’s diet.
Foods to reach for: Cashew butter, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, a shake or smoothie made from Vega Sport Performance Protein containing 5000 mg of glutamine.
Andrews provided this delicious Cookies & Cream Recovery Smoothie recipe with cashews, a source of zinc for immune health, as well as dates and clean, plant-based protein.
Serves 1. Makes 2 1/4 cups (550 ml).
2 tbsp. raw cashews
2 tbsp. vegan dark chocolate chips
1 tbsp. cacao nibs
1 tbsp. raw cashew butter
1 tbsp. pitted and chopped Medjool dates
1 serving vanilla Vega Sport Premium Protein
1 cup unsweetened almond milk
¼ cup agave nectar or maple syrup (optional; recommended if your workout has exceeded 90 minutes)
About 2 cups (500 ml) ice cubes.
In a blender, combine all the ingredients except the ice. Add ice to about 1 inch (2.5 cm) above the liquid line. Blend on high speed until smooth and creamy.
Consuming a ratio of easily digestible carbohydrates to protein is proven to be the most effective way for your body to replenish glycogen and begin muscle repair post-workout, explains Andrews. Your best choice, then, is any source of functional carbohydrates, such as fruit. "The more antioxidant-rich, the better!" she says.
Foods to reach for: Emphasize carbohydrates from whole food and minimally processed sources, such as dates, berries, tart cherries, whole grain brown rice syrup, or agave nectar in your recovery snacks such as bars, smoothies, and shakes. Pair it with a small amount of protein found in nuts, seeds, legumes, or whole grains.
It’s not only muscles that need to be repaired after exercise. "The soft tissue, which connects and supports organs, joints, and muscles should also be repaired," explains Andrews. Glucosamine is a micronutrient that nourishes your soft tissue and has been shown to help maintain joint health. Reducing joint pain and improving circulation can also benefit soft tissue repair, which can be achieved through foods rich in omega-3 fats, and warming spices which improve the circulation of nutrients, she says.
Foods to reach for: Walnuts, hemp hearts, chia seeds, cayenne, and ginger (to boost circulation).
Exercise is a form of complementary stress. It acutely elevates stress hormones, especially cortisol. "If the stress is managed (through a well-balanced lifestyle and nutrient-rich diet), it can be complementary and have long-term positive effects," explains Andrews. "Stress from uncomplementary sources (such as overtraining, work, family, relationships, etc.) can lead to chronically elevated cortisol levels that have been linked to various health and performance issues. There is emerging evidence that the amino acid L-arginine can help to reduce cortisol levels while supporting healthy hormone levels," she says.
"Additionally, maca root, traditionally grown in the Andean highlands, is a rich source of amino acids, phytonutrients, and important vitamins and minerals. Ancient, native Peruvians used maca for thousands of years as both a food and a tonic. They believed maca increased energy and stamina, promoted vitality and contributed to a feeling of overall well-being."
Foods to reach for: Maca root, a superfood native to Peru. Add to your recovery smoothie and use in baking.
Replenishing the electrolytes and fluids eliminated during exercise by rehydrating is a crucial step in recovery. Calcium, chloride, magnesium, potassium, and sodium are key electrolytes, which regulate the flow of nutrients and waste in and out of cells, making them essential for muscle contractions and general nerve function, explains Andrews.
Foods to reach for: Coconut water, tart cherry juice, fresh-pressed juices, smoothies (use nondairy milk fortified with calcium as a base liquid, and blend with banana or dates for added potassium). Vega Sport Nutrition products (shoppable below) also contain added electrolytes. Andrew's refuel tip: Drink at least 1/2 cup or 4 ounces per 15 minutes of activity.
Keep scrolling to shop the Vega protein powder used for the immune-boosting Cookies & Cream Recovery Smoothie, and share your favorite recovery snack, below!