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David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Experts Stress Post-Exercise Nutrition
April 19, 2004

(The Associated Press) -- Carbohydrates may be considered evil in this age of the low-carb diet revolution, but the nutrient plays an important role in helping athletes recover from strenuous exercise.

Two decades of research have shown that consuming carbs after a hard workout rebuilds worn muscles and primes the body for the next training. Failure to eat the right food after exercise -- or worse -- skipping the post-exercise meal altogether can harm your body.

"You never think that you can just continue to ride your car without ever going to the gas station. We can't expect to be able to continue to exercise our bodies without refueling them," said Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist of the American Council on Exercise.

Carbs -- the main source of energy during physical activity -- are stored as glycogen in muscle cells. During exercise, the glycogen reserves deplete and an intake of carbs is needed to replenish the body. Neglecting or avoiding the post-workout meal could result in muscle breakdown and leave your body feeling fatigued during the next workout.

In 2000, the American College of Sports Medicine, along with the American Dietetic Association and the Dietitians of Canada, reviewed numerous studies on the subject and took a stand on the issue. In a published joint position statement, they acknowledged the importance of post-game nutrition on athletic performance.

How much carbs should be eaten after exercise depends on the duration and intensity of the workout, as well as when the next training will occur. For example, a post-workout meal is generally more essential for a triathlete who runs in the morning and cycles in the afternoon than a marathoner who just runs one race. That's because the triathlete needs to refuel in between workouts while the marathoner has more time between runs to recover.

Experts recommend that carbs be eaten 30 minutes to an hour after vigorous exercise since that's when the body will act like a sponge and absorb the nutrients. Some post-workout snacks may include cooked pasta, rice, English muffin, oatmeal or low-fat yogurt.

The casual health club visitor may not need to follow the post-workout rule as strictly because the body will naturally take in carbs from other meals during the day. But experts say it doesn't hurt to consume a carb-rich snack after workout to get a boost of energy.

Recent research shows that a combination of carbs and protein can also help the body recoup. Protein helps repair muscle damage, but carbs are king when it comes to replenishing carbohydrate stores. Eating too much protein after exercise is not good either because it can slow rehydration.

The general guideline is a carb intake of a half-gram per pound of body weight. So a 150-pound person should eat about 75 grams of carbs, or the equivalent of a cup of cooked pasta.

"That is really going to be the only way that you're going to be able to continue to power your working muscles," said Cindy Moore, a Cleveland-based registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

For those who are weight-conscious and wary about consuming too many carbs, experts say they still should make sure to eat the right food after intense exercise. But they can take steps like limiting carb-rich snacks that are high in simple sugars like cookies and cakes and eat more nutritious carb sources like legumes and whole-grain cereals.

"This isn't going to sabotage weight-loss efforts," Bryant said. "If anything, it will allow you to be more productive in your exercise, which in the long term is going to help you with your weight-loss efforts."

Nancy Clark, nutrition guidebook author and sports nutritionist at a fitness center in Chestnut Hill, Mass., advises that athletes plan their post-workout meal in advance to prevent unhealthy snacking afterward.

Lisa Avellino, a certified personal trainer and aerobics instructor from Scarsdale, N.Y., said most of her clients understand the importance of eating after exercising, many do not know the correct food ratios and combinations to maximize their energy. "When they learn how they can combine certain foods and make subtle changes in their dietary post-workout meal, they get better results," she said.
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