When and How to Refuel for a Workout

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Photo by Haley Read

“You have to earn your carbs!” In the strength (weightlifting, bodybuilding) and nutrition worlds, this saying is well known. Coined by arguably the best strength coach in the world, Charles Poliquin (he has coached numerous Olympic medalists in different sports), the idea shouldn’t be scoffed at. You may have heard this on The Tim Ferriss podcast.

Of course bodybuilding and running require different nutrition plans, but the general premise that you don’t need to constantly be carb-loading is valuable.

During a Run or Gym Workout

You don’t need to ingest calories for anything shorter than two hours. You can make it. I promise. Most research agrees that you can run for two hours at marathon intensity before you run out of glycogen. Glycogen depletion can result in a bonk (a severe drop in energy), before your body switches over to burning fat.

That said, on a hard-effort, race-pace practice run for a marathon or ultramarathon, taking a gel or chew at 75-minutes into a two hour run, or drinking a nutrition drink mix like Skratch with water, will help prevent a bonk.

But for your 45-minute jog? No calories necessary! Forty-five minutes is also too short to require immediate refueling after your run. That’s right, your 20-minute jog around the block doesn’t justify a sugar-laden Gatorade.

Post-Workout Nutrition

The timing of your post-workout food-intake is almost as important as the calories consumed. But this doesn’t mean eat a meal after a 30-minute run!

It’s agreed upon that if you workout hard or run for over an hour, then you should refuel with a mixture of carbs and protein within 30 minutes of your workout. If you’re super green to running, a 45-minute run could be enough to justify this time-sensitive post-exercise refuel. But again, be honest with yourself: Was it a legitimately hard and/or long effort for you?

Check out these easy refuels for your critical 30-minute post-run window, inspired by Runner’s Connect:

  • a banana or an apple + a few spoonfuls of peanut butter
  • a fried egg+ bowl of colorful veggies
  • granola with salad or granola with almond milk
  • a fruit-rich smoothie or 1/2 cup plain yogurt + whole fruit

Another important aspect to post-workout recovery is the second refuel that should happen within 3 hours of your hour-plus run or workout. To simplify the vast research studies, just make this second refuel a meal. Only if you’re nowhere close to accessing a healthy meal, then have another snack like the ones mentioned above. But ideally, you time this second refuel with brunch, lunch, or dinner.

The key for refueling is not eating after super easy, short efforts. You don’t need it. And for longer, honest efforts, eat immediately. Earn your carbs. And when you do earn your carbs, eat then immediately!

When do you normally eat after a workout? Do you ever run or workout longer than two-hours? What’s your go-to post-run snack?