Just because your workout is over doesn't mean your body stops working. The worst thing you can do after a grueling sweat sesh is to skip out on replenishing your body (which includes hydrating, of course). In fact, if you don't refuel within 30 minutes of finishing your workout, it basically didn't count. This final step is just as important as exercise in the first place — but getting the most out of it requires proper nourishing.
According to Michael Olzinski, MSc, Equinox and Lululemon run coach, achieving the results you're looking for becomes even more difficult when your body isn't replenished after a workout. Remember that your body doesn't change during the actual workout itself; progress is made in response to the workout.
So, what happens if you miss that window?
"The further you get away from that 30-minute fueling window, the less receptive your muscle cells will be to uptake the proper carbohydrates and proteins to repair and refuel your body," Michael told POPSUGAR. "There is a period of time after you deplete your carbohydrate storage and damage muscle fibers where those cells are wide open and extremely receptive to take on those nutrients."
Additionally, your body will follow its general response to high levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), causing your immune system to fire off an inflammation response. This prevents your glycogen storage from being restored and hinders the anabolic (or muscle-building) process.
"If you are constantly missing the fueling window, you are living in a state of constant stress and inflammation," Michael said. "When you don't have the proper recovery nutrition, your body likes to convert energy into fat stores to prepare for the next time you are overworked and malnourished." That's right — not eating after your workout can have the opposite effect as what you were trying to achieve from exercise by making you weaker and increasing your stored fat.
What are the best ways to refuel?
Michael recommends opting for a post-workout smoothie with a 3:1 (carb to protein) ratio in grams. An important thing to remember is that the easier your post-workout fuel is to digest, the more effective it is. Try avoiding meat or heavy proteins because it can take longer to digest and hit your system. Protein bars are acceptable as long as they're easily digestible and you're drinking a bottle of water with electrolytes to supplement it. A few of Michael's go-tos include a small nut butter and jelly sandwich, a Greek yogurt with honey, or chocolate milk (seriously!). Regardless of what your choice of protein is, something is always better than nothing!