You’ve done it: you’ve started working out. But after seeing your new peers at the gym toting various shakes, bottles, and blends, you may have started asking yourself, "What beverage should I drink after exercising?" Water? A sports drink? A cold beer? Some viscous protein sludge?
Here's what you need to know.
If you’re an average Joe...
There’s no one-drink-fits-all answer. "If you’re an ordinary exerciser, say, 30 minutes a day, water is fine," says Nancy Clark, a sports nutritionist who’s worked with members of the Boston Red Sox and Boston Celtics. Clark says that with moderate exercise, you’re answering the thirst call; the body hasn’t really been depleted of nutrients, so recovery is not an issue.
Basically, if you’re not a serious exerciser, you don’t need to take your post-workout drink too seriously, either. Which is great news! "You can even come back from a run and drink coffee, because it’s mostly water," says Clark.
If you want to be a runner...
Let’s say that, for some reason, you’ve decided to try running a marathon. Once you kick up your workout routine -- we’re talking two hours or more of intense exercise -- Clark has a different approach. "At this level of exertion, really anything beyond one and a half hours, a sports drink is a good choice, because you’re replenishing both water and nutrients."
Jacque Crockford, an exercise physiologist and education specialist with the American Council on Exercise (ACE), agrees, noting that the 90- to 120-minute mark signals a need for replacement of electrolytes and carbohydrates, both of which you can find in sports drinks. The electrolytes will replenish sodium loss, while carbohydrates are meant to refuel.
Crockford also recommends reaching for a handful of mixed nuts or pretzels or salty pickles for sodium replacement. Additionally, you should be refueling during the workout, not just afterwards.
If you’re trying to lose weight...
Clark cautions that those commercials featuring badass professional athletes doing badass professional athlete things have succeeded in convincing people they need a sports drink after any type of exercise. This is simply untrue, particularly if you’re working out to lose weight. These drinks are loaded with calories, and "electrolytes" is just a spiffed-up word for nutrients such as potassium and sodium, which are much better ingested through food.
She advocates a meal-as-drink, pointing out that we get most of our fluids through food. So don’t shy away from eating a healthy meal after you work out: a bowl of steaming oatmeal or cool yogurt will help rehydrate you, and restore depleted electrolytes.
If you’re trying to get jacked...
Going for the Arnold physique? A drink containing carbohydrates and protein will maximize your efforts to build muscle. According to Megan Mangano, a Los Angeles-based sports dietitian who advises the Los Angeles Clippers, intensive weight training (or any hardcore workout, including aerobic activity, lasting more than an hour) warrants downing a recovery protein drink, such as a smoothie containing yogurt and fruit.
What you’re looking for is a carb-to-protein ratio of 2:1 or 3:1. If you don’t happen to have those ingredients and a blender on hand, Mangano recommends a high-quality protein powder, or even a ready-to-drink shake. Just choose products that are manufactured by reputable companies and contain as few ingredients as possible; since the supplement industry doesn’t face much government regulation, some suppliers will load their products with fillers that do nothing for you at best.
If you’d rather drink a beer...
A beer helps you "recover," right? ACE’s Crockford adheres to a "just say no" philosophy. "Alcohol consumption can interfere with muscle recovery from exercise and negatively affect a variety of performance variables." Well, that’s not what we were hoping for. How about a second opinion?
Fortunately, nutritionist Clark isn’t quite the party pooper. "Sure, it’s OK," says Clark, "because you’re still getting water, but just stick with one and done. Enjoy the high from the run, not from the beer!" Well, do the best you can, at least.
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Alison Shore is a freelance writer who’s probably sticking to water (and beer).