We’ve all been there. You’ve done a tough workout, and then an hour or so after you’re starving—like can’t-think-of-anything-else ravenous. But how many calories should we eat after a workout? Did that 5K run really mean you have carte blanche to add a pastry to your coffee order? Or are those extra calories you thought your workout was cancelling out ruining your weight-loss chances?
Of course we’re all different shapes, sizes and ages (good thing too, or how dull would the world be?), and we all have different metabolisms and different goals, so there is no one-size-fits-all answer, but we called on Matt Lo, founder and CEO of FitMiBODY in London, to give us some tips and tricks to ensure we are strategic with our food and calorie intake around our workouts, depending on our personal goals.
Keep scrolling to avoid the post-workout mistake that could be derailing your diet.
First things first: If you beasted it in the gym and want a croissant with your coffee or a dessert after dinner, go for it. But if it becomes a regular occurrence or you’re distractingly starving after your workouts, you may not be fueling your body properly. “FitMiBODY is definitely a believer in the 80-20 rule when it comes to food. Eating healthy and nutritious foods 80% of the time and then allowing yourself to eat your other favourite foods 20% of the time,” says Lo.
If you properly refuel after your workout, you’re less likely to crave that chocolate come 4 p.m. Plenty of our favourite fitness studios now offer post-workout shakes to go, but does downing a 400-calorie beverage nullify the hard work you’ve just done? “No, not necessarily,” explains Lo. “Your body needs refuelling after a hard workout, and a shake or smoothie is a fast and convenient way to put in those vitamins and minerals your body is crying out for.”
Essentially, your post-workout intake should be nutrient dense and well-rounded. “You should look to refuel your body with a healthy balanced meal that includes protein, fats and carbs,” says Lo. “Often it’s not that easy to sit down to a meal after exercising; you may be on the way to work or travelling home on the Tube and need something more convenient and travel-friendly.
“That’s why we have a protein smoothie menu to cater to different tastes and needs. Our Neutral (290 calories) features chia seeds and almond butter, which are good for muscle recovery and repair, whereas our Naughty (430 calories) is chock-full of peanut butter—rich in healthy fats and potassium—and helps keep hunger at bay.”
Of course, just as our bodies are not the same, neither are our workouts. So how do you know what you need after a session? The 290-calorie shake or the 430-calorie one? How many calories can you get away with?!
“It’s not so much about looking at it as ‘getting away’ with calories; [it] should be looked at as what your body needs after your workout. For instance, after a boxing class, the amount of energy you used is very high, so you want to be able to put energy back into your body as quickly as possible, hence the name ‘refuel.’ It’s a good idea to grab a protein smoothie on your way out with a slightly higher calorie and carbohydrate count (carbs are your source of energy) if you won’t be eating a proper meal for over an hour or two. Whereas after an afternoon yoga class, the immediate need is more about staying hydrated.
“Your energy expenditure will be much higher in swimming than, say, a light jog (unless it is a light swim, of course!), so again, you want to ensure you refuel with a higher-calorie meal to make up for levels of glycogen you have used in that session (glycogen is your muscle’s energy stores). This also goes a long way to explaining why sometimes you can feel totally knackered an hour or two after your workout versus feeling great,” explains Lo.
Not Losing Weight? Think Calories In vs. Calories Out
Of course, if you’re looking to reach a certain goal, be it muscle gain or fat loss, you need to look at the bigger picture: calories in versus calories out. And not just daily; you can look at your calorie intake over the course of a week if you want to. “As we mentioned, calorie-counting diets do vary depending on a range of factors such as age, lifestyle, and health goals. Generally speaking, though, if you’re on a mission to lose weight, your rest days may be used as a time to refuel and incorporate a slightly higher calorie intake than your work days, which will be more of a standard calorie-count day,” says Lo. This may seem counterintuitive, but your rest days are a good way to replenish your body; eat way too many calories on a work day and you will cancel out the number of calories burned during that session.
“I would suggest changing up your diet by working out your basal metabolic rate, which is the minimum amount of energy you need to keep your body functioning. Here’s the equation. Once you’ve got your BMR and exercise plan, you can multiply your BMR by the corresponding number and activity to give a recommended daily calorie intake,” explains Lo. As a lot of diets, it’s a bit of trial and error. Eat too much and you’ll put weight on. Eat too little and your body will store any calories, so you sometimes need to tweak the number to find your sweet spot.
“If someone is exercising lots and not noticing any fat loss, this could be a common case of your training plateauing (e.g., if you go and do the same routine every week or go to the same classes where there is no structured planning for progression). It’s the same rules with your diet,” says Lo. “Think about it; you use your body weight to calculate that BMR, so as you lose weight—half a stone, a stone or more—you’ll want to recalculate those numbers, otherwise you may hit a plateau.”
If you’re crazy-hungry, it can be really frustrating and disheartening, we know. “This means your body is crying out for food, as you are not refuelling the energy used!” explains Lo. “If this is the case, then you should consider adding healthy snacks into your diet mid-morning (around 10:30 a.m.) and mid-afternoon (around 4 p.m). This will keep your energy levels constant throughout the day.”