Fast-acting carbohydrates, also called simple carbohydrates, are easy to digest and supply you with a lot of energy very quickly. Simple carbs consist of disaccharides and monosaccharides -- the smallest units of sugar -- and are mostly found in refined grain products, fruits and dairy. During high-intensity exercise, you use up the storage of glycogen in your muscles. This glycogen is used for energy and if it isn’t replenished with fast-acting carbohydrates soon after a workout, your workouts in the coming days might suffer. Fast-acting carbohydrates get a bad name because they are associated with candy and soda, but higher quality ones can help enhance athletic performance and muscle recovery.
Endurance coach Chris Carmichael recommends consuming about 0.75 grams of simple carbohydrates per pound of body weight within 15 to 30 minutes post-workout and every two hours for the next four to six hours. This means a 150-pound woman would benefit from about 112 grams of carbs immediately after exercise and another 112 to 224 grams over the next several hours. You need fast-acting carbohydrates after intense strength workouts too. A study in the February 2003 issue of the “Journal of Strength Conditioning Research” notes that consuming carbohydrates after a strength-training workout expedites recovery, possibly allowing for greater training volume.
Fruits offer multiple vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Not all fruits offer ample carbohydrates per serving, so your best choices, according to Carmichael, are bananas, raisins, pears, grapes, watermelon and blueberries. One banana provides 30 grams of carbohydrates, 1/4 cup of raisins provides 33 grams and one pear has 25 grams. One and a half cups of grapes, 2 cups of watermelon and 1 cup of blueberries each contain about 22 grams of carbohydrates. Fruit can help quench your thirst post-workout and digests relatively easily. You may need to have several pieces of fruit to fulfill your post-workout needs – or have one along with a plain or cinnamon-raisin bagel, each of which contains about 50 grams of carbohydrates per 4-inch bagel.
Potatoes, Pasta and White Rice
Both sweet and white potatoes are a quality source of fast-acting carbohydrates. A cup of baked white potato contains 51 grams of carbs, and a cup of baked sweet potato contains 48 grams. Along with the carbohydrates, each offers essential B vitamins, vitamin C and, in the sweet potato, ample amounts of vitamin A. White pasta is an easy-to-prepare source of quick-acting carbohydrates. You can pack cooked pasta in a cooler to have post-race or workout; 1 cup provides 43 grams of carbs. White rice, especially short-grain, is also easily digested and provides 45 grams of quick-acting carbs per cup.
Eating solid food after a workout can be difficult. You may find it easier to tolerate fast-acting carbohydrates in the form of a liquid, such as sports drinks or smoothies. Specially formulated sports drinks contain glucose, a fast-acting carbohydrate, along with electrolytes, which are minerals needed for proper muscle contraction and energy. Sports drinks are especially valuable after endurance workouts, such as long runs or rides, lasting longer than 90 minutes. Smoothies are another way to get your post-workout fast-acting carbohydrates in an easy-to-tolerate way. Blend together fruit, 100 percent juice and protein powder. Adding 15 to 25 grams of protein to your carbohydrates post-workout helps with muscle repair and growth. Smoothies are appropriate after a strength-training or aerobic endurance workout. Liquid carbohydrates post-workout also help with rehydration, which is important for athletic performance.
A study in the 2009 issue of the “Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition” found that cereal with nonfat milk helps muscle recovery as much as a sports drink. Fast-acting carbohydrate cereals include crisped rice, rice flakes and corn flakes. Participants in the study consumed a 100 percent whole-grain cereal with milk. The carbohydrates in the cereal help refill glycogen stores while the protein in the milk facilitates muscle recovery – making the snack especially helpful after a run or bike ride, for which the recommended post-workout snack contains a three-to-one or four-to-one carbohydrate to protein ratio. Carmichael agrees that cereal makes a satisfying post-workout carb-rich meal, but warns against choosing sugary versions that contain sugar “berries” or marshmallows.
- Colorado State University Extension: Nutrition for the Athlete
- Journal of Strength Conditioning Research: Carbohydrate Supplementation and Resistance Training
- MedlinePlus: Simple Carbohydrates
- Diabetes Self Management: Fast-Acting Carbohydrates
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: Cereal and Nonfat Milk Support Muscle Recovery Following Exercise
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: Nutrient Database
- Food for Fitness; Chris Carmichael
- Running Times: Post Run Recovery Starts with Protein
- BodyBuilding.com: Post Workout Carbs
Andrea Cespedes is a professionally trained chef who has focused studies in nutrition. With more than 20 years of experience in the fitness industry, she coaches cycling and running and teaches Pilates and yoga. She is an American Council on Exercise-certified personal trainer, RYT-200 and has degrees from Princeton and Columbia University.