Whenever I finish a dance or yoga class, my friends begin talking about what they're going to eat as soon as they leave the studio. For years, this was certainly part of my post-workout ritual, and I thought this was what was supposed to happen to help the body recover from the hard work it just went through. You sweat it out during a cardio session, you eat something right after, and you see big results, right? Not necessarily.
In comparison to a strength-training workout where the muscles are broken down and depleted of the carbohydrate glycogen, cardio burns calories by raising the heart rate. You might feel strong and energized after your indoor-cycling class or treadmill run, but if you only completed a 30- or 45-minute workout, there's no rush to eat, since relatively speaking, the fuel you burned is low. According to LA-based dietician Shira Lenchewski, MS, RD, "There's no hard-and-fast rule that says you need to refuel after a short cardio session with anything other than water."
Keep in mind that the above rule doesn't apply when it comes to a longer or more intense cardio session — the more intensely you move, the more energy you use, and as a result, it becomes more important to refuel. When you're training for a race and logging a lot of miles, do your best to eat 200 to 300 calories within 30 minutes of your workout. If you're into kicking your butt with HIIT, intense sprints at the track, or kickboxing, nutritionists agree: you need to refuel and recover with a combination of protein and carbs. Clinical and holistic dietitian Esther Blum recommends a protein smoothie that includes a highly absorbable carb like banana or mango because it "shuts down your cortisol levels and stress hormones and raises your growth hormone levels to help you build muscle mass."
Of course, if you're hungry after your workout, listen to your body, but be smart about what you eat: a protein smoothie is very different from face-planting into a pizza. To help combat post-workout hunger after moderate workouts, women's strength-training expert and author of Lift to Get Lean Holly Perkins recommends making sure you have a nutritious meal two to three hours prior to your workout or enjoy a light pre-workout snack 30 to 60 minutes beforehand. When you fuel your body appropriately, you'll be less tempted to grab the first thing staring you in the face when you walk out of the studio door!