The Big Mistake You Make When Eating After A Workout

Maybe you own a "Will Run for Cupcakes" t-shirt... maybe you actually run in one. Life is too short to live on grilled chicken and broccoli alone, after all, and when you're burning through hundreds of calories on the trail, tread, or gym, enjoying some guilt-free indulgence seems like a fair reward. The Twitter hashtag #postruntreat has been overtaken by an indulgent parade of ice cream cones, baked goods, candy bars, and beer — by the bottle, pint, and flight. After running a 10K in just 46 minutes, slicing a full minute off of his personal best, one runner shared a pic of his blueberry muffin reward: "Looking forward to eating this," @bigtacfb tweeted. But might muffins ultimately slow runners down?

If one of the reasons why you exercise is to lose weight, be warned. Experts say a single indulgent post-workout binge can undo the hard work you did at the gym — and there's an unhealthy trend of using fitness as a strategy to justify foods you might have otherwise skipped (via VeryWellFit). "When you consistently consume a 500-calorie smoothie after you finish up at the gym, you start to get into that habit of consuming a smoothie no matter how long or intense your exercise was," Emily Brown, a registered dietitian at the Mayo Clinic, told Time.

You might not be burning off as many calories as you think you are

Part of the problem with a post-workout treat is actually a simple math calculation of calories in, calories out. After an exhausting kickboxing class that left you sweating, panting, and sore, surely you should be able to have a bagel for breakfast and still lose weight, no? But people almost always overestimate their calorie burn, according to a study by the University of Ottawa of 16 normal-weight subjects, who thought they burned three to four times the calories they actually did (Calgary Herald).

If you wear a fitness tracker like a Fitbit, you might feel pretty confident that yes, indeed, you did kick enough calories to the curb to have that bagel; the numbers are staring at you in black and white, after all (or whatever fun color pattern you've chosen for your LED screen.) But these trackers can be off by more than 20 percent, an Iowa State University study found.

"There's a lot of denial about how much exercise burns and how many calories are in something," Deborah Rohm Young, Ph.D, director of behavior research at Kaiser Permanente Southern California, told the American Heart Association. "There's nothing wrong with desserts and chips and other junk food if it's in moderation. It becomes a problem when that type of food becomes the rule rather than the exception."

The best way to refuel after a workout

But what if you're run-gry after a run, and the thought of fluffy pancakes motivated you through every plank and push up? You should then ask yourself if these specific foods are what your body needs. "It's important for weight loss and weight maintenance to get in tune with your body and learn to eat in response to hunger, versus eating in response to boredom, stress, or the idea of rewarding yourself for exercising," Brown explained.

While experts might caution against running for cupcakes, they are also just as clear that not fueling adequately is a really bad idea, too. "We think a lot of overuse injuries happen when people are not replacing essential building blocks as readily as they should," UCLA sports medicine specialist and pediatric orthopedist Jennifer Beck, MD, told SELF. "If you had a very sweaty workout, replacing calcium, salt, and potassium, all part of standard food consumption, is also very important."

So choose your post-workout meal thoughtfully, aiming for 15 to 40 grams of protein within 45 minutes of your sweat session. Eggs, salmon, fruit, yogurt, and seeds and nuts are all good options. "You'll likely reap the most benefits when you nosh on a combination of protein and carbohydrate to replenish those glycogen stores," registered dietitian Rima Kleiner explained to Health. And don't forget to keep chugging that water, not only to re-hydrate, but to keep the "run-ger" away!