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Topping Off: Post-Workout Refueling

Last month, we discussed gassing-up or pre-workout fueling. This month, we are going to look at topping-off or post-workout/incident refueling. Just like gassing-up, topping-off has two parts. However, it is straightforward and, with a little planning, is not complex. The first part should be accomplished within 30-60 minutes post-workout/incident and the second part about two hours post-workout/incident.

Following strength, endurance, and/or cross-fit/functional training, your muscles are depleted of glycogen (sugar), protein breakdown is increased, and your muscle/protein balance is negative. Being tired, sore, and/or noticing a decrease in your performance are often the first indicators that your post-workout/incident refueling plan is inadequate. I said inadequate, not wrong. Remember, as your training changes in intensity or duration, or you start training more than one session per day, you need to re-evaluate and re-adjust how you are topping-off.

The first part of your refueling plan should occur 30-60 minutes after your workout/incident. This is when your muscles are primed for taking in glycogen/glucose and protein. Emerging research suggests that the first 30 minutes following a workout may actually be the time the muscles are at their peak for taking in nutrients.

The following is a starting point and should be adjusted based on the length of your workout/incident, type of training, and intensity. Begin with 20-40 grams of protein, preferably whey (fast-acting), to help begin repairing damaged muscles. Add 40-60 grams of carbohydrates (high-glycemic/fast-acting) to rapidly reload depleted glycogen/glucose stores. This can also be accomplished with Gatorade/Powerade, Kool-Aid, or a dextrose supplement. There are many combination drinks and powders on the market, with Gatorade’s G series Recover being the most recent entry into the market. Recent research suggests that chocolate milk has the correct protein-to-carbohydrate ratio and the composition of the sugars may make it the optimum recovery drink that is readily available and inexpensive.

About two hours post-workout/incident is time for the second phase, which is consuming real food. Supplements are great and have their place, but the macronutrients and composition of real food is often overlooked and underestimated. Once again, we want to consume 20-30 grams of protein, ideally, low-fat, so chicken, turkey, eggs, or fish is ideal. Red meat has its place, as does tofu and other protein sources, depending on your preference or lifestyle. Carbohydrates in the range of 30-60 grams of a low-glycemic (slow-digesting) type, such as brown rice, potatoes, or oatmeal, should be consumed. This not only continues to refuel your muscles, but also gives you a steady stream of energy that the first phase does not.

Remember, the above is a starting point. It should be adjusted based on the type, length, intensity, and number of (if more than one per day) workouts/incidents. Also, many various food combinations can be used to accomplish your topping-off in part one, as well as in part two.

Next month, we’ll look at surviving “The Food Carnival: Eating Through the Holidays.”

SCOTT TOMEK MA, EMT-P has been a paramedic for 25 years with 23 of those at Lakeview Hospital EMS in Stillwater, MN. He is a faculty member with the Century College Paramedic Program and wrote the curriculum for and served as the interim director of their public safety degree program. He is a frequent contributor to EMS World Magazine, a frequent presenter at EMS conferences in the Midwest and an educational consultant to fire and EMS services. View all of Scott's artices and podcasts hereHe can be reached at