How to spot your secret muscle-building weapon in action.
By Christa Sgobba
Your workout might be over when you step off the bike, but your body’s recovery process is only just beginning. The best time to fuel up on essential nutrients is within 45 minutes to an hour after your sweat session, preferably with a mixture of protein, carbohydrates, electrolytes, and fluids, says sports nutritionist Kelly Jones, M.S., R.D.
The problem? You may not always feel hungry enough after a tough workout to eat solid food, Jones says. That’s where recovery drinks come in: They provide the important nutrients to replenish what your body depleted and repair your muscles—all in a convenient, easily accessible form.
But how do you know your post-workout drink is actually working? Look for these five signs.
1. You’re Not a Couch Potato
After any tough workout, you’re bound to feel fatigued, says Jones. But if you’re so sluggish that you can’t move from the couch or perform the rest of your daily tasks, that means you didn’t consume the right kind of fuel (or the proper amount) after exercising, she explains.
Post-workout fatigue develops not only because you challenged your muscles, but also because your blood sugar levels drop by the time you finish your workout, she says.
That’s why you need to consume both carbs—which help replenish the glycogen stores in your muscles that exercise has depleted—and protein, which helps spark the muscle repair and rebuilding process. If you were to take in just carbs, your blood sugar would spike, leading to an energy boost in the short term, but a crash soon after, Jones says.
So if your recovery drink is working, you’ll feel a little tired after your workout, but you’ll also be ready to bounce back to business as usual within an hour or two.
2. Your Urine Is Clear
Working out can sap your hydration levels, leading to symptoms like dizziness, headache, dry mouth, or even passing out. So recovery drinks are designed to rehydrate, Jones says.
The color of your urine can signal how well you’re hydrated. Pee that is straw-like or lighter in color means your levels are probably fine, but if your urine is darker, it could indicate you’re not drinking enough, says Jones. And if your urine gets to the point where it resembles iced tea, that can mean you’re severely hydrated. The fix: More fluids, stat!
3. You’re Ready to Hit the Gym Again 48 Hours Later
Let’s say you’re running more than you used to, or you’ve recently added more weight to your lifting program. In each case, you’ll probably experience soreness after working out.
Some soreness is perfectly normal—but extreme soreness isn’t. If you can’t walk up or down the stairs without feeling excruciating pain, you’re either pushing yourself too hard during your workout, not fueling properly, or a combination of both.
“With typical workouts, you should be able to wake up the next day, be a little sore, but still be able to go about what you’re doing,” Jones says. And if your post-workout recovery is on target, you should be able to complete the same workout that left you sore within two days, she says.
Protein variety is key to muscle recovery and preventing soreness, says Jones. You want to take in all nine of the essential amino acids, which work together as building blocks to help you repair your muscles. Find a drink with a combination of plant-based protein sources to help you hit that target.
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which are plentiful in chicken, beef, and fish, can also help with muscle recovery. In fact, when people in a U.K. study consumed 10 grams of BCAA twice a day, they reported reduced muscle damage and less soreness.
4. You’re Not Cramping Like Crazy
If you don’t take in enough fluids—and if you skimp on important electrolytes—you might find your muscles cramping after a workout, says Jones. Electrolytes like sodium and potassium are super important, since they help maintain the balance of fluid in and out of your cells. That helps the water go where it belongs in your body, which is necessary for helping your cells function properly.
But it’s not just what you’re taking in after your workout that contributes to cramping. In this case, you want to play the long game, too. That means drinking extra fluids earlier in the day—about 4 hours before your workout—to make sure you’re well hydrated. Shoot for 16 to 24 extra ounces of water a day, Jones recommends.
5. You Don’t Feel Any Hungrier Than Usual
Lots of people don’t feel hungry right after exercising. But in many cases, you can go from 0 to must-eat-all-the-contents-of-the-fridge pretty quickly. “That’s ravenous hunger,” Jones says. “It’s the kind you want to prevent.”
The balance of nutrients in recovery drinks works to curb your hunger, but the true satiety star inside is protein, which keeps you fuller for longer. Find the right drink and you’ll be less likely to overeat later in the day or choose an unhealthy nighttime snack. Both habits can lead to weight gain over time and derail the effects of exercise, says Jones.