Eating the appropriate foods both before and after a workout can help maximize your performance and your fitness results. When it comes to what to eat after a workout, the goal is less about fast energy and more about the best foods to reduce post-workout soreness, build muscle, and prepare your body for the next workout.
Quick tips on post-workout nutrition address two consequences of a good workout: depletion of the glycogen energy stores in your muscles and damage done to your muscle proteins. The right combination of protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats helps to speed up glycogen replenishment and repair your muscles. Carbs are more useful after endurance activities like cycling or running, while protein is most beneficial following strength training. For more of the nuances between workout types and the timing of post-workout snacks and meals, read on.
What to Eat After a Workout: The Best Foods for Workout Recovery
As important as your pre-workout meal is to prevent fatigue and make sure you’re getting the most out of your fitness time, your post-workout meal is equally as important, but in slightly different aspects. It’s like the difference between breathing out and breathing in, you can’t have one without the other. When recovering from intense physical activity, eating the right foods can help you recover, decrease muscle protein breakdown, increase muscle protein synthesis (the growth of new muscle), and replenish your glycogen stores so you’ll have fuel ready to go for next time. Here are the food groups to focus on.
Protein for Muscle Repair and Muscle Building
Because exercise triggers muscle protein breakdown, your post-workout meal needs to provide enough protein for repair and for the new muscle growth you’re working toward. This is as true for beginners as it is for well-trained athletes. The repair and replace mechanisms are at work in our muscles no matter what level of fitness we’re operating at.
We need protein to provide us with all nine essential amino acids, compounds we cannot create independently in our bodies and yet require because they are the building blocks of new muscle tissue. This is why many bodybuilders and fitness trainers consume protein shakes to make sure they get enough high-quality protein.
It’s recommended to ingest between 0.14–0.23 grams of protein per each pound of body weight immediately after a workout, because studies have shown that consuming 20–40 grams of protein maximizes the body’s post-exercise recovery.
You can get quality protein from the following sources.hi
- Greek yogurt
- Cottage cheese
- Chicken or turkey
- Protein bar
- Animal- or plant-based protein shake
- Chocolate milk
- Peanut butter
If you do choose a protein shake or amino acid supplement to enhance your workout, be sure to look through the ingredients list to make sure you’re getting a comprehensive amino acid profile, because you need all nine essential amino acids (EAAs) in the right balance to build new muscle.
Carbohydrates for Energy Restoration
Your body’s glycogen stores are consumed during exercise, and eating the right carbs after a rigorous workout can help replenish your supply quickly. How many carbs you need depends first on what type of workout you’re utilizing—endurance sports like swimming or running tend to use more glycogen than resistance training for example—and your body’s makeup.
It’s recommended you consume between 0.5–0.7 grams of carbs per pound of body weight within the first 30 minutes after your training to support glycogen synthesis.
Quick, healthy sources of carbs include the following.
- Dark, leafy green vegetables
- Whole grain crackers, bread, or cereal
- Rice or rice cakes
- Chia seed pudding
- Sweet potatoes
- Whole fruits (apples, berries, bananas, etc.)
It’s also recommended that you consume carbs alongside protein, as insulin secretion (which promotes glycogen synthesis) is stimulated better when protein and carbs are consumed together. Try for a ratio of 3:1 for carbs to protein, so for example 120 grams of carbs does best with 40 grams of protein by its side. Especially for those who exercise as often as twice a day (nice!), it’s important to rebuild your glycogen stores as soon as possible.
Healthy Fats for Weight Loss
You’d think that more fat in your body means more fat on your body, but that depends on what kind of fat you’re taking in. The way your body utilizes healthy fats can actually work in your favor when combined in balance with other foods.
One study found that whole milk was even more effective at promoting post-workout muscle growth than skim milk, and another found that a high-fat meal after a workout did nothing to hinder muscle glycogen synthesis. That means that healthy fats won’t hurt you and may very well help your post-exercise recovery, so consider the following tasty additions to your post-workout meal.
- Nut butters
- Olive or coconut oil
- Trail mix (dried fruits and nuts)
Diets with healthy fats, such as the Mediterranean diet, can actually help burn fat from your body and reduce dangerous belly fat.
Samples of Post-Workout Meal Combinations
Pairings and combos of the foods listed above can come together to make a full post-exercise meal or snack. Here are a few quick examples of combinations you can choose from to get all the nutrients you need after your workout.
- Pita with hummus (a complementary protein combo)
- Rice crackers with peanut butter spread
- Whole grain toast with almond butter spread
- Cereal with milk (skim, whole, nut, or oat milk)
- Greek yogurt with berries and granola
- Salmon with sweet potato side dish
- Whole grain bread and tuna salad sandwich
- Tuna on crackers
- Oatmeal with whey protein, banana and almonds
- Cottage cheese with fruits
- Protein shake with a banana
- Quinoa bowl with pecans and berries
- Multigrain bread with raw peanuts
- Grilled chicken with roasted vegetables
- Egg omelet with avocado toast
When eating, and also before and after your workout, don’t forget to drink plenty of water. Water before a meal leads to increased feelings of satiety and fullness, and hydration is always needed to maximize your workout results. You lose water and electrolytes during your workout due to the release of sweat, and fluid replacement is important to achieve within 12 hours after your workout (though the sooner the better).
A combination of carbs and protein enhances your post-workout recovery, especially when it falls within the post-exercise anabolic window. Try to get the proper nutrients in you within 45 minutes of working out, because a delay in carb consumption (for example) could lead to as much as 50% reduced rates of glycogen synthesis.
The End Is Only the Beginning
It’s essential to consume the proper amount of carbs and protein after you work out. It stimulates muscle protein synthesis, improves your recovery, and replenishes your energy stores for your next workout. If 45 minutes is too much of a time-crunch after your workout to get in a full meal, be sure to go no longer than 2 hours, as this is the ideal window for restoring your supplies.
Think about fast and healthy post-workout snacks you can utilize (trail mix can follow you just about anywhere), and try not to rely too heavily on commercially produced snack bars unless you have investigated the brand to ensure they aren’t full of added sugars. Same with protein powders—they can be wonderful boosts if you’re short on time after your workout, so long as you check the ingredients in your protein or meal replacement shakes to make sure you’re getting all that you need.
Just because you’re done with your workout doesn’t mean your body is done working; in fact, the opposite is true. The more muscle you build, the more calories you burn even at rest, so when you plan your workout schedule, plan to replenish your body as soon as possible too, because when you work out for the sake of your body, your body then starts working for you.