What To Eat After A Workout: Post-Exercise Meals

What To Eat After A Workout: Post-Exercise Meals

Whether you went running, cycling, swam laps or lifted weights, finishing up your exercise session isn’t the end of the challenge. Knowing what to eat after your workout can play a pivotal role in helping your body refuel, rehydrate and recover from exercise, as well as help your muscles rebuild.

“You don’t need to eat a ton after your workout, but it’s a mistake to avoid eating,” says Leslie Bonci, a registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Active Eating Advice in Pittsburgh. “You want to think about fueling up while you’re cooling down—that’s the purpose of a post-exercise snack.”

Why It’s Important to Eat After a Workout

For starters, you need to replenish the carbohydrates and glycogen (the glucose stored in your muscles) you just depleted during your workout, says Tara Collingwood, a registered dietitian nutritionist and sports dietitian in Orlando, Florida.

You’ll want to consume high-quality protein afterward as well to build and repair muscle tissue that was broken down during your workout and stimulate muscle protein synthesis, which is essential for muscle recovery and adaptation to exercise. During exercise—strength training, in particular—your muscles experience micro-tears. Eating protein can help rebuild and repair those damaged muscle fibers.

It’s also important to replace the fluids lost from sweating and breathing hard, as well as consume foods that are rich in antioxidants to protect your cells from exercise-induced damage, Collingwood adds.

On the other hand, skipping a post-workout snack can increase your level of fatigue and inhibit your body’s repair and recovery processes. It can also decrease your performance the next time you exercise, says Bonci.

What to Eat After a Workout

The cornerstone of post-workout nutrition is a careful combination of protein, carbohydrates and fluids. The basic recommendation is to consume 10 to 20 grams of protein after a workout, depending on your body weight, says Bonci. And depending on the type of exercise you completed, adjust your ratio of carbohydrates to protein, she adds.

For instance, after a strength-training workout, aim for a 2-to-1 ratio of carbs to protein (meaning 20 to 40 grams of carbs and 10 to 20 grams of protein). If you completed an endurance (aerobic) workout like jogging, the ratio shifts to 3-to-1 (with 30 to 60 grams of carbs and 10 to 20 grams of protein), says Bonci.

Another key component to keep in mind when fueling up post-workout: the intensity and duration of the exercise you just completed.

“Recreational exercisers who train two to three times a week for 30 to 45 minutes can easily recover by having their usual balanced meal that contains carbs (to refuel) and protein (to build and repair muscle), such as oatmeal and eggs, yogurt and granola, a sandwich and milk, or chicken and rice,” says Nina Kolbe, a registered dietitian and Forbes Health Advisory Board member.

Meanwhile, those who spend 60 to 70 minutes working out at a higher intensity might benefit from a 200-calorie snack consisting of carbs and protein. And more serious athletes (think someone who trains for up to 4 hours a day) should refuel rapidly, aiming for a much higher-calorie, carbohydrate- and protein-based snack, says Kolbe.

It’s also a mistake to rely on your intuition alone, as research suggests people don’t always make optimal choices for healthy snacks after exercising. In a 2018 study in Nutrients, researchers presented gym-goers with the choice of a snack to be consumed after they completed their workouts. The participants were randomly chosen to make the choice before or after the workout—and the timing made a difference. Participants were 26% less likely to choose an apple after the workout, and 45% more likely to choose a brownie, than if they’d picked snacks before the workout. The study’s findings underscore that planning ahead is key.

Some good choices for a post-workout nosh that check all the important boxes include:

  • Chocolate milk. “Chocolate milk has everything you need after a workout—carbs, protein, fluids and electrolytes,” says Collingwood. In fact, consuming milk after exercise enhances muscle protein synthesis and rehydration, replenishes glycogen stores and eases post-exercise muscle soreness, according to a review of scientific research in a 2019 issue of the European Journal of Sport Science.
  • Eggs and whole-grain toast. Whether they’re hardboiled, scrambled, poached or in a vegetable omelet, eggs are a stellar source of protein (with an average of nearly 11 grams of protein for a large one). Meanwhile, toast provides high-quality carbs.
  • A smoothie (made with whey protein powder, coconut water, fruit and vegetables). The fruit and veggies contain antioxidants that protect cells from exercise-induced damage, and the protein helps with muscle repair, says Collingwood. Whey protein, in particular, significantly reduces post-exercise blood levels for biomarkers of muscle damage due to strength training, according to a 2020 study in Nutrients.
  • Dried fruit and nuts with a serving of tart cherry juice. The fruit and nuts provide carbs, protein and healthy fats, and the cherry juice may help with post-exercise muscle soreness, says Bonci. In fact, research has found that consuming Montmorency cherry juice, which contains phytochemicals with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, improves the recovery of muscular strength after intensive strength-training exercise.
  • Yogurt, berries and a sprinkling of granola. The combination of yogurt, which is high in protein, and berries, which contain carbs and antioxidants, replenishes your muscles’ glycogen stores and assists with muscle recovery, says Collingwood. The granola adds crunch and flavor.

What to Avoid Eating After a Workout

Rule No. 1: “Avoid pure protein right after the workout, because your body will just use it as energy again,” says Collingwood. Also, steer clear of foods that are mostly sugar (cookies, candy and the like) or mostly fat like a handful of nuts (without yogurt or fruit to balance the fat) or fried foods. These choices won’t help replenish your muscles the way you need, and the high fat or sugar content could disagree with your gut. The right balance of carbs, protein and fluids really is essential for post-workout recovery, says Bonci.

When Should You Eat After a Workout?

The first 30 to 45 minutes after a workout is the optimal window for using nutrition to help your body recover from physical exertion. “The enzymes that help with the muscle resynthesis process and glycogen replenishment are most active right after exercise,” says Bonci. If you don’t feel like eating much right after a workout, don’t sweat it: Simply have a light snack or a serving of chocolate milk.

Eating a larger meal a few hours after your workout also helps your body recover. Two hours after a workout, up the ante by having a more substantial meal, such as:

  •  A vegetable-and-cheese omelet with whole wheat toast.
  •  A turkey sandwich with tomato and avocado slices.
  •  A whole-grain bagel topped with nut butter and sliced banana.
  •  A whole-wheat pita stuffed with raw or grilled vegetables and hummus.
  • A stir-fry with vegetables and shrimp, tofu or chicken slices, served on brown rice or quinoa.

For the sake of muscle recovery and replenishing glycogen stores, it’s best to create a meal that consists of one-third fruits and vegetables, one-third protein, one-third complex carbohydrates (such as whole wheat bread, brown rice or quinoa) and a little fat for good measure, says Bonci. This blend of macronutrients is optimal for post-exercise recovery.

Don’t forget about replacing fluids as well, says Bonci. “For every pound you lose through sweating and exertion, have 20 to 24 ounces of fluid in the hours after exercising,” she advises (weighing yourself naked before and after your workout can help you determine how much you’ve lost). For rehydration, water is your best bet unless you exercised for an extended period of time or in high heat, in which case you may want to consume electrolytes in a sports drink or coconut water.

This post-workout nutrition plan is generally sound, but it’s wise to stay open to tweaking it so that it works best for you. People have different responses to exercise and different needs for recovery, which means it’s important to be somewhat flexible in finding a refueling protocol that suits you. With a bit of personalization, you can ensure optimal recovery and be ready for your next workout in no time.

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