The Best Foods to Eat After a Workout

Working Muscles Need Proper Nutrition

Hard workouts require proper nutrition to fuel and refuel working muscles. In fact, what you eat post-workout is just as important as the food consumed prior to physical exercise. Common questions surrounding post-workout meals are the best foods to eat and how long should you wait? 

Before answering those questions, it's important to understand the importance of food intake to support your workouts and how your body responds to the demands of physical exercise.

During an exercise session, energy stores (glycogen) are depleted, muscle tissue is damaged, and fluids along with electrolytes are lost through sweat. Post-workout nutrients are essential for replenishing muscle glycogen depleted from physical demands. Also, consuming an exercise recovery meal helps stimulate protein synthesis to repair and build new muscle tissue and restore fluid and electrolyte balance.

 

Nutrients and Timing

Making a healthy smoothie on a blender
filadendron / Getty Images

According to research, consuming the right amount of carbohydrates and protein is especially important after a workout. When to eat depends on the type of workout performed according to a few studies. Intense weight resistance workouts with a goal of increasing muscle size, it's suggested to consume 20-30g of lean protein and 30-40g of healthy carbohydrates 30-minutes after training. Lighter aerobic workouts with a goal to stay in shape, it's indicated eating a well-balanced meal with the same ratio up to one hour after exercising. 

There are different theories regarding an anabolic window post-workout that is potentially lost if food isn't consumed within 30-minutes after resistance training. Although it's recommended to eat within an hour after weight training, some research indicates the anabolic window can last up to four hours post-workout. It appears the most important factor to your post-workout meal is not necessarily nutrient timing but just making sure you are eating the right foods for optimal fitness. 

 

Well-Balanced Meals

Essential nutrients are required after a hard workout with carbohydrates and protein being the main focus. Drinking plenty of water and sometimes a sports recovery drink is also necessary for fluid replenishment.

The intensity of the workout can help determine the ratio of carbohydrate to protein in your post-workout meal. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends an endurance athlete consume a 300-400 calorie snack with a 3:1 ratio. This equates to 75-100 grams of carbohydrate to only 6 grams of protein within an hour of exercise completion.

Low to medium intensity workouts are advised to follow a 2:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio consumed within an hour and no longer than two hours after exercise completion. This breakdown equates to approximately 50-75 grams of carbohydrates and 25-50 grams of protein.

Sports nutrition research recommends drinking 2 cups of water for each pound of body weight lost during a workout. Active adults typically don't weigh in after a workout, so a good rule to follow is drinking plenty of fluids during and after physical activity to avoid dehydration.

 

Skipping Post-Workout Meals

Food intake is a key component to athletic success pre and post-workout. Athletes use a range of dietary strategies to improve exercise performance including eating carbohydrates and especially protein following workout programs. They also focus on maintaining proper hydration during and after physical training. 

According to a study on the role of nutrients for post-exercise recovery, without adequate carbohydrates, proteins, and fluids, performance can be impaired. Consuming carbohydrates immediately after exercise has shown to be an excellent strategy to maximize rates of muscle glycogen synthesis (energy restored to muscle cells). Eating additional protein within an hour after exercise is also shown to improve muscle glycogen stores.

Hard workouts leave your muscles starving for fuel. Without adequate nutrients to restore depleted glycogen stores, protein balance is said to remain in a negative state. Skipping meals post workout can contribute to an imbalance or negative physiological environment not conducive to building muscle tissue. The goal is to maintain a positive or net protein balance achieved by eating adequate amounts of macronutrients before, during, and especially after exercise. Improved muscle protein synthesis rates were shown for athletes consuming both carbohydrates and protein immediately following exercise.

 

Post-Workout Meal Tips

The post-workout meal doesn't have to be complicated nor does it require expensive shakes or supplements. The most important part of eating right is planning and preparing your meals. Your body will appreciate a meal ready to go when the workout is done. 

Costly commercial recovery foods like protein powder can be purchased and some people opt for this convenience. However, it's just as easy and more budget-friendly to buy and prepare healthy food.
Great post-workout foods to have on hand may include:

  • Lean proteins
  • Yogurt
  • Quinoa
  • Brown rice
  • Whole grain wraps/tortillas
  • Power greens
  • Nut butter
  • Fruit
  • Chocolate milk

You will have a ready stock of quality whole foods for frequent meals to keep your body fueled after a hard workout.

 

Post-Workout Meal Ideas

Preparing your post-workout food is also part of the fun of maintaining a healthy body and lifestyle. Below is a sampling of meals that can be enjoyed after a great workout:

  • Brown rice and boneless skinless chicken breast - Prepare with your favorite low-sodium spices or salsa for a nutritious recovery meal. This can be done in the crockpot, stovetop, or oven. Some athletes prefer white rice over brown to reduce possible stomach upset. 
  • Power smoothie - Blend your favorite fruit with plain yogurt, almond milk, soy or favorite tolerated dairy, some water, and ice. A great boost of healthy fats can be added with a spoonful of your favorite nut butter. 
  • Egg scramble - Easy one-skillet meals where one whole egg, egg whites, vegetables and sweet potatoes can be tossed with favorite spices and sprinkled with fresh black pepper. 
  • Pass the peanut butter - The all-American favorite sandwich on whole grain sprouted toast is a post-workout pleaser. Leave off the sugared jam and enjoy with a drizzle of local honey. This nutrient-dense meal contains quality plant protein, healthy fat, and high fiber. 
  • Check the leftovers - What you cooked the night before is calling your name and ready to refuel that body. Do you have cooked quinoa ready to go? Toss on salad greens and sprinkle with balsamic for a well-balanced meal.
  • Wrap it up - Whole grain high fiber wraps are a great start to a wonderful recovery meal. Add some fresh avocado, lean meat of your choice, greens, beans or whatever suits the theme of the wrap, roll up and enjoy.

Additional snacks to enjoy recommended by the American Council on Exercise:

  • Non-fat Greek yogurt with ½ cup fruit or banana. 
  • Banana with 1tbsp almond or nut butter.
  • Low-fat chocolate milk
  • 4 ounces of albacore tuna on 1 slice whole grain toast.
  • Whole wheat English muffin or whole wheat pita topped with slice of low sodium turkey meat and hummus.
  • Protein shake with 2 scoops whey protein and ½ banana blended with water.

A Word From Verywell

Finding what healthy foods work best for you post-workout will be through trial and error. Having a nutritional strategy in place will create the success of your food plan post and pre-workout. Eating the right foods to fuel your body after exercise will be the most important part of achieving your goals. Other suggestions are not to skip meals and remember to drink plenty of water. 

 

View Article Sources