Physical activity uses a lot of energy. It is difficult for the body to recover if energy levels are not replenished within 15 to 30 minutes after finishing a workout. Eating even a little snack shortly after exercising can help to restore energy levels.
Choosing the right foods after your workout can help you recover more quickly, build muscle, and get ready for your next workout.
When you work out, your muscles use their glycogen energy stores. Some of the muscle proteins also get damaged, especially during strength workouts.
Vanessa Voltolina, a registered dietitian in the greater New York City area, says “eating the right combination of carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, and minerals helps speed the process of rebuilding the used glycogen stores, as well as repairing muscle proteins.”
People also shouldn’t shy away from including some healthy fats in their diet.
“I think most people are in need of more healthy fats to help take in the fat-soluble vitamins,” said Adam Kelinson, a New York City-based private chef and nutritional consultant for athletes, celebrities, and executives.
What you eat after a workout depends on the duration and intensity of exercise. The type of exercise is also important.
“Higher carbohydrate meals are most beneficial after endurance activities — such as running or cycling — lasting more than an hour,” Voltolina told Healthline. “Following strength training, it’s important to consume protein in combination with moderate carbohydrate.”
Timing also matters, but you have more wiggle room than you might think.
“The ideal timing for consuming a post-workout snack is within 45 minutes,” said Voltolina, “but benefits can be seen up to 2 hours after training.”
Eating after a workout is important
Getting in the right nutrients after exercise can help you rebuild your muscle proteins and glycogen stores. It also helps stimulate new muscle growth.
To understand how the right foods can help you after exercise, it’s important to learn how physical activity affects your body.
When you’re working out, your muscles use up their glycogen — the body’s preferred fuel source especially during high- intensity workouts. This results in your muscles being partially depleted of glycogen. Some of the proteins in your muscles can also be broken down and damaged.
After your workout, your body tries to rebuild its glycogen stores as well as repair and regrow those muscle proteins. Eating the right nutrients soon after you exercise can help your body get this done faster. It’s especially important to eat carbs and protein after your workout.
Doing this helps your body:
- restore glycogen stores
- enhance recovery
- decrease muscle protein breakdown
- increase muscle protein synthesis (growth)
Protein, carbs, and fatEach macronutrient — protein, carbs, and fat — is involved in your body’s post-workout recovery process. That’s why it’s important to have the right mix.
Protein helps repair and build muscle
Exercise triggers the breakdown of muscle protein. The rate at which this happens depends on the exercise and your level of training, but even well-trained athletes experience muscle-protein breakdown.
Consuming an adequate amount of protein after a workout gives your body the amino acids it needs to repair and rebuild these proteins. It also gives you the building blocks required to build new muscle tissue
It’s recommended that you consume 0.14–0.23 grams of protein per pound of body weight (0.3–0.5 grams/kg) very soon after a workout.
However, one study found that eating protein pre-workout and post-workout has a similar effect on muscle strength, hypertrophy, and body composition changes.
Studies have shown that ingesting 20–40 grams of protein seems to maximize the body’s ability to recover after exercise.
Carbs help with recovery
Your body’s glycogen stores are used as fuel during exercise, and consuming carbs after your workout helps replenish them.
The rate at which your glycogen stores are used depends on the activity. For example, endurance sports cause your body to use more glycogen than resistance training. For this reason, if you participate in endurance sports (running, swimming, etc.), you might need to consume more carbs than someone engaging in weightlifting.
Consuming 0.5–0.7 grams of carbs per pound (1.1–1.5 grams/kg) of body weight within 30 minutes after training results in proper glycogen resynthesis.
Furthermore, insulin secretion, which promotes glycogen synthesis, is better stimulated when carbs and protein are consumed at the same time.
Therefore, consuming both carbs and protein after exercise can maximize protein and glycogen synthesis.
Try consuming the two in a ratio of 3 to 1 (carbs to protein). For example, that’s 40 grams of protein and 120 grams of carbs.
Eating plenty of carbs to rebuild glycogen stores is most important for people who exercise often, such as twice in the same day. If you have 1 or 2 days to rest between workouts, this becomes less important.
Fat is not that bad
A post-workout meal with both protein and carbs will enhance glycogen storage and muscle protein synthesis. Consuming a ratio of 3 to 1 (carbs to protein) is a practical way to achieve this.
Many people think that eating fat after a workout slows down digestion and inhibits the absorption of nutrients. While fat might slow down the absorption of your post-workout meal, it will not reduce its benefits. For example, a study showed that whole milk was more effective at promoting muscle growth after a workout than skim milk.
Moreover, another study showed that even when ingesting a high fat meal (45% energy from fat) after working out, muscle glycogen synthesis was not affected.
It might be a good idea to limit the amount of fat you eat after exercise, but having some fat in your post-workout meal will not affect your recovery.
The following are examples of foods and compounds that help the body to absorb nutrients quickly and speed recovery.
According to research published in 2017, as few as 9 grams (g) of milk protein may be enough to stimulate protein synthesis in the muscles, aiding in recovery after exercise.
Other than milk, dairy products rich in protein include:
- Greek yogurt
- ricotta cheese
- cottage cheese
In fact, a 1 cup serving of low-fat kefir contains 9.2 g of high-quality protein. These proteins can repair new cells, especially those in the muscles. These proteins also contain all of the essential amino acids, which are only available through the diet.
In 2007, some researchers found that milk-based proteins are more effective than soy-based proteins at promoting the growth of muscle proteins after resistance exercise.
The researchers concluded that while both milk and soy proteins help a person to maintain and build muscle mass, milk proteins were more effective at supporting the quick growth of lean muscle mass.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Research from the Washington University School of Medicine suggests that supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids helps to boost the synthesis of muscle proteins and increase the size of muscle cells in healthy young and middle-aged adults.
Fatty fish, including salmon, are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Tuna also contains high levels of the fatty acids, and about 6 ounces (oz) of tuna packed in water contains 41.6 g of protein and 5.4 g of fat.
Other evidence shows that oil drawn from fatty fish may help to reduce muscle soreness after resistance training. A study from 2016 found that consuming 6 g of fish oil every day for 1 week before beginning resistance exercise resulted in reduced muscle soreness.
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Results of a study from 2017 suggested that consuming whole eggs after resistance exercise resulted in more protein synthesis than consuming egg whites with the same protein content.
The researchers concluded that the nutrients in the yolk helped to stimulate the muscles more effectively.
Consuming carbohydrate-rich foods may be the best way to reduce the decreases in immunity that can occur after exercise.
Consuming carbohydrates as part of a post-workout snack also helps to promote glycogen storage.
Sweet potatoes, grains, and fruits can contain high levels of healthful carbohydrates, as can quinoa.
Quinoa is gluten-free, classified as a pseudocereal, and usually consumed as a grain. It is high in fiber and rich in protein, with 1 cup providing 8.14 g.
Also, quinoa has a low glycemic index, making it an excellent choice for people who regulate their blood sugar.
The nutrients and chemical compounds in herbal teas, especially yerba mate, may help the body process carbohydrates and protein effectively.
Authors of a study from 2016 compared the effects of yerba mate to water after exercise. The participants who drank yerba mate recovered strength faster in the 24 hours that followed a workout.
In 2012, researchers found that mice administered yerba mate extract were able to metabolize more quickly and expend more energy than those who did not.
It is essential to drink plenty of water before, during, and after a workout. Staying hydrated ensures that the body gets the most benefit from exercise.
The body loses water and electrolytes while sweating, so drinking water during and after a workout promotes performance and recovery.
Everybody varies in the amount of water they need, depending on the type of exercise, how much they sweat, how thirsty they are, as well as other factors.
Sample post-workout meals and snacks
Combinations of the foods listed above can create great meals that provide you with all the nutrients you need after exercise.
Here are a few examples of quick and easy meals to eat after your workout:
- grilled chicken with roasted vegetables and rice
- egg omelet with avocado spread on whole grain toast
- salmon with sweet potato
- tuna salad sandwich on whole grain bread
- tuna and crackers
- oatmeal, whey protein, banana and almonds
- cottage cheese and fruits
- pita and hummus
- rice crackers and peanut butter
- whole grain toast and almond butter
- cereal with dairy or soy milk
- Greek yogurt, berries and granola
- protein shake and banana
- quinoa bowl with sweet potatoes, berries, and pecans
- whole grain crackers with string cheese and fruit
The Bottom Line
Consuming carbohydrates, proteins, and some fats after exercising helps to encourage muscle protein production, and promote recovery with the best results.
Arrange to eat a snack as soon as possible after a workout. Also, remember to replace fluids and electrolytes by drinking water before, during, and after exercise.
Consuming a proper amount of carbs and protein after exercise is essential.
It stimulates muscle protein synthesis, improves recovery and enhances performance during your next workout.
It is important to not go much longer than a few hours before refueling with a meal or snack.
Finally, replenishing lost water and electrolytes can complete the picture and help you maximize the benefits of your workout.