After a workout—when your heart is racing and legs are like Jell-o—chances are you feel one of two things: Either you’re so hungry that you start fantasizing about what’s at home in your fridge, or the thought of food makes you want to puke. Regardless of which way you tend to lean, your body needs some recovery nutrients—fast. And yes, that goes for whether you just took a barre class, bootcamp, or went for a run.
You probably already know that getting the right nutrition is essential for maximizing your workout—you just can’t have one without the other. But when it comes to when and what exactly to eat, there is a lot of mixed information. Should you go for protein or recover with a carb-heavy plate of spaghetti? How long should you wait before refueling?
The answer to the latter is 30 minutes, according to Jennifer Sacheck, PhD, who’s spent a lot of time researching proper pre- and post- workout fueling. Not only does she have a doctorate in nutritional science, but she also has a master’s in exercise science…and she’s on the advisory board of Revere, a plant-based nutrition subscription program that mails you personalized on-the-go powder blends depending on your fitness habits. So, why *exactly* does she say a half hour is the crucial window for eating post sweat sesh?
Here, Dr. Sacheck explains what happens to your body after a workout that makes 30 minutes a crucial window for eating—plus, what you need to eat to optimize your recovery.
Your muscles are primed for growth—or decay
“Your muscle is made of protein that is constantly breaking down and replenishing,” Dr. Sacheck says, adding that it’s a process called “protein turnover.” Most of the time, the body is pretty balanced so you’re not going to notice much of a change. But here’s where your workout comes in: Your muscles will either be built up stronger than they were before or they’ll get damaged.
“Muscles are constantly breaking down the protein into amino acid and then resynthesizing that muscle for either a growth or atrophy phase,” Dr. Sacheck explains. “The key after exercise is to maintain that stimulus that might be damaging. There’s a huge stimulus for growth because you know you can get stronger, but that breakdown is also happening. And this is where nutrition can really boost you over the decay phase.”
In other words: You just stimulated your muscles, which is leading to muscle breakdown. The question of how well your muscles are going to recover has a lot to do with what you’re about to eat. “Even if you’re doing Pilates or another workout where you aren’t trying to gain muscle growth, muscle health is still important,” Dr. Sacheck says.
There’s a critical window where your muscles are primed for recovery
Dr. Sacheck says the 30 minutes after you workout is crucial for getting some nutrients in your body to help your muscles recover stronger—yes, even if you don’t have an appetite. “Your muscles have receptors that act like little Pac-man types,” she explains. “They suck up the nutrients very quickly to replenish what was lost. If you wait longer than 30 minutes, they are less primed to pick up whatever you eat. That’s why it’s a really critical window.”
This doesn’t mean you have to make sure your boutique fitness class is located right next door to your fave fast-casual restaurant so you can eat ASAP after every workout. “Even getting 200 calories is going to be enough to help with the resynthesis. Then you can go home and have a nice healthy meal,” Dr. Sacheck says.
Of course this raises an essential question: What exactly should you eat in those critical 30 minutes and then later when you sit down to have a legit meal?
What to eat after a workout
Now the big question: Should you go for protein or carbs after a workout? According to Dr. Sacheck, the answer is both—but more protein than carbs, or at most a 50/50 split, depending on the type of workout you’re doing. “If it’s an aerobic workout, you’re really blowing through the carbs in your muscle, but if you’re doing strength training, you’ll want more protein to build up the muscle again.” Still, she emphasizes that both are important.
When it comes to carbs, she says it’s important to go for high-quality ones with a robust nutritional profile—AKA not a bagel. “Sweet potatoes are a good choice because of the nutrient-density and high carbohydrate quality, whole grain toast with peanut butter and banana is also good, or yogurt with nuts and fruit.” The key is having something you can stash in your gym bag—like a nutrition bar, peanut butter sandwich, or smoothie powder (some of the Revere ones are made with sweet potato). Otherwise, that recovery window is going to, well, close.
When mealtime rolls around—whether it’s breakfast or dinner—Dr. Sacheck says protein and carbs should again play a starring role, along with veggies. “A lean meat or tofu, rice, and veggies would be a great meal to have,” she says, adding that if you work out every day, refueling both immediately after you work out and at mealtime is especially important because it can take the body longer than 24 hours to recover.
After killing your workout, your body deserves to be shown some love. That way, it’ll be ready to do it all over again.