This Is What You Should Eat After a Workout for Optimal Recovery

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After a workout—when your heart is still racing—your body needs a dose of nutrients to fuel its recovery. That said, when it comes to when and what exactly to eat after a workout, there is a lot of mixed information.

You probably already know that getting the right nutrition is essential for maximizing your workout—you just can't have one without the other. Eating after a workout is crucial to the recovery process.

“During exercise, muscle protein is broken down, causing damage, micro tears, and soreness; muscle glycogen stores are used up, one of the body’s main fuel sources; and water along with electrolytes are lost through sweat,” says Kyle Gonzalez, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, performance coach, and marketing manager at Future, an app that pairs users with a fitness coach to work with remotely. “Post-exercise, your body tries to rebuild, replenish, and repair so it is vital that you get nutrient dense foods post-exercise to aid in this process.”

Experts In This Article
  • Jennifer Sacheck, PhD, Dr. Sacheck’s research focuses on the impact of both diet and physical activity on health outcomes, with an emphasis on pediatric health disparities.
  • Kyle Gonzalez, Kyle got into coaching following a successful career as a former Division I basketball player. He was the first trainer at The St. James, a 450,000 square foot training facility which is one of the top Health & Wellness gyms on the east coast. Prior to training at The St. James, he served as the Director of Sports Performance at Redline Athletics and as the top trainer at Power Train, both prominent gyms in Virginia. During this time he also taught an undergraduate class in Exercise, Testing & Prescription while obtaining his Master’s degree in Kinesiology. He is currently a top performance coach and manager at a fast growing fitness tech start-up, Future, based in San Francisco.

Should you go for protein or recover with a carb-heavy plate of spaghetti? How long should you wait before refueling?

Keep scrolling to learn what to eat after a workout and how long after working out you should eat.

What to eat after a workout

The big question: Should you go for protein or carbs after a workout? 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, according to Jennifer Sacheck, PhD, whose research focuses on the impacts of diet and physical activity related to health outcomes.

"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," says Dr. Sacheck. 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. "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," says Dr. Sacheck. The key is having something you can stash in your gym bag—like a nutrition bar, peanut butter sandwich, or protein powder. Otherwise, that recovery window is going to close.

When mealtime rolls around—whether it's breakfast or dinner—Dr. Sacheck says protein and carbs should again play a starring role, with support from vegetables. "A lean meat or tofu, rice, and vegetables 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.

Top 3 food types to eat after a workout

Again, protein and carbs are the most important to consume post-workout. However, Gonzalez notes that your best post-exercise nutrition plan should be tailored to you and your goals. So, having a coach or expert to guide you with the right strategy is helpful.  Generally speaking though, here are three great post-exercise recovery food types.

1. Lean protein sources

Examples: protein powders, eggs, yogurt, cottage cheese, salmon, grass fed beef, chicken

“Lean protein sources contain amino acids that help you rebuild and repair damaged muscle tissue,” Gonzalez says. “These amino acids can also help to build new muscle tissue and create a positive protein balance. Generally, 20-40g of protein post workout has been shown to enhance recovery.”

2. Fruits and vegetables

Examples: berries, apples, bananas, kiwi, avocados, sweet potatoes, butternut squash

“Exercise can deplete your muscle glycogen stores which is important for high intensity exercise,” Gonzalez says. Furthermore, he adds, exercise also leads to water and electrolyte loss that can cause dehydration and cramping. This is why he recommends fruits and vegetables, which contain water and electrolytes, as a post-workout food type that also provides ample carbs, antioxidants, fiber, and other important vitamins and minerals.

3. Whole grains and legumes

Examples: brown rice, whole grain pasta, quinoa, oats, beans, lentils, peanuts

“Non-processed whole grains and legumes provide a natural source of carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, and minerals,” Gonzalez says. “These nutrients will not only help replenish glycogen stores and help repair muscle damage but they also reduce disease risk, boost heart health, and improve digestion.”

5 post-workout meal ideas

While there are literally so many great post-workout meal options, again, Gonzalez notes that it’s important to choose ones that are conducive to you and your goals. And, when possible, he adds, opt for whole, organic foods that are not processed or minimally processed. To get your creative juices flowing, here are some post-workout meal ideas to add to your rotation.

Protein shake and a banana

When you’re pressed for time, a protein shake is definitely the way to go for a post-workout snack that you can grab and go. “You get the protein from the shake plus a little hydration boost if you use water or milk in your shake,” Gonzalez says. “The banana is to help replenish those glycogen stores while also sneaking in some electrolytes.”

Yogurt with berries and granola

On days you’re not in the mood for something heavy (like, let’s say, after a long morning run), yogurt topped with berries and granola will do the trick while providing the benefits of a high-protein plus carb meal. “Yogurt is high in protein while also containing probiotics to help with gut health,” Gonzalez says. “Berries offer a moderate amount of carbohydrates along with loads of antioxidants. Lastly, the granola will offer some carbohydrates and fiber to help with glycogen replenishing and digestion.”

Salmon with sweet potatoes

If you’re more of a late afternoon workout type of person, salmon with sweet potatoes for dinner is a quick and easy two-ingredient dinner to put together and provides the nutrients your body needs post-workout. The salmon, Gonzalez says, has lots of protein and healthy omega-3s, while the sweet potatoes help replenish glycogen stores since they are high in carbohydrates and fiber rich.

Egg and vegetable omelet with avocado toast

An egg and vegetable omelet with a side of avocado toast is a great way to kick off the day after a morning workout. Eggs are high in protein and packed with essential nutrients, says Gonzalez. Adding in some vegetables provides additional vitamins and minerals that aid in the recovery process. Plus, he adds, the avocado toast delivers fiber, healthy fat, and carbohydrates.

Rice cakes, apple, and peanut butter

This is another light post-workout meal option that’s easy to keep stocked in your kitchen. “The rice cake is a good base with no fat and very little protein but a moderate carb source,” Gonzalez says. “The peanut butter brings in a little bit of everything with a good amount of carbs, high protein, and some fat. Round it out with an apple and you get your fiber, more carbs, and some other key nutrients.”

This is how long you should wait to eat after a workout

The answer to the latter question is 30 minutes, according to Dr. Sacheck. So, why *exactly* does she say a half hour is the crucial window for eating post-workout? Here, Dr. Sacheck explains what happens to your body after a workout that makes 30 minutes a crucial window for eating.

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."

"Muscles are constantly breaking down the protein into amino acid and then resynthesizing that muscle for either a growth or atrophy phase," says Dr. Sacheck. "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

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," says Dr. Sacheck. "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."

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," says Dr. Sacheck.

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