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When planning for a workout, there’s a lot that goes into it to help you reach your goals.
As part of that effort, there’s a good chance you put a lot of thought into your pre-workout meal. But are you giving your post-workout meal the same attention? If not, it’s a good idea to do so. It turns out that consuming the right nutrients after you exercise is just as important as what you eat before.
To help you optimize nutrition after workouts, here is a detailed guide.
Eating after a workout is important
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 (1, 2, 3).
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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:
- decrease muscle protein breakdown
- increase muscle protein synthesis (growth)
- restore glycogen stores
- enhance recovery
Getting in the right nutrients after exercise can help you rebuild your muscle proteins and glycogen stores. It also helps stimulate new muscle growth.
Protein, carbs, and fat
Each 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 (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).
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 (1, 7, 8, 9, 10).
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 (1).
However, one study found that eating protein pre-workout and post-workout has a similar effect on muscle strength, hypertrophy, and body composition changes (11).
Studies have shown that ingesting 20–40 grams of protein seems to maximize the body’s ability to recover after exercise (7, 9, 12).
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 (1).
Furthermore, insulin secretion, which promotes glycogen synthesis, is better stimulated when carbs and protein are consumed at the same time (10, 11, 12, 13).
Therefore, consuming both carbs and protein after exercise can maximize protein and glycogen synthesis (13, 14).
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 (15, 16).
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
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 (17).
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 (18).
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.
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.
The timing of your post-workout meal matters
Your body’s ability to rebuild glycogen and protein is enhanced after you exercise (19).
For this reason, it’s recommended that you consume a combination of carbs and protein as soon as possible after exercising. In the past, experts recommended eating your post-workout meal within 45 minutes, as a delay of carb consumption by as little as 2 hours after a workout may lead to as much as 50% lower rates of glycogen synthesis (19, 20).
However, more recent research has found that the post-exercise window to maximize the muscular response to eating protein is wider than initially thought, up to as many as several hours (11).
Additionally, if you consumed a meal rich in whole carbs and protein perhaps an hour before exercising, it’s likely that the benefits from that meal still apply after training (21, 22, 23).
Additionally, recovery is not just about what you consume directly after working out. When you exercise consistently, the process is ongoing. It is best to continue to eat small, well-balanced meals of carbs and protein every 3–4 hours (24).
Eat your post-workout meal soon after exercising, ideally within a few hours. However, you can extend this period a little longer, depending on the timing of your pre-workout meal.
Foods to eat after you work out
The primary goal of your post-workout meal is to supply your body with the right nutrients for adequate recovery and to maximize the benefits of your workout. Choosing easily digested foods will promote faster nutrient absorption.
The following lists contain examples of simple and easily digested foods:
- sweet potatoes
- chocolate milk
- quinoa and other grains
- fruits (such as pineapple, berries, banana, kiwi)
- rice cakes
- whole grain bread
- animal- or plant-based protein powder
- Greek yogurt
- cottage cheese
- protein bar
- nut butters
- trail mix (dried fruits and nuts)
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
Make sure to drink plenty of water
It is important to drink plenty of water before and after your workout. When you are properly hydrated, this ensures the optimal internal environment for your body to maximize results.
During exercise, you lose water and electrolytes through sweat. Replenishing these after a workout can help with recovery and performance (24).
It’s especially important to replenish fluids if your next exercise session is within 12 hours. Depending on the intensity of your workout, water or an electrolyte drink are recommended to replenish fluid losses.
It is important to get water and electrolytes after exercise to replace what was lost during your workout.
The bottom line
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.