Some people believe that because they enjoy a good workout they don’t have to worry about eating a healthy diet. This could not be further from the truth.
In fact, choosing the best foods for our body is even more important after intense exercise. That’s because each of the macros found in food plays an important role during the recovery process.
High-quality protein helps build and repair muscles. Carbs help boost energy levels and healthy fats help our body absorb micronutrients into our bloodstream and support the cellular growth process.
Getting good nutrition by choosing the right workout foods after you exercise can reduce muscle soreness, help you reach your fitness goals, and build muscle faster than before.
Here is everything you need to help plan the perfect recovery meal or snack after a good workout.
Do You Need a Post-Workout Meal?
Yes. Getting the proper nutrition after an exercise session is the most important thing you can do for your body to help you achieve optimal performance (1).
While you are doing the hard work in the midst of your workout routine, your muscles are relying on stored glycogen for fuel. After a hard workout, muscle glycogen levels are depleted. Muscle protein breakdown occurs as proteins are damaged during your training session.
Since exercise depletes your body it should be a no brainer that you need to choose the right foods when you finish a tough workout. Proper workout nutrition after resistance exercise supports muscle recovery, increases the rate of protein synthesis, and replenishes depleted glycogen stores.
Here are some important factors to consider as you plan the best workout meals and workout snacks to help with your workout recovery.
Weight Loss and Fat Loss
One of the healthiest ways to create a calorie deficit to help with weight loss is to begin a new exercise routine. Not only does an intense workout help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight, but it’s also an easy way to improve your overall fitness level (2).
The challenge when trying to lose weight is that it can be hard to find the right balance. You have to balance reducing your intake of calories, eating healthy and nourishing whole foods, and building the proper diet to support better recovery after a strenuous resistance exercise routine.
Creating a calorie deficit forces your body to rely on energy stores to meet its needs. Nutrients are pulled from both body fat and muscle tissue to make up the difference.
This loss of muscle tissue changes your body composition and causes your metabolism to slow down. Eventually, your metabolism slows enough to match your new lower level of caloric intake and you reach the dreaded weight loss plateau.
To get the best results, you want to avoid this protein breakdown and reach a state where the change in your body composition and every pound of body weight lost comes from body fat.
Regular resistance training has been shown to help maintain lean muscle mass in individuals following a low-calorie diet (3). Weight training not only counters the loss of lean tissue, but it also encourages muscle growth and protein synthesis which maintains a higher metabolic rate.
But it’s not just resistance exercise that has been shown to be beneficial.
Cardio has also been shown to help people lose weight. One study found that doing this type of workout five days per week was enough to help participants achieve meaningful weight loss (4).
It is a good idea to increase your activity level so you are doing a combination of muscle-building exercises and cardio at least five days per week. This can include exercises such as walking on a treadmill or more intense cardio that increases blood flow.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends a combination of resistance training and cardio 30 minutes of exercise per day at least five days of the week (5).
This seems to be the ideal exercise program to help drive fat loss and not a loss of muscle mass when you lose weight (6). One last important point; always check with your doctor and follow medical advice before starting a new exercise routine.
While many people exercise in order to lose weight, some bodybuilders enjoy spending time in the weight room working with a trainer with a goal of gaining lean muscle mass. Dietary protein is important for muscle gain, but good carbs and healthy fats also provided needed energy and nutrients.
Strength training damages muscle fibers which force them to repair themselves and grow larger after your workout period in a process known as muscle hypertrophy. Having the right post-workout nutrition is critical to this process.
Muscles need available protein and carbs to grow properly.
Proper hydration is another important factor to keep in mind when you exercise. You want to make sure you are drinking plenty of fluid during and after activity. Do yourself a favor, do not just drink when you are thirsty as thirst is a sign of dehydration.
If you find water to be too boring, there are plenty of great options, depending on your taste preferences. Your workout drink could be a sports drink or something more fun like chocolate milk. The best option is the one you enjoy.
You might have heard that chocolate milk is a great recovery drink. A recent study supports this claim (9). Chocolate milk is a great source of protein and carbs to support tired muscles.
Chocolate milk also contains the perfect mix of important electrolytes including calcium, sodium, potassium, and magnesium that help replace electrolytes lost in sweat.
In general, you should drink 2-4 cups of water or 16-32 ounces of water (or other fluid) for every 60 minutes of exercise to lower the risk of dehydration.
What To Eat After a Workout?
It should be clear by now that your workout should not end when you leave the gym. Choosing the right after workout meal can help you build muscle, recover faster, and be ready for your next workout.
The right workout fuel after you exercise provides your body with the nutrients it needs and maximizes the benefits of a great workout. Your body wants to replace its glycogen stores and repair and rebuild muscle proteins. To do that, your body needs the right post-exercise nutrition and a positive protein balance.
Your post-workout meal should help to decrease muscle protein breakdown, increase muscle protein synthesis, restore depleted glycogen stores, and speed up recovery.
Carbohydrates, proteins, and fats are known as macronutrients and are considered the building blocks of food. While the macronutrient composition of meals and snacks can vary depending on the foods you choose, the following are considered acceptable ranges over the long run.
- 45-65% of your daily calories from carbohydrates
- 20-35% from fats
- 10-35% from quality protein
The first thing to keep in mind as you begin planning meals: we do not eat food groups, we eat food.
Instead of worrying too much about the specific percentages, focus on eating healthy whole food meals and snacks from each food group, and finding balance the next time you prepare your dinner plate.
Many healthy foods serve a dual purpose. They are staples of any healthy eating pattern and they provide the nourishment needed for recovery after your workout.
Here is more detail about each of the macronutrients, including examples of foods to choose for your recovery meal or small snack.
Exercise triggers muscle breakdown. Protein is an important nutrient after a workout as it provides the building blocks needed to repair and build new muscles.
Proteins are composed of individual building blocks known as amino acids. There are 20 amino acids that combine to form proteins. Nine of these are considered essential amino acids, meaning our body cannot make them and they must be obtained from our diet.
Of the nine essential amino acids, three are branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) called valine, leucine, and isoleucine.
The term branched refers to the structure of the BCAAs. They have a slightly different shape compared to other amino acids.
A food is considered a complete protein source if it contains all nine essential amino acids. Animal-derived lean proteins from foods like chicken, fish, eggs, dairy, and other lean meats contain complete proteins including the BCAAs.
High-quality protein provides the necessary amino acids required to support new protein synthesis needed for muscle hypertrophy.
How much protein you need depends on your exercise intensity, body size, and gender. It’s recommended you consume 0.14–0.23 grams of protein per pound of body weight (0.3–0.5 grams/ kg) after a workout (1).
Other studies have also shown that 20 to 40 grams of whey protein are enough to maximize the body’s recovery after a workout (10). Whey is a milk protein that breaks down quickly and contains the right mix of amino acids to support muscle growth.
You may be wondering if protein shakes such as whey protein powder are a good way to meet your protein needs. After all, they are portable, convenient, and can be consumed quickly if you lack enough time to prepare a full meal after your workout.
A recent study found that individuals who consumed a protein shake for 12 weeks gained two additional pounds of muscle compared to those who didn’t (11).
It’s important to point out that it is not necessarily the protein shake that provided those benefits, it’s the fact that participants consumed more protein each day, creating a positive protein balance.
Meeting your daily protein needs is the goal, and if a shake in your gym bag is the best route then it is something you should consider.
Here are a few good examples of foods that provide the recommended amount of protein to optimize recovery:
- Chicken breast – 24 grams protein, 117 calories per three-ounce serving.
- Eggs – 6 grams protein, 78 calories per whole egg. Eat the yolk and the egg whites.
- Whey Protein Shake – 20 grams protein per scoop
- Salmon – 20 grams protein, 118 calories per three-ounce serving plus health does of Omega 3 fatty acids.
After you exercise, your body’s glycogen levels are depleted. You want to make sure you eat plenty of carbs to replenish them.
There are two types of carbohydrates in foods: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates include basics sugars such as glucose, fructose, and sucrose, also known as table sugar.
Simple carbs are absorbed and used quickly by our bodies, so they provide a quick source of available energy if you are feeling fatigued after training.
For the fast recovery of glycogen stores after exercise, simple carbs are the preferred energy source. Eating simple carbs like grains, white rice, crackers or rice cakes triggers a rise in blood sugar and the secretion of insulin which promotes glycogen synthesis.
Complex carbohydrates including starch and fiber are found in plant-based foods. Whole grains and vegetables such as broccoli and potatoes contain complex carbs.
Complex carbs are better suited for providing energy over a two to three hour period while simple carbs help with a faster recovery. Non-starchy vegetables like spinach and salad greens are great sources of antioxidants and dietary fiber but not a good choice for after workout carbs.
The amount of carbs you need to help restore glycogen stores depends on the activity.
For example, endurance athletes such as distance runners and swimmers need to consume more carbs than a weight lifter or bodybuilder because of the amount of time over which they are physically active.
Experts recommend consuming 0.5 to 0.7 grams of carbohydrates per pound of bodyweight (1.1 to 1.5 grams/kg) after exercise to maximize the replenishment of glycogen (1).
To be more precise, studies recommend a carb to protein ratio of 3 grams of carbs for every 1 gram of protein. For example, a meal with 20 grams of protein should have 60 grams of carbohydrates.
Research shows that the insulin response is better stimulated when a combination of carbohydrate and protein are consumed at the same time (12).
Consuming this combo of carbohydrate-rich foods and protein after exercise can maximize muscle growth and glycogen synthesis at the same time.
Here are a couple of examples with a combination of protein and carbs that work well as a snack when you are done exercising.
- Berries (blueberries, raspberries) with cottage cheese
- Banana or apple with peanut butter
Many people focus on eating protein and carbs after a workout, believing that too much fat intake will impair their ability to absorb needed nourishment from their post-workout meal.
The truth is that fat does slow down the digestion and absorption of a meal, but it does not negatively affect muscle repair or glycogen replenishment.
What is more important is the type of fats that are in your meals and snacks. Saturated fats found in processed foods and high-fat meats have been shown to increase belly fat (13), something most people who exercise are trying to avoid!
Instead, choose foods that are higher in healthy fats such as avocados, nut butters, and Greek yogurt. These foods are full of vitamins and minerals that support overall health and provide the nutrition necessary to support cellular growth.
Here are a few healthy fat choices from real foods to add extra flavor to your after workout meal or snack.
- Peanut butter
- Almond butter
- Plain Greek yogurt
Best Time to Eat Your Post-Workout Foods
There is not necessarily any specific time frame or ideal window of opportunity for eating a post-workout meal. The bottom line is that getting the correct nourishment when your body needs it is important.
Before you exercise, let your appetite guide when you eat and try not to go long periods of time between meals. Exercise at the time of day that works best for your schedule, there is no perfect time of day to be physically active.
If you are going to work out after a meal, try to eat at least 2-3 hours before you exercise. If you eat right before your activity you may end up with an upset stomach as blood flow is diverted from your muscles to help with digestion.
What Is the Anabolic Window?
You may have heard of the concept of eating during the “anabolic window.” This term refers a limited time window after training in which post-exercise nutrition will help optimize muscle growth.
Anabolism describes the process of tissue growth. And it is true that after strength training muscles are in an anabolic state to facilitate muscle repair and growth.
The theory of the workout window suggests that the intake of important nutrients must occur while this anabolic process is taking place, generally within 30 minutes of your workout ending.
It turns out there is little evidence to support the theory of nutrient timing being necessary to support the repair of muscle damage.
A 2013 meta-analysis failed to find a link between immediate nutrient intake and muscle growth or improvements in strength (7). A more recent study published in 2017 showed that both pre and post-workout protein intake has similar results on muscle adaptations (8).
According to research, the anabolic window does not exist. This means there is no rush to eat after your workout session is over.
Workout nutrition is important, but there is not as much urgency as once thought to meal timing. Eating a couple of hours after your workout ends will still help maintain your protein balance and support growth and recovery. The emphasis now remains on what you eat rather than the timeframe of your meal.
15 Best Post Workout Meal Ideas
Each of these meals has the necessary protein and carbs to support recovery. Cook you proteins in 1-2 tablespoons of coconut oil or other healthy oils to add a source of healthy fats.
- Grilled lemon chicken breast with green beans
- Avocado toast with Egg
- Cottage cheese with banana
- Greek Yogurt with berries and honey
- Quinoa bowl with kale, avocado, and salmon
- Whey protein shake with fresh fruit and low-fat milk
- Grass-fed steak with sweet potato
- Grilled shrimp with chickpeas and greens
- Protein pancakes
- Oatmeal smoothie with protein powder
- Veggie omelet with whole-grain toasts
- Quinoa bowl with apple and almonds
- Tuna salad on kale, quinoa salad
- Turkey breast with broccoli and brown rice
- Chickpeas pasta with tomatoes, basil, and chicken breast
8 Post-Workout Snack Examples
- A protein bar or a granola bar with no artificial ingredients
- Yogurt-covered frozen blueberries
- Green smoothie with yogurt or protein powder
- Apple slices with peanut butter and cinnamon
- Veggie sticks with nut butter
- Trail mix (Almonds, coconut chips, and raisins)
- Low-Glycemic granola bars
- Homemade Chocolate milk (milk, cacao powder, and honey)
Taking steps to ensure your body gets plenty of carbs and proteins after you exercise is essential. The right foods, consumed within a few hours after you exercise can help replenish lost glycogen, stimulate muscle protein synthesis, and speed up recovery.
The first thing you should do is take stock of your current eating habits. It can be hard to plan meals and snacks in your busy life. Work with a nutritionist, registered dietitian, or sports dietitian if you need help developing the perfect game plan, and use the list above as a starting point for choosing healthier meals.
Also, don’t forget to drink plenty of water as proper hydration is also a key to your recovery and helps transport nutrients throughout your body.
As an added bonus, when you exercise more often and eat healthier after your workout you will feel better for the rest of the day and be more motivated to stick with these newly developed habits.
- Kerksick, Chad, et al. “International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Nutrient Timing.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, vol. 5, no. 1, 2008. Crossref, doi:10.1186/1550-2783-5-17.
- Warburton, D. E. R. “Health Benefits of Physical Activity: The Evidence.” Canadian Medical Association Journal, vol. 174, no. 6, 2006, pp. 801–09. Crossref, doi:10.1503/cmaj.051351.
- Sardeli, Amanda, et al. “Resistance Training Prevents Muscle Loss Induced by Caloric Restriction in Obese Elderly Individuals: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Nutrients, vol. 10, no. 4, 2018, p. 423. Crossref, doi:10.3390/nu10040423.
- Aerobic Exercise Alone Results in Clinically Significant Weight Loss for Men and Women: Midwest Exercise Trial 2. Obesity, vol. 21, no. 3, 2013, pp. E219–28. Crossref, doi:10.1002/oby.20145.
- “Physical Activity Guidelines Resources.” American College of Sports Medicine, www.acsm.org/read-research/trending-topics-resource-pages/physical-activity-guidelines. Accessed 30 Sept. 2020.
- Willis, Leslie H., et al. “Effects of Aerobic and/or Resistance Training on Body Mass and Fat Mass in Overweight or Obese Adults.” Journal of Applied Physiology, vol. 113, no. 12, 2012, pp. 1831–37. Crossref, doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.01370.2011.
- Schoenfeld, Brad Jon, et al. “The Effect of Protein Timing on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy: A Meta-Analysis.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, vol. 10, no. 1, 2013. Crossref, doi:10.1186/1550-2783-10-53.
- Schoenfeld, Brad Jon, Alan Aragon, et al. “Pre- versus Post-Exercise Protein Intake Has Similar Effects on Muscular Adaptations.” PeerJ, vol. 5, 2017, p. e2825. Crossref, doi:10.7717/peerj.2825.
- Pritchett, Kelly, and Robert Pritchett. “Chocolate Milk: A Post-Exercise Recovery Beverage for Endurance Sports.” Acute Topics in Sport Nutrition, 2012, pp. 127–34. Crossref, doi:10.1159/000341954.
- Witard, Oliver C., et al. “Myofibrillar Muscle Protein Synthesis Rates Subsequent to a Meal in Response to Increasing Doses of Whey Protein at Rest and after Resistance Exercise.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 99, no. 1, 2013, pp. 86–95. Crossref, doi:10.3945/ajcn.112.055517.
- Cermak, Naomi M., et al. “Protein Supplementation Augments the Adaptive Response of Skeletal Muscle to Resistance-Type Exercise Training: A Meta-Analysis.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 96, no. 6, 2012, pp. 1454–64. Crossref, doi:10.3945/ajcn.112.037556.
- Poole, Chris, et al. “The role of post-exercise nutrient administration on muscle protein synthesis and glycogen synthesis.” Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, vol. 9, no. 3, 2010, p. 354+. Accessed 22 Oct. 2020.
- HAYASHI, TOMOSHIGE, et al. “Dietary Animal and Saturated Fat Predict Future Visceral Fat Accumulation in Japanese Americans.” Diabetes, vol. 67, no. Supplement 1, 2018, pp. 198-LB. Crossref, doi:10.2337/db18-198-lb.