What to eat after a workout: Post-workout meal ideas
Whether you’re hitting the yoga mat for a Vinyasa session or power walking through your neighbourhood to hit your step goals, physical activity requires fuel. And while good nutrition is important at all times, following your workout with certain foods may help your body recover more efficiently, a 2013 study review published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition suggests.
Want to learn more about what to eat after a workout? Read on as four experts give the lowdown on exercise, nutrition, and foods that can help replenish you after physical activity. Then discover some delicious recipes for post-workout meals and snacks to put on your plate.
Why it’s important to eat post-workout
The idea of post-workout nutrition might bring to mind images of distance runners and bodybuilders chugging raw eggs and protein shakes. But you don’t have to be a super athlete (or slurp uncooked yolks) to benefit from post-exercise refueling.
Any concerted increase in physical activity places demands on the body, tapping various systems to keep you firing on all cylinders, says Maya Feller, a registered dietitian and adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University. “The cardiovascular and respiratory systems work in tandem to supply oxygen and nutrients to working muscles in an attempt to meet the demands of exercise,” she says.
All that action requires energy. The body’s most readily available source is glycogen, a form of glucose energy stored in muscle tissue. Kelly Jones, a registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in sports dietetics in Newtown, Pennsylvania, says the body continues burning glycogen for up to several hours following a workout, depending on how challenging the activity was.
Activity also affects muscle by setting off a process known as muscle protein breakdown, or MPB. That may sound harmful (even painful!), but it’s a beneficial part of exercise. “Physical activity causes the muscles to break down and form micro-tears, which then need to be repaired in order to get stronger and faster,” explains Nicole Lund, a registered dietitian nutritionist with the Sports Performance Center at New York University Langone Medical Center.
Good nutrition after a workout can help the body recover from and adapt to the physical stresses of activity, Jones says. In a published 2008 position statement, researchers from The International Society of Sports Nutrition determined that a post-exercise combo of carbohydrates and protein—plus fluid replenishment to slake thirst—can help optimize muscle repair and growth.
How exercise can affect appetite
That being said, you might not feel like chowing down right after exercising, Feller says. A 2016 trial involving women, published in the journal Nutrients, found that moderate and high-intensity activity can temporarily dampen appetite, building on earlier research of men and women. Feller explains that exercise can briefly alter levels of hunger-related hormones, specifically by causing a dip in appetite-stimulating ghrelin and an increase in peptide YY and glucagon-like peptide, which are associated with feelings of satiety.
For those who lose their appetite with exercise, the effect generally wears off within two hours or so, Jones says, citing a small 2011 study of men published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. So it pays to be prepared with post-workout foods that support your workout recovery and wellness goals. Your hunger will kick in eventually!
What to eat after a workout
“The body requires carbohydrates to refuel working muscles, in combination with protein,” Feller says.
As they’re digested, the carbohydrates in foods such as baked potatoes, quinoa, and wheat bread are converted into glucose, she continues. Some of that glucose gets squirreled away in muscles as glycogen for later use. This process, known as glycogen synthesis, helps ensure you have the fuel to get through the rest of your day—and that your body is ready to go next time you head out for a hike or do an HIIT workout.
Protein-rich foods such as eggs, tuna, and yogourt are important for post-workout recovery, too. As part of a process called muscle protein synthesis, the nutrient contributes to the repair of those micro-tears in muscle tissue that naturally occur during activity. Eating 15 to 25 grams of protein in the two-hour period after exercise may optimize protein synthesis, according to research from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine.
Note, however, that a post-workout protein boost might only be necessary if your exercise session is happening more than three hours since your last meal, according to the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition review. If you enjoyed a chicken sandwich two hours beforehand? Chances are your protein needs are already covered. (But feel free to enjoy whatever food you like!)
Amino acids in animal and plant protein stimulate the tissue renewal that defines muscle protein synthesis, says Lund. “Protein also can help with muscle soreness,” she adds.
A variety of protein-rich food sources can help support your muscles after a workout. Options to consider include:
- Milk or yogourt
- Whey protein powder
- Soy protein powder
Glycogen—the body’s preferred energy source during exertion—originates from carbs you consume. Exercise draws down the body’s stores of glycogen, breaking it down into glucose for fuel. “There is only a finite amount stored in the muscle, and there is some stored in the liver that fuels longer exercise sessions,” says Dr. Marie-Pierre St-Onge, PhD, an associate professor of nutritional medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.
Carbohydrate-rich foods that are quickly digested and absorbed can be helpful in glycogen synthesis, according to a 2018 report published in the journal Nutrition Today. And the sooner you eat those carbs after your workout, the speedier glycogen replenishment may be, Feller says—an effect due to increased blood flow to the muscles in the two to four hours after exercise.
Foods that contain quick-digesting carbohydrates include:
- Potato or sweet potato (baked or mashed)
- White rice
- Cereal such as bran flakes, corn flakes, shredded wheat, and crisped rice
Post-workout meals to try
It’s OK if you don’t feel hungry immediately after exercising; there’s no pressure to eat right away. Once you are ready for a post-workout bite, a 3:1 ratio (give or take) of carbs to protein may help your body recover most optimally, according to the International Society of Sports Nutrition. WW crunched the numbers in our recipe database and found a number of delicious post-workout meal options that hit the mark.
Don’t forget to hydrate
In addition to recommending protein and carbs following a workout, experts emphasize the importance of adequate hydration before, during, and after. Water accounts for 50–60% of an adult’s body composition. A typical person might lose anywhere from .5 to 2 liters (16 to 64 ounces) of fluid per hour of exercise through sweat, Jones says.
“Sweat losses over 2% of body weight begin to impair endurance capacity, and levels above 4% can lead to heat illnesses,” she explains. Rates of fluid loss vary from person to person (and workout to workout) based on factors such as how demanding the activity is, the duration of activity, even the weather.
Jones recommends setting yourself up for a safe and effective workout by making sure you’re well hydrated beforehand. Her advice: Sip an extra glass or two of water—on top of what you’d normally drink—about two hours ahead of exercising. “This allows the body to reach fluid balance while also offering time to eliminate excess fluid before exercise begins,” she notes. (In other words, you’ll pee out what you don’t need.)
As you work up a sweat, Feller advises sipping water regularly to prevent becoming parched and to sustain your energy. “Staying hydrated can delay the onset of fatigue, as well as protect health and well-being by preventing the physiological effects of dehydration,” she says. Those additional downsides of mild to moderate dehydration can include mood disruptions and constipation, according to a 2010 research review. Drink up!
You can probably skip the commercial sports drinks unless you happen to be in the mood for one. These bottled beverages are formulated to replenish electrolytes (such as sodium) lost through serious sweating. Unless you’re huffing and puffing for more than an hour or so at a stretch, plain water is likely all you need for hydrating afterward, Jones says.
The upshot: Eating can help restore you after a workout
Nourishing your body after a workout can help you recover from the physical demands of activity and help set you up for success the next time you get moving. Many experts, with good study support, recommend eating a combination of protein and carbohydrates after a workout, either in meal or snack form.
Whether you’re nibbling on apple slices with peanut butter or digging into a sheet-pan dinner of chicken and cauliflower rice, planning for post-workout nutrition can help ensure you get the fuel you need to feel good as you pursue your personal fitness goals.
Maressa Brown is a writer and an editor in Los Angeles specializing in health and lifestyle topics. She’s written for Shape, InStyle, Parents, The Washington Post, Cosmopolitan, Better Homes and Gardens, and Women’s Health, among other outlets.