Knowing how to properly dial in your nutrition on a daily basis is always important, but especially if there are certain fitness goals you’d like to achieve. Making sure you’re eating enough on workout days is key because it can affect how well you recover and build muscle. However, this is easier said than done if you’re not sure where to begin. Having a clear idea on what you should be eating and how much of it is another piece to the puzzle.
We consulted with registered dietitians who work with everyday people and athletes to provide a guide on what your post-workout meals should look like. We’ll also explain how and when it’s important to eat after you exercise.
The best part is these ideas can even work while you’re on-the-go so you won’t miss out on the nutrients you need.
Should you always eat post-workout?
Even if you don’t eat something right away after a workout, you should be mindful of eating enough nutrients throughout the day.
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It’s important to make sure you’re replenishing nutrients lost through sweat and activity. Registered dietitian Trista Best at Balance One supplements says, “During a workout the muscles use their glycogen stores as a source of fuel.” This means that during this time, the muscles are mostly depleted of glycogen (stored sugars used for energy), and protein is being broken down.
“Once your workout is over the body will begin rebuilding glycogen stores and restoring muscle protein to regrow the muscles,” she explains. That means the nutrients you take in are just as important as the workout itself. Eating properly will also keep you from crashing and keep you functioning optimally throughout the day.
Eating a post-workout meal is only important if you exercise fasted (on an empty stomach). You don’t necessarily need to rush a meal right after you finish cooling down, however. You’re in the green as long as you replenish yourself within a few hours of your workout.
If you’ve eaten a nutritious meal within a couple hours before your workout, you don’t need to worry about adding a post-workout meal too. As long as you’re getting the right nutrients throughout the day, your body can use them to restore energy and build muscle.
What you should be eating
Protein and carbs should always make up part of your post-workout meal.
If you do want to get the most out of a post-workout meal, plan your plate carefully. “The goal is to replace the carbohydrates used for energy during the event and consume protein to build and repair lean muscle mass,” says sports dietitian Mandy Tyler.
Krutika Nanavati, a performance nutrition specialist and sports dietitian, suggests adding lean protein, complex carbs and healthy fats to maximize your meal’s benefits. Aim for foods that are easy to digest because this will help your body absorb the nutrients from your food more easily. “Avoid sugary foods because these can cause your blood sugar to spike and then crash, leaving you feeling tired and sluggish,” she warns. Instead, opt for complex carbohydrates like fruits, vegetables and whole grains. These will give you sustained energy without the sugar crash.
These are good tips to keep in mind for any meals on workout days – not just post-workout.
Meal combinations to consider
Greek yogurt, fruit and granola are a good way to get protein, carbs and fat in a post-workout meal.
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Best says a good rule of thumb to follow is to consume 20 to 40 grams of protein post-workout, from lean sources like poultry, tuna, egg whites, protein powders and tofu. Then eat 0.5 to 0.7 grams of carbs per pound of body weight. Options for your complex carb base can include quinoa, oats, bananas or whole grain pasta or rice.
Because everyone’s needs vary based on the activity they’re doing and how fueled they are throughout the day, these figures can fluctuate. Kelsey Lorencz, a registered dietitian and nutrition advisor at Zenmaster Wellness, recommends choosing a snack or meal that has 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates and 10 to 20 grams of protein after a hard workout. “Easy ways to meet this ratio would be combining greek yogurt with fruit and granola, a fruit smoothie with protein powder, or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole grain bread,” she says.
If you’re on-the-go, Lorencz suggests opting for smoothies with protein powder or a pre-mixed protein shake. Other options include eating fruits like an apple, banana or grapes along with mixed nuts or nut butter for a quick fix.
Tailor your meal to your workout
Take into account the type of workout you’ve done before putting together a post-workout meal.
When putting together a post-workout meal, it’s important to consider the type of workout you did, as well as how intense it was. “If you did a really strenuous weight-lifting session, you’ll need to replenish your glycogen stores with some carbohydrates, but if you went for a long run, you’ll need to replenish your fluids and electrolytes with some water and sodium,” Nanavati says. (More on fluids below.)
Another thing to keep in mind is that how much you eat will vary based on the intensity of your workout. “Someone who completes a 60-minute workout at a higher intensity should aim for a post-workout meal that has more carbs and protein in it than those who spend less time on a workout with moderate intensity,” explains Edibel Quintero, a registered dietitian with HealthInsider.
Because recommendations vary so much from person to person and workout to workout, it’s a good idea to consult with a trainer or nutritionist if you need more specific guidance. However, eating a balanced ratio of protein, complex carbs and fats throughout the day is a safe bet for most people.
Don’t neglect hydration pre and post-workout
Making sure you’re hydrating before and after a workout is important to keep your body functioning optimally.
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Lastly, make sure you’re staying hydrated by drinking plenty of water. “The best way to stay hydrated during and after exercise is to drink small amounts of water regularly throughout the day,” advises Nanavati. She says there’s no need to guzzle down a huge bottle of water immediately after your workout. “Just drink enough to quench your thirst and you’ll be well on your way to recovery.”
If you’re training for a long distance race or exercising for more than an hour at a time then you may want to consider replenishing electrolytes with a sports drink. “These can be helpful for replenishing electrolytes lost during exercise, but they’re not necessary for everyone,” says Nanavati. A good rule of thumb to follow is if you’re only doing moderate exercise for less than an hour, then plain water is probably all you need. But if you’re exercising at a high intensity for long periods of time, a sports drink may be a better option.
Eating adequately post-workout is important to achieve your fitness goals, whether that’s making changes to your physique, getting stronger, being happier or something else. Cutting back on foods or calories is rarely helpful, contrary to popular advice. In reality, if you’re eating enough, getting plenty of nutrition and exercising, you’ll achieve better results.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.