You just had a great run, ride, or workout at the gym. You hit the shower, get ready for the next part of your day, and your stomach reminds you: it’s time to refuel. What do you reach for first? If you’re running to work, it’s easy to skip eating entirely. If you sweat in the afternoon or evening, maybe exercise becomes an excuse for a glass of wine or a brownie. But after putting in all of that effort, don’t you want to give your body what it needs to get stronger?
What to Eat After You Work Out
Trainers and dietitians agree eating a smart snack shortly after completing a workout makes a big difference. When you go for a long run, do intense weight lifting, or engage in other strenuous exercise, you’re burning energy and breaking down muscle fibers. Carbs provide quick fuel, firing an insulin response, and protein converts to amino acids, which then enter your blood. Hitting the right balance of both helps your muscles replenish, rebuild, and grow.
It sounds simple, but many people are still confused—especially when the advice floating around the weight room or internet comes in ratios, or “X g per X pounds of body weight” calculations. “I get all of these questions from my athletes,” confirms Lauren Antonucci, registered dietitian and sports nutrition expert. “How much protein? What type? The best answer, based on the current science, is to take in 10 to 20 grams of whey protein. If you’re smaller, and your workouts are lighter, make sure you get 10 to 15 grams. If you’re taller, more muscular, working out for 90 minutes or longer, or working out twice a day, then definitely get in those 20 grams.”
When to Eat Your Post-Workout Snack
Antonucci recommends eating within 30 to 60 minutes after working out, but again, it depends. “How serious are you about repairing your muscles, your training, your recovery? For my Ironman athletes and marathoners, it’s more important to eat within 30 minutes. If you’re going for a walk, within an hour would be fine. It’s not like after 59 minutes, a door closes and you’re doomed! It’s a range, and it depends on your needs.”
When it comes to protein sources, milk, yogurt, and cheese are at the top of the list. Whey protein is still considered best, as it has the most studies behind it. Reaching for whey protein powder is fine, but preferably, go for fresh dairy. Eggs are another great choice. For carbs, whole-wheat bread gets the job done. (Super seeded and sprouted varieties are incredibly nutritious, but can sit in your stomach and take longer to digest.)
Sports drinks, gels, protein shakes, and protein bars are convenient, but not always necessary. If you’re an endurance athlete (working out for more than an hour, intensely, or in hot weather conditions), you may need sports drinks or gels. Ready-to-drink protein shakes and bars can be easily tossed in your gym bag—just make sure they’re delivering the right amount of protein and carbs. “I recommend Probar BASE or Gatorade Recover Protein Shake to my athletes who want a quick option,” says Antonucci.
8 Snacks to Maximize Your Workout Recovery
Better yet, try one of these snacks, which feature whole foods and hit the right balance of carbs and whey protein, to keep you moving and shaking.
- ½ cup (4 oz/125 g) Greek yogurt, ¼ cup (1 oz/30 g) granola, ½ cup (2 oz/60 g) blueberries, 1 teaspoon honey | 15 g protein, 48 g carbs
- ½ cup (4 oz/125 g) cottage cheese, 1 banana, ½ cup (2 oz/60 g) mango, ½ cup (2 oz/60 g) pineapple | 14 g protein, 55 g carbs
- ½ whole-wheat bagel, ¼ cup (2 oz/60 g) ricotta, 2 tablespoons jam | 12 g protein, 55 g carbs
- 2 cups (16 fl oz/500 ml) chocolate milk | 17 g protein, 49 carbs
- 2 scrambled eggs, 1 whole-wheat English muffin, 1 cup (8 fl oz/250 ml) orange juice | 20 g protein, 53 g carbs
- 1 slice turkey, 1 slice Swiss cheese, ½ apple, sliced, 1 whole-wheat pita | 18 g protein, 51 g carbs
- 1 slice whole-wheat toast, 2 tablespoons chunky peanut butter, 1 banana, 1 teaspoon honey | 13 g protein, 52 g carbs
- Smoothie packed with protein | 12 g protein, 44 carbs
How to Eat for All-Day Recovery
Of course, good nutrition should be your goal throughout the day. Eating a balanced diet in general will help you before, during, and after workouts. At meal times, fill your plate with antioxidants, found in kale and almonds, and potassium, in sweet potatoes and avocados, which have been shown to reduce inflammation and curb muscle cramps.
Antonucci also cares about what you eat before you exercise. “There’s science to support adding 6 to 8 grams of protein to your snack before an intense workout. Include one little string cheese, one hard-boiled egg, or two slices of turkey jerky with your carbs,” says Antonucci. “That little bit of protein gets the amino acids circulating in your blood, which are then available to attenuate muscle damage. It sounds odd, but your recovery really starts before your workout.”
What do you like to eat after a tough workout? Join the conversation below.
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.