You just finished your running workout, and now what do you do? If you didn’t answer “refuel”, you may be missing out. Failing to fuel your body after a run can have a negative impact on everything from your performance to muscle gains. But if you aren’t sure what to eat, don’t worry. We asked top nutrition experts—who are also runners—what they recommend as the best food choices to refuel.
Why should you refuel after a run?
If you are serious about improving your running performance, then focusing on what you eat both before and after your workout is critical to success. While what you eat before a workout helps to fuel your body for the training session ahead, what you choose to eat after a run will impact your recovery along with muscle repair and growth.
Both protein and carbohydrates play a direct role in helping to refuel effectively. The role of protein is to help build and repair muscle tissue, which can aid in muscle recovery. “Your muscles experience tiny little tears during exercise and need protein to repair those tears and grow stronger,” shares Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD, founder of Greenletes.
Carbohydrates, on the other hand, act as a source of energy. After eating, carbohydrates are broken down into their simplest form, glucose, which can then be used for quick energy or stored in your body’s cells. This stored energy in muscle cells is called glycogen, a readily mobilized storage form of glucose which is used as the body’s first source of fuel during exercise.
“The body uses glycogen to provide energy for the first 30 to 60 minutes of running which is why after a run, it’s important to replace glycogen stores to help with recovery and prepare you for the next day’s workout,” explains Rizzo.
And timing is key. “After a tough run, you’ve used some of the stored glycogen (energy) in your muscles. Your muscles are like a sponge after your workout, ready to soak up the carbs in your post-workout meal so that your body will be ready for its next sweat session,” explains Chrissy Carroll, MPH, RD, ACSM-cPT and Author of Eat to Peak: Sports Nutrition for Runners and Triathletes.
The formula for refueling after a run
As you can see, both carbohydrate and protein are stand out nutrients when it comes to refueling. And the amount of these nutrients you need after a workout will depend largely on the intensity and duration of your run.
The longer your run and the more intense it is, the larger the demand your body places on your muscles and energy reserves. “For a shorter run, like a 5K, a very small recovery snack will do the trick. However, for a longer training run, like 10 or more miles, you’ll need more of a recovery meal to replace those calories you burned on the run,” shares Rizzo.
When refueling, the balance of carbohydrates to protein is also important. “Remember ‘CP3’ – Carbs and Protein in at least a 3:1 ratio,” explains Carol. This means that for every one gram of protein you consume, you want to consume triple the amount of carbohydrate in your recovery meal or snack. If you were consuming a snack containing 10 grams of protein, you would want to add 30 grams of carbohydrate to the snack to reach the ideal 3:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein.
And timing is important as well. “Try to eat your recovery meal within 30 minutes of finishing your run,” adds Carol.
The best foods to eat after a run
Although many foods can provide an effective post-meal snack, our experts both agreed that chocolate milk is at the top of the list. “I love chocolate milk because it has a 3:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio, which research has shown to be more efficient for recovery,” explains Rizzo.
And the nutrition content isn’t the only benefit of this simple snack. “It also contains fluid to help rehydrate the body. Plus, it’s easy to get down if you struggle with lack of hunger after a tough workout,” adds Carol.
In addition to a glass of chocolate milk, many other food combinations can also help to refuel the body such as:
- Sweet potato topped with almond butter, walnuts, and raisins
- Smoothies with fruits, veggies, and Greek yogurt
- Trail mix, beef jerky, and a banana
- Breakfast burrito with eggs, salsa, and beans in a tortilla
- Cottage cheese and crackers
- Fruit with nut butter or edamame
- Pita with hummus
As runners and nutrition experts, Rizzo and Carol both have their personal favorite post-workout snacks. For Carol, a stack of homemade banana oat pancakes is her go-to after a long weekend run. “I’ll combine a banana, two eggs, and 1/4 cup of rolled oats in a blender with a few shakes of cinnamon and a splash of vanilla.”
For Rizzo, smoothies are her on-the-go choice. “I always have frozen fruit on hand, and I just throw it in a blender with Greek yogurt and flax seeds for a quick post-run recovery snack.”
Although there isn’t one perfect snack or meal for refueling after a run, making sure to balance your carbohydrate and protein intake in a 3:1 ratio and eating within 30 minutes after your workout ends can ensure you are on the right path to optimizing your nutrition for peak performance.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. 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.