Ever wonder what to eat after your sweat sessions? You're not alone — but we've got you covered with the best post-workout meals to support your level of workout intensity.
Optimizing your post-exercise meal helps you refuel and recover, and ensures you’re ready to face the next session on your schedule, says Susan Kleiner, RD, Ph.D., the owner of High Performance Nutrition in Mercer Island, Washington and the author of The New Power Eating. Without it, you’ll feel weak and tired, and even open yourself to injuries, she says.
But what should you actually eat? While micronutrients like vitamins and minerals are important for cell repair and fighting exercise-induced inflammation, it’s macronutrients you should be focused on after a workout. In particular, carbohydrates replenish your muscle glycogen stores (i.e. your energy reserve) and ideally should be eaten within 45 minutes of finishing your session. And you’ll want to pair those carbs with protein, which helps with muscle synthesis and repair. As far as fat is concerned, it’s not as important immediately after exercise, though it should be part of a well-rounded diet.
The specific ratios of those nutrients will vary based on the type of workout you just completed. Let’s dig a little deeper.
Most Efficient Post-Workout Meals to Promote Quicker Recovery
After an Intense Workout
If you’re going long and hard, whether that’s a lengthy heavy lifting session, an explosive power workout followed by a HIIT finisher, or higher-intensity endurance training, you’ll have burned through a significant amount of carbohydrates and want to refill your tank.
Macros to focus on: Kleiner advises about ½ gram of protein and 1 gram of carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight; for a 160-pound person that would be about 36 grams of protein and 73 grams of carbs. However, since you don’t necessarily get additional muscle-building gains after about 30 grams of protein at a time, you can cap the protein at around 30 grams, says exercise physiologist Jim White, RD, owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
1) Cottage Cheese with Carb-Rich Toppings
White recommends cottage cheese, as it contains leucine, a branch-chain amino acid. In fact, a recent study in the journal Clinical Nutrition found that adding leucine to a recovery drink improved post-workout muscle building. A cup of low-fat cottage cheese paired with a cup of pineapple and topped with ½ cup of plain granola will get you 34 grams of protein and 77 grams of carbs, for about 450 calories.
2) Grain Bowls with Eggs
Grain bowls are customizable to meet your nutrition goals. When ordering out, Kleiner suggests doubling (or even tripling) the protein source to get to 25 to 30 grams. An easy DIY bowl with 1.5 cups quinoa, ½ cup shelled edamame, a cup of roasted broccoli, and topped with two eggs has 35 grams of protein, 74 grams of carbs, and 637 calories. Make sure to eat the eggs whole: A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that compared to people who followed their workouts up with egg whites, those who consumed whole eggs had a 40 percent greater muscle-building response. (Nearly 40% of the protein contents of an egg comes from the nutrient-dense yolk.)
After a Moderate-Intensity Workout
While you may think of endurance workouts as purely carb-fueled, when you’re logging miles but not necessarily pushing hard, you may not need as many carbs, says Kleiner. The same thing applies if you’re doing a shorter, more moderate lifting session.
Macros to focus on: In these situations, aim for ½ gram of protein and ½ gram carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight, suggests Kleiner. For a 160-pound person that would be around 36 grams of each.
1) Chicken Wrap with Protein-Rich Fillings
White suggests a chicken wrap; three ounces of grilled chicken breast, 2 tablespoons of hummus, a handful of baby spinach, and an ounce of feta wrapped up in a large whole wheat tortilla delivers 38 grams of protein, 39 grams of carbs, and 523 calories.
2) Tuna Steak with Brown Rice and Veggies
A tuna steak is a good source of protein, plus research finds that the omega-3 fatty acids in fish can boost performance and help offset exercise-induced inflammation. A 4-ounce tuna steak with ¾ cup brown rice, plus 1 cup of cauliflower contains 38 grams of protein, 38 grams of carbs, and 337 calories.
After an Active Recovery Session
On days that you don’t have a heavy workout scheduled, you may be tempted to ignore your nutrition. Don’t, says White. You’re going into these activities depleted from strenuous workouts, and if you're energy deficient, your metabolism will suffer, you’ll feel an energy slump, and put yourself at risk for an overtraining injury.
You don’t have to worry too much about specific ratios or timing, but on active recovery or rest days, be sure to get a mix of protein, carbs, and healthy fat every time you eat, he says. And while you may not sweat much during mobility or prehab work, it’s a good time to focus on hydration, since you’re likely still dehydrated from the previous day’s heavy workout, adds Kleiner.