When you eke out your last rep or sprint through your final mile, your work isn't quite done. Even if you aren't hungry immediately after exercise, this is one of the best times to eat. A post-workout snack isn't necessary after a mild session, such as a walk around the block, but if you are hitting the weights with gusto or boosting your heart rate into a work zone for an hour or longer, a small snack or meal with a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein is in order.
Importance of Timing
Consuming an adequate amount of carbohydrates in the 20 to 30 minutes after a workout restores your muscles' energy stores, while an adequate amount of protein assists in recovery and repair. If you wait just two hours post workout to consume a meal, your ability to refuel your muscles diminishes by 50 percent, found a study published in the "Journal of Applied Physiology" in 2002. The International Society of Sports Nutrition notes that protein may also help your muscles absorb the energy from the carbohydrates and store it as glycogen, or fuel. Proper post-workout nutrition may also help augment muscle growth and boost your mood.
You don't have to down huge portions of carbs and protein after your workout to take advantage of the window and fulfill the ratio. Aim for 30 to 40 grams of carbs after a workout and 10 to 15 grams of protein. This only amounts to about 160 to 220 calories -- not enough to undo any good calorie burning you did during your session. You may eat more in the 30-minute window if you are a larger person, if you had an especially grueling and long workout or if your next meal is several hours away.
Post-Workout Fuel Suggestions
Commercial recovery drinks and bars are convenient options as they often have the proper ratio in a portable package. You don't have to invest in these pricey foods, however, to get adequate recovery. Brendan Brazier, author of "Thrive: The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life," recommends 1/4 cup of nut butter with 3/4 cup of apple and banana slices, for example. If you have a minimal appetite after a workout, a liquid option may be most appealing. Whip up your own smoothie using fresh fruit, water and a small scoop of whey protein. A serving of Greek yogurt with berries and a banana is another option.
A Little Later
No more than three hours after your workout, have a full meal to further induce recovery and muscle growth. The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends that this meal focus on the essential amino acids and carbohydrates, but the exact ratio of protein to carbs at this meal is less important. Examples of a good, post-workout meal are chicken breast with brown rice and greens or tilapia with a sweet potato and broccoli; meatless post workout meals may include a large salad with nuts, seeds and quinoa.