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Recovery Nutrition Rules and the 9 Best Post-Workout Foods

author image Julie Upton, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D.
Julie Upton is co-founder of Appetite for Health and is a certified sports dietitian who has been writing since 1994. She is a nationally recognized journalist who has contributed to "The New York Times," "Shape" and "Men's Health." Upton is also the coauthor of "The Real Skinny: Appetite for Health's 101 Fat Habits & Slim Solutions." She holds a Master of Science in nutrition communications.

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Recovery Nutrition Rules and the 9 Best Post-Workout Foods
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The difference between an elite-level athlete and an average one can often be tied to recovery. The best athletes know and understand that the physiological adaptions they want to get stronger, faster and fitter also come through recovery -- not from just the work itself. What you eat and drink post-workout plays a key role, but many athletes don’t pay enough attention it. Here are the rules of recovery and the top nine most recommended post-workout foods with easy tips and recipes on how to enjoy them.

1. Recovery Rules
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Performance studies measuring recovery conclude that rehydrating is most important, followed by replenishing depleted carbohydrate stores (glycogen) and getting enough amino acids from protein to stimulate muscle-protein synthesis. The recommended combination includes: 15 to 25 grams of quality protein with 0.5 to 0.75 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight post-exercise. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends carbohydrates within the first 30 minutes of stopping exercise to optimize the update of glucose and amino acids into muscles, but other research suggests that the body is primed for recovery for the first few hours after exercise.

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Post-Workout Food #1: Beets
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This uncommon crimson produce pick provides unique compounds -- nitrates and betalains, which can help the body transfer oxygen to muscles more efficiently, aid muscle contraction, lower blood pressure and act as potent antioxidants. Studies show that beetroot juice as well as cooked beets can improve performance when eaten pre-exercise, but they also have post-exercise benefits too. How to enjoy: Beets are quite versatile and can be enjoyed baked, roasted, juiced, pickled or grated into your favorite dishes. Consider pairing earthy beets with goat cheese and arugula for a colorful salad, or enjoy them simply roasted with olive oil, salt and pepper. They’re also great blended into recovery smoothies.

Related: The 20 Best Smoothie Ingredients

Post-Workout Food #2: Eggs
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Nutrient-packed eggs are considered a “perfect protein,” meaning that the protein found in eggs is of the highest biological value and serves as the gold standard against which all other proteins are measured. Since eggs provide all nine essential amino acids, eating a meal with eggs post-exercise can aid in repair of body tissues and in muscle-strength gains. Indeed, studies show that the protein in eggs promotes a significant increase in resistance muscle strength among athletes. One large egg provides 70 calories, six grams of high-quality protein, five grams of total fat and a wide variety of important vitamins and minerals, including iron, vitamin D, zinc and choline. How to enjoy: Whether over easy, scrambled, hardboiled or sunny side up, eggs are delicious regardless of the preparation. Partner with a high-quality carb like whole-grain bread or fresh berries, or combine them with a banana to create protein pancakes.

Related: Paleo-Inspired Protein Pancake Recipes

Post-Workout Food #3: Greek Yogurt
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With a whopping 14 grams of protein and just 100 calories per six-ounce serving, plain Greek yogurt boasts an ideal protein-to-calorie ratio, which makes it a great post-workout treat. Greek yogurt is an easy, portable snack you can enjoy after working out or use to make great recovery drinks. Keep in mind that you’ll want to stay away from sugary “fruit on the bottom” varieties, as these are loaded with refined sugar and unnecessary calories. How to enjoy: Instead, it’s best to add natural sugar from fresh fruit for that optimal protein-to-carbohydrate combination that is so beneficial for exercise and muscle growth. If you want a change of pace from yogurt and berries, oats or Grape Nuts are great options.

Related: Which Type of Yogurt Is Best for You?

Post-Workout Food #4: Watermelon
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It’s no surprise that watermelon slices are at the end of most endurance events. The sweet fruit is 92 percent water, making it the perfect choice to help rehydrate. Two cups of watermelon have just 80 calories and is a good source of vitamin C, lycopene, potassium and vitamin A. What’s more, an amino acid in watermelon, L-citrulline, has been shown to help maintain healthy blood vessels, increase nitric oxide and improve blood flow. In a small study, athletes who consumed watermelon juice experienced up to 40 percent less muscle soreness 24 hours after exercise compared with athletes who didn’t consume watermelon juice. How to enjoy: It’s perfect on it’s own or blended into a smoothie. Just blend two cups of watermelon chunks, one tablespoon of honey, one tablespoon of mint leaves, six ounces of nonfat Greek yogurt and a dash of cinnamon. This smoothie provides approximately 28 grams of carbohydrates, 20 grams of protein, zero grams of fat and 190 calories.

Related: The 20 Best Smoothie Ingredients

Post-Workout Food #5: Salmon
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Salmon is best known for being an excellent source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Additionally, omega-3s have been shown to help improve glucose tolerance and promote lean body mass. While fat often gets a bad rap, good fats, like the ones found in salmon, play an essential role in hormone production (think testosterone and growth hormones) and can thus aid in muscle growth and strength gains. Further, the “good” fat found in lean protein can elevate your metabolic rate, which helps you to shed additional fat and build lean muscle mass. Its high protein content -- about 17 grams per three-ounce serving -- provides essential amino acids to help rebuild muscle tissue. How to enjoy: Salmon is delicious when served grilled over a colorful salad or broiled in the oven with lemon and thyme.

Related: Nine Safest Seafood Options

Post-Workout Food #6: Berries
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Berries are rich in immune-boosting, disease-fighting antioxidants, which can help squash the oxidative stress the body endures after intense bouts of exercise. The antioxidants in berries help mitigate the high level of oxidative stress (which leads to further muscle-tissue damage) associated with exhaustive exercise. Fortunately, by increasing intake of antioxidant-rich foods like berries exercise-induced muscle damage and inflammation caused by free radicals is diminished. In addition to being rich in antioxidants, berries provide a substantial amount of carbohydrates, which helps replenish muscle glycogen stores. One cup of fresh berries provides around 20 grams of carbohydrates, making them a good place to start when you need to amp up the amount of carbs in your diet. How to enjoy: Berries are delicious when paired with a protein-rich snack like Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, string cheese or a handful of nuts. You can also incorporate them into a smoothie with a protein powder of your choice.

Related: The 20 Best Smoothie Ingredients

Post-Workout Food #7: Quinoa
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This delicious ancient grain has more protein than most other grains (four grams per half-cup serving) and is rich in iron and fiber. It’s considered a complete protein, meaning it provides all of the nine essential amino acids the body needs to function properly. The benefit of consuming a complete protein post-exercise has been well documented, and studies show a link between protein-rich foods and increases in physical performance, training session recovery, lean body mass, muscle hypertrophy and strength. An additional perk of this trendy superfood? It’s also gluten-free. How to enjoy: Quinoa makes for a great hot breakfast cereal and is especially delicious when flavored with nutmeg or cinnamon and garnished with fresh fruit. This nutritious, muscle-enhancing food is also quite tasty in salads or paired with dried cranberries and slivered almonds.

Related: 13 Powerful Grains and Seeds

Post-Workout Food #8: Turkey
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The Thanksgiving star is often overlooked for the rest of the year, but it shouldn’t be if you’re an athlete. Turkey is an affordable source of high-quality protein to provide the essential amino acids your body needs to recovery after a workout. Protein requirements vary by sport and how long you’ve been training. But as a general rule, endurance athletes need about 1.2 to 1.4 grams per kilogram of body weight, and serious strength athletes need 1.6 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. What’s more, for athletes trying to maintain a lower body weight, a higher-protein diet may help retain muscle mass while keeping body fat levels low. How to enjoy: Roll turkey slices in lettuce and enjoy in wraps with spicy mustard, or place turkey in a whole-wheat pita and garnish with avocado and tomato salsa. Turkey dinner? Whip up a batch of turkey meatballs and serve over whole-grain pasta.

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Post-Workout Food #9: Peanut Butter
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Peanut butter is a favorite among many all-star athletes. It’s a good source of plant-based protein and healthy good-for-you fats. Plus, it’s much more affordable than other nut butters. A tablespoon of peanut butter packs about 95 calories, four grams of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat and 3.5 grams of hunger-squashing protein. Peanut butter is loaded with vitamin E, magnesium and the necessary B vitamins needed to convert food into energy. In fact, vitamin E plays an essential role in helping to prevent free-radical damage after heavy workouts so you can recover more quickly. Whenever possible, opt for an all-natural brand of peanut butter with no added sugars or oils. How to enjoy: Try peanut butter sandwiches on a toasted whole-grain bagel or on top of waffles or pancakes. It also goes well with fruit like bananas, apples or pears, or add it to your recovery smoothies.

Related: 13 Types of Nut and Seed Butters

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What Do YOU Think?
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Are you concerned about what you eat after you exercise? If so, what types of foods do you focus on? Are there any tips or tricks that you can share? Let us know in the comments below.

Related: 18 Foods With a “Bad” Rap That Are Actually Good for You

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