Why Post-Workout Nutrition Is So Important — and Exactly What to Eat

A smoothie made with fresh fruit and protein powder makes for the perfect post-workout meal. (Image: monkeybusinessimages/iStock/GettyImages)

After you work out, when the stretching and showering are complete, do you think about your nutritional needs? If you're doing strenuous workouts — as in training for a marathon or regularly lifting heavy weights — you should definitely consider nutrition your best ally.

And that's true even for people who are trying to lose weight, who may feel tempted to skip eating after a workout to cut back on calories. However, you should totally resist that temptation: Noshing after a workout aids in muscle recovery and helps you maximize the workout session. Plus, it helps ward off hunger that could lead to overeating later in the day, which can help you drop a few pounds.

Why Is Post-Workout Nutrition Important?

"The importance of eating well after you work out ties back to wanting to make sure that you repair and replenish your muscles after the workout," says Natalie Allen, RD, an instructor of biomedical sciences at Missouri State University and team dietitian for Missouri State's athletes.

Exercise depletes your body's stored energy and causes muscle damage. Eating counteracts those effects, restoring energy and helping repair your muscles, Allen says. If you plan to work out the next day, refilled energy stores mean you'll have the energy and strength to exercise intensely and burn more calories. Skip the refueling process, and you may struggle to make it through your next workout session.

And then there's the hunger factor. "If you're not working out the next day, you'd be able to properly recover over time, but you might experience extreme hunger later on in the day since you didn't restore properly," cautions Amy Silver, RD, a nutrition coordinator at Fitness Formula Clubs.

But keep in mind that unlike a strenuous sweat session demands, a brief or occasional workout doesn't have to be followed by a meal.

"It's not necessary to alter your nutrition if you're walking on the treadmill, jogging a few times a week or attending Pilates classes, says Allen. Those types of low-intensity exercises are important for good health, but they won't significantly deplete your energy reserves or build muscle. If you're training for a marathon, a century ride or lifting heavy weights, consider eating after a training session a critical step.

What You Eat Matters

Forking into the right meal after a workout encourages your body to hold onto lean muscle mass rather than burn it off for energy. If your goal is weight loss, you want to lose fat — not muscle. Lean muscle is responsible for giving you that toned look as well as boosting your metabolism and promoting good health.

Experts agree that your post-workout meal should include a healthy combination of protein and carbohydrates. The American Council on Exercise (ACE) recommends you get about 15 to 25 grams of protein and one to two grams of carbs per 2.2 pounds of body weight per hour of glycogen-depleting exercise. So if you lifted weights for one hour and weigh 150 pounds, you should aim for 15 to 25 grams of protein and between 68 and 136 grams of carbs.

Protein aids in muscle hypertrophy (helps build muscle!) by repairing exercise-induced muscle damage, says Silver. Simply put, the protein in food promotes those coveted gains.

Carbs, on the other hand, allow you to refuel all that energy you used up during your workout. Silver explains: "Carbohydrates replenish muscle glycogen stores that get used up during exercise." Plus, carbs are the most reusable form of energy, and eating them post-workout ensures you'll have great energy levels for your next workout, notes Allen.

In fact, a small 2019 study published in the Journal of Human Kinetics found carb-based post-workout drinks were more effective than protein-based ones at aiding workout recovery and decreasing muscle soreness.

The generic recommendation is to eat carbs and proteins in a 3:1 ratio, says Allen. But the ratio can differ depending on your fitness goals.

If you've worked out just before breakfast, lunch or dinner, go ahead and eat a meal with carbs and protein. But if it's not mealtime, all you need is a quick, simple snack. This snack does not need to involve a large number of calories, says Allen — it's the mix of carbs and proteins that's most important. If you're watching your caloric intake, she suggests a Greek yogurt with berries (about 150 calories) or two cups of skim milk (200 calories).

Be sure to include these post-workout calories in your daily tally, and consume a total for the day that's 300 to 500 fewer than what you burn to promote weight loss of a half-pound to one pound per week. This weight loss rate is slow enough not to compromise your performance at the gym but rapid enough to produce noticeable results!

Wondering about fats? There's no need to prioritize this macro in your post-workout meal. "Fats slow down our digestion, so I recommend keeping your intake low immediately post-workout," says Silver. "Consume quality fats at other times in the day to control hormones, maintain heart health and increase satiation."

The Timing of Your Meal Matters, Too

Even if you don't feel super ravenous after a workout, you shouldn't delay eating, Allen warns. "Generally, the goal is to eat something within 30 minutes after working out." Nutrition is most beneficial for your body immediately after exercising, she explains. "We know the muscles are more likely to absorb, replenish and repair if you eat right after your workout." Why? Your blood flow is higher, and the macros get to your muscles faster, she explains.

But 30 minutes can move fast, especially if you have a lengthy shower routine or dawdle talking to friends or trainers. What if you miss that window? Go ahead and eat something anyway — it'll still help rejuvenate your muscles and body. What's more, post-exercise muscle soreness was significantly reduced in people who consumed protein after a work out protein, a September 2007 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition shows.

Bottom line: Following a strenuous, muscle-building workout, it's better to eat something rather than nothing. So if you're aiming to eat within 30 minutes of your workout, you'll need to plan ahead. Try the following strategies to ensure you can eat within that window:

  • Schedule your workout around a meal: "Time it so that it backs up into a meal, and therefore, your balanced meal is also your post-workout meal," recommends Silver.
  • Go simple: Buy portable protein bars in advance and keep them in your gym bag or car, suggests Allen. Just make sure to select ones with the appropriate balance of carbs and protein.
  • Prep beforehand, and opt for easily portable options: Portable options ensure you ingest your meal in the optimal time rather than waiting until you get home to prepare it. Measuring your meal in advance also prevents overeating, which can sometimes happen if your workout left you feeling famished. Simple snacks, like low-sugar trail mix or protein bites, can work well as a post-workout snack. Other options include a shaker bottle with a scoop of whey protein powder mixed into milk; a banana with a peanut butter packet; or a can of tuna that you pair with whole-grain crackers. Pack these beforehand so you can easily grab it out of your gym bag and eat it on the way to your next appointment.

Tip

Make sure to include a complete source of protein in your post-workout meal or snack. Complete proteins contain all the essential amino acids your body can't produce on its own to promote muscle growth and repair. The branched-chain amino acids, specifically valine, isoleucine and leucine, are especially important in promoting recovery. Whey protein, casein, beef, chicken, soy, eggs, fish and some seeds and nuts are all sources of these important amino acids.

One thing to watch out for: Sugar-free options. There's nothing innately wrong with sugar-free beverages, says Allen, but they won't provide you with those carbs you need to restore your energy.

A protein-rich drink that's mixed with water often leads to a similar problem: No carbs. Allen suggests mixing the protein powder with milk or juice instead of water (or buying a powder that includes carbs). Otherwise, she says, you'll be unable to work out as hard the following day.

Post-Workout Meal Ideas

Eating a combination of carbohydrates and protein in a 4:1 ratio may benefit endurance athletes such as marathon runners, while a 2:1 or 1:1 ratio benefits strength-training efforts. Such specific measuring of macronutrients isn't essential, though — the most important thing is to eat a mix of carbs and protein, Allen reinforces.

Post-endurance meals containing carbohydrates with a small amount of protein include a smoothie made with half of a banana, whey protein and milk; stir-fried vegetables with two to three ounces of tofu; two to three ounces of chicken breast with a small sweet potato; or oatmeal with a half-cup of cottage cheese. Other protein-rich post-workout meals appropriate after strength training include whey protein powder mixed into milk, Greek yogurt with berries or scrambled eggs with a slice of whole-grain toast.

And Don’t Forget to Drink Plenty of Water

Rehydrating is extremely important for anyone, but particularly for people who work out regularly.

The ACE recommends drinking 32 ounces (the equivalent of four cups) of water during your workout, and more throughout the day. Adjust as needed for long workouts or workouts that you do in warm temperatures, both which make you sweat more.

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