11 Easy Post-Workout Foods and the Science of Why They Work

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Post-exercise recovery can be simplified into '3 Rs' Rehydrate, Refuel and Rebuild. Rehydrating replaces lost fluids and electrolytes from sweat, while refueling focuses on carbs to restore muscle glycogen and essential amino acids from high-quality proteins help repair and rebuild muscle tissue and stimulate muscle growth. As a general rule, try to get 15 to 25 grams of protein and 0.5 to 0.7 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight right after you exercise. Since whole foods contain compounds such as antioxidants that may provide even more recovery benefits, focus on whole foods first and supplements second.

1. Drink Up: Smoothies, Drinks and Shakes

Woman squeezing an orange while making a smoothie.
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Your first goal when recovering is restoring proper fluid balance within your body. Even being modestly dehydrated can reduce peak performance and your metabolic rate. Since muscles are comprised of about 75 percent water by weight, getting fluids back into your body is your first goal. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends drinking 16 to 24 ounces of fluids for every pound lost during exercise. If you didn’t weigh yourself before and after working out, use the urine color chart (link below) to determine how hydrated you are. What you drink isn’t as important as how much you drink, so pick something you enjoy: water, sports drinks, coconut water, smoothies or shakes.

Related: 8 Things to Consider When Picking a Protein Powder (& Our 5 Top Picks)

2. Chocolate Milk

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You may have seen ads that feature professional triathletes drinking chocolate milk after exhausting workouts with the tagline: “What’s Your After?” There are actually several published research studies with athletes showing that low-fat chocolate milk enhances recovery, improves endurance performance and may help improve lean body mass. Chocolate milk hydrates, provides electrolytes, leucine, casein and whey protein and an optimal carb-to-protein ratio of four to one. The bonus: It tastes great and is cheaper than other recovery products. Try 16 ounces of chocolate milk post-exercise. A 16-ounce serving of low-fat (2 percent) chocolate milk has 64 grams carbs, 16 grams protein and 360 calories. If you’re a vegan, you can substitute flavored pea protein, brown rice protein, or soy protein.

Related: 10 Twists on Hot Chocolate That Will Blow Your Mind!

3. Fruit and Yogurt Smoothie

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Smoothies are great for recovery because they pack in everything you need: fluids, protein and carbs. Plus, using dairy products means you get both whey and casein proteins — a great combination to get both “fast-acting” and “slow-acting” amino acids, which are optimal to build and repair muscle tissue. Fruit provides antioxidants that may speed up recovery and diminish delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). A small study in New Zealand found that drinking a blueberry smoothie before and after exercise enabled athletes to regain peak muscle strength sooner, compared to those who drank a placebo beverage. TRY THIS: In a blender, combine one cup of skim or regular milk, eight-ounces of low-fat plain Greek yogurt, one cup of fresh or frozen berries and one tablespoon of honey. Blend until desired consistency. Add ice cubes, if needed.

Related: 16 Snacks That Are OK to Eat at Night

4. Chicken or Bean Burrito with Salsa

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There’s nothing like Mexican food to help rebuild your broken muscles. Whether you choose a black bean or chicken burrito, the combination of tortilla with protein and the carbs from rice are great fuel for achy muscles. Skip the sour cream and add guacamole for the antioxidants and healthy fats in avocado, and pile on the tomato or corn salsa for even more antioxidants. Also, go for black beans — they’re high in protein as well as being antioxidant all-stars. In fact, one study found that black beans contain several times more antioxidant capacity per serving compared to fruits like oranges, apples or cranberries.

Related: 22 Delicious Protein Powder Recipes (That Are NOT Shakes!)

5. Avo-Egg Salad Sandwich

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Egg salad sandwiches are a great post-workout food because each medium egg provides six grams of protein and the amino acids in eggs are considered the most bioavailable, making them the gold standard for protein options. Munch on an egg salad sandwich made with hardboiled eggs, vinegar, Dijon mustard and chopped chives. For a healthier twist, instead of mayo, try mashed avocado in the recipe below. You’ll get all the creaminess of mayo but with the added antioxidant of avocado. Serve on whole-wheat bread with tomato and lettuce.

Related: Avo-Egg Salad Recipe on LIVESTRONG.COM's Calorie Tracker

6. Cottage Cheese with Fruit and Cereal

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Cottage cheese has one of the best protein-to-calorie ratios. A cup of two percent cottage cheese has 200 calories and 27 grams of protein and no added sugars. What’s more, cottage cheese is one of the richest sources of the amino acid leucine — with nearly three grams per one-cup serving. Leucine is most important amino acid for building muscle. But for leucine to increase muscle protein synthesis, insulin is essential, so carbohydrates are needed with leucine to raise insulin levels. To get enough carbs with your cottage cheese, add one cup of fresh fruit (strawberries, pineapple or grapes), and top it off with one-quarter cup of whole grain cereal or granola.

7. Cereal with Milk and Glass of Fruit Juice

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Andrea Chernus, M.S., RD, CSSD, co-author of “Nutrient Timing for Peak Performance ”says the goal is to refuel as soon as you can. “Post-exercise, muscles are primed to take up glucose and amino acids,” she explains, “and the enzymes for storing these nutrients dissipates in time.” It can be as simple as a bowl of cereal with plenty of milk and a glass of 100-percent fruit juice for extra carbs. In this case, you don’t need to choose a low-sugar, fiber-rich, whole-grain cereal to eat immediately after exercise, as this is the one time when you really benefit from quick-digesting sources of carbs. Instead, choose a sweetened cereal and blend it with a more wholesome choice.

8. Fruits and Vegetables

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One of the best ways athletes can enhance recovery is by simply eating or drinking fruits and vegetables, during and after exercise, explains David Nieman, DrPH, Professor, Exercise Science at Appalachian State University. Nieman has published several studies that have found performance and recovery benefits among endurance athletes consuming fruits and veggies. “Diets rich in fruits and vegetables may help reduce muscle soreness and muscle damage associated with endurance exercise,” says Nieman. Some of the foods that have been studied include bananas, berries, tart cherries, pomegranates and tea. TRY THIS: Chocolate Covered Cherry Smoothie from Jennifer O’Donnell-Giles a USAT Certified Triathlon Coach: Combine frozen cherries, chocolate milk, chocolate whey protein powder, wheat germ, ground flax seeds and a banana in a blender.

9. Whole Wheat Toast with Banana and Nut Butter

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Bananas are one of the most popular fruits of athletes. Their readily digestible carbohydrate helps replenish your muscles’ glycogen stores while elevating insulin which helps shuttle amino acids into muscle tissue. Try: Two slices of whole wheat bread, toasted, and top each slice with one and one-half teaspoons of nut butter and half of a banana. Partner with a glass of milk to get at least 20 grams of protein.

10. Crackers with Turkey and Cheese

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Sometimes having a plate of salty finger foods beats a sandwich. The combination of 10-12 whole-grain crackers (i.e. Crunchmaster gluten-free, Triscuits, Kashi TLC, Back to Nature), three ounces of sliced turkey breast and one ounce of low-fat cheese is a perfect combo to meet your carbohydrate and protein requirements. Plus, the high sodium counts in these choices will help your body rehydrate and replace electrolytes. When enjoying salty foods, be sure to drink plenty of water to help shuttle fluid from your GI tract into your bloodstream.

Related: 10 High-Protein Snacks You Can Eat on the Go

11. Greek Yogurt with Fruit and Oats

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Greek yogurt is strained so it has about twice as much protein and half the sugar of traditional yogurts. For overall health, plain Greek yogurt is generally recommended to keep added sugars in check, but when you’re trying to rebuild post-exercise, it’s the time to enjoy a sweetened Greek yogurt to get the simple carbohydrates your muscles crave. A one-cup serving of plain Greek yogurt has about 130 calories and 23 grams of protein. Make a parfait with one cup of Greek yogurt, one cup of fresh or frozen berries, one to two teaspoons of honey (or maple syrup) and a half-cup of raw quick-cooking oats. The fruit and oats both are antioxidant rich to help reduce the inflammation associated with exhaustive exercise.

Related: Is Greek Yogurt Really More Nutritious Than Regular Yogurt?

Are You Sure You Need a “Recovery” Meal?

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If you exercise to tone up and slim down, make sure that you really need a “recovery” meal before assuming that you do. Many people overeat after working out, and actually consume more calories in their post-workout “recovery” meal than they burned during their workout. If your workout is not more than 90 minutes or completed at a sweat-soaked, high-intensity, you may not need a true “recovery” meal or snack after you’re done. Perhaps enjoy a healthy snack of either fresh fruit or veggies with hummus and drink water.

Related: 20 Foods to Always Buy Organic (Even If You’re On a Budget!)

Recovery Options for When You’re On-the-Go

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Many athletes find that they’re on the road immediately following an event or training session so recovery nutrition means getting whatever is available at fast food establishments, coffee shops or gas stations. The good news is that no matter how limited your choices, you can always find something that will aid recovery. The best choice at fast food restaurant is a grilled chicken sandwich with a small smoothie; at coffee shops, order a breakfast burrito with a large latte; and at the gas station, try pretzels or crackers with string cheese or low-fat flavored milk. Other options that will work when all you have is road fuel: egg sandwiches, yogurt parfaits, low-fat chocolate milk and fruit smoothies.

Related: 19 Fast, Healthy Convenience Store Snacks

What Do YOU Think?

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Do you usually consumer a post-workout recovery snack? What is your usual favorite? Where you surprised by any of these post-workout snacks? Are there any that you might try? Do you know about any other great post-workout snacks? Leave a comment below and let us know.

The Benefits of Glucose When Working Out

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Post-exercise recovery can be simplified into '3 Rs' Rehydrate, Refuel and Rebuild. Rehydrating replaces lost fluids and electrolytes from sweat, while refueling focuses on carbs to restore muscle glycogen and essential amino acids from high-quality proteins help repair and rebuild muscle tissue and stimulate muscle growth. As a general rule, try to get 15 to 25 grams of protein and 0.5 to 0.7 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight right after you exercise. Since whole foods contain compounds such as antioxidants that may provide even more recovery benefits, focus on whole foods first and supplements second.


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