As soon as I’m wrapping up a workout, whether it’s a barre class or going on a hike, the only thought on my mind is what I’m going to eat. When I’m on my last round of burpees, I’m thinking of what I want for dinner, and as I’m laying in Savasana at the end of a morning yoga class, you bet I’m dreaming of scrambled eggs and hashbrowns. It turns out, I’m not wrong to get food-focused post-workout. In fact, what you do (and how you refuel) after the workout can make or break the work you just put in.
Since Goldfish and juice boxes won’t cut it like they did after elementary school soccer practice, there’s a lot of confusion over what to eat. Eating the right foods can help you reach all your fitness goals, prevent feeling sore the next day, and restore energy. But eating the wrong foods (or not enough of the right ones) might be holding you back from actually reaping the benefits of all the hard work that you just put in during your workout. Consider this your official PSA that nutrition and fitness are not separate, and food should be used to help with your #fitspo. As for what to eat? I asked the experts to get rid of the confusion once and for all. Here’s what they said.
Why does eating after a workout matter?
Does it really matter if you eat after a workout? The unanimous answer I heard from experts: absolutely. “Refueling after a workout is extremely important so that you get the most out of your workout session,” suggested Zoë Schroeder, MS, RDN, CSCS, a registered dietitian focused in sports nutrition, as well as a certified strength and conditioning specialist. “If you do not consume adequate nutrition post-workout, your overall performance goals and strength gains will not be optimal. You need to provide the building blocks for your muscle to repair damaged tissue, the energy to replenish depleted stores, and the hydration to ensure your cells have the electrolyte balance they need.”
Think of food as gas and your body as a car. A workout spends a lot of the fuel in the tank (especially if it’s a tough workout), so the car needs to stop at a gas pump in order to keep going. Grueling exercise is not the only thing we do that requires energy; thinking, walking, and even breathing requires energy that our body can get from food, so replenishing after a workout is key for recovery. But in addition to getting more energy, what foods we eat matters because the right kind can repair damaged muscles to help build strength. “Refueling after a workout helps to restore our muscle glycogen stores and build lean body mass,” agreed Shena Jaramillo, MS, RD, a registered dietitian and health activist.
How long should you wait to eat after a workout?
While timing varies based on your body, workout preference, and whether or not you’re physically hungry, most experts I talked to agreed that eating at least a light snack within 30-60 minutes after a workout is important for recovery and reaping the benefits. But because every body (and every workout) is different, what your body is trying to tell you it needs is more important than a time range.
Bottom line: If you’re day dreaming about food by the end of a workout like me, eat a full meal soon as you can. If you’re not hungry, wait a little bit until you are or have a light snack to help your body recover. Also, don’t panic if you don’t have access to food 30 minutes from the end of your workout; the body doesn’t have an internal clock counting down 30-60 minutes like a ticking time bomb. Instead, the idea is just to refuel when you can, and to be mindful of how to give your body the best “fuel” to recover.
So what should you eat?
If you’re doing cardio…
While most experts agreed that the body needs a variety of whole carbohydrates, protein sources, and fats post-workout, the balance of macronutrients might slightly vary based on your fitness goals and the type of workout. If you’re doing heavy cardio like going on a run or taking a dance class, many experts agreed that adding in more carbohydrates (while still getting some protein) is crucial. “Carbs are your body’s fuel. After cardio, your tank is running low, so you need to replenish it,” explained Jody Braverman, NASM-CPT, NASM-FNS, a NASM-certified personal trainer and fitness nutrition specialist. “This ensures your body has what it needs for proper recovery.” Other experts like Jaramillo recommend to their clients and patients to think three parts carbohydrates to one part protein for a general recommendation post heavy cardio sesh.
So what does heavy-carbohydrates-with-some-protein look like? Braverman recommends a smoothie with fruit and greek yogurt, salmon and a sweet potato, or a whole-grain wrap with turkey and avocado to her clients. You can also think of choosing a few complex carbs (like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables) and pairing with a lean protein like eggs, tofu, chicken, or fish for personalized meals or snacks, depending on your tastes, diet, and preferences.
If you’re weight-training…
If you’re focused on building muscle strength and your fitness goals revolve around getting stronger, you might already know that protein after a workout is key. “If you’ve done a strenuous weightlifting workout, your body needs protein to repair damaged muscle tissues,” Braverman recommended. “Resistance training causes small tears in your muscle tissues, so protein (and the amino acids it’s made up of) are the building blocks of muscle. Without enough, your body won’t be able to repair the damage and you won’t see the results you’re looking for.”
A few meal options she recommends to her weight-training clients include a grilled chicken breast with veggies and brown rice, a veggie omelet and whole-grain toast, or Greek yogurt with granola and blueberries, so the focus is on protein but they’re still getting in carbohydrates for that crucial refueling. Emily Newlands Murphy, a fitness instructor and holistic nutritionist, recommended getting in all amino acids for optimal muscle recovery. “If you eat animal products, sources like eggs, lean meats, and fish can provide the full spectrum of amino acids in one serving,” she said. “If you eat a plant-based or vegan diet, you can get different amino acids from different sources, so be sure to incorporate a variety of legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds into your meals.”
If you’re doing a combo…
If you want to get particular about what you’re eating for your food goals, you can lean into the emphasis on protein or carbohydrates, based on your type of workout. But if your workouts consist of both strengthening and cardio, or you feel overwhelmed based on all the specifics, know that every expert I talked to agreed that a general balance of all macronutrients post-workout can help you reap the benefits (no specifics necessary).
“Protein helps repair damaged muscle tissue and carbohydrates replenish your glycogen stores,” Schroeder suggested. “Aim to get both protein and carbohydrates for optimal recovery and to see the best results from your training.” Oh, and don’t forget that third macronutrient: fats. “Healthy fats like Omega 3s (from fish, walnuts, chia seeds, etc.) can help with protein synthesis, support a healthy heart, and act as a satisfying addition to your post-workout meal as well,” Murphy suggested. Focus on meals or snacks that include a balance of whole, non-processed protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Try: a protein shake with almond butter and banana, chicken with brown rice and veggies, or a parfait with Greek yogurt, fruit, and walnuts.
…and no matter what workout you do, don’t forget to hydrate!
Refueling after a workout is not just about food; it’s about what you drink. “Don’t forget about hydration,” warned Tamar Kane, MS, RD, a registered dietitian and marathon runner. Replace fluid losses after a workout to avoid dehydration. If you are exercising in the heat (like an outdoor workout in hot weather or hot yoga), you may also want to include sodium rich foods to replenish electrolytes.” “There’s a secret macronutrient that’s not part of the big three (fats, carbohydrates, and protein), but it’s arguably the most important: water!” Murphy agreed. “We often think of drinking water during a workout, but drinking at least eight ounces afterward is crucial for recovery.” Remember to keep sipping on water even after your workout has wrapped, and eat water-rich foods like watermelon, leafy greens, zucchini, or cucumber to help the body rehydrate.