What to Eat After a Workout
By Jenna Braddock, MSH, RD, CSSD, ACSM-CPT, JennaBraddock.com.
The ideas and suggestions written below are provided for general educational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice or care. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider before beginning any physical fitness or health- and nutrition related activity.
When you work out regularly, it’s nice to know you are getting the most out of the time and effort you put in. Nutrition can play a big role in helping you positively respond to your fitness routine. What you eat in a 24-hour period is very important, but many fitness enthusiasts wonder if they should fuel after a workout and if so, how? Here’s what you need to know about what to eat after a workout.
Who Should Eat After a Workout?
It’s important to first determine if it’s valuable to strategically eat after a workout or not based on your exercise duration, intensity, and goals. Not everyone needs post workout fuel in the same way, but it can certainly be impactful for the right person.
Fuelling after a workout can be most beneficial for the following types of people:
- Those who have goals to increase their strength and amount of muscle (lean body mass).
- Those who enjoy working out at a high intensity and/or participate in multiple workouts a day.
- Those who have less than 24 hours between intense workout sessions.
- Those who participate in endurance training and expend a large amount of energy during workouts.
- Those who have increased energy and protein needs connected to their performance goals.
- Those who haven’t eaten 3-5 hours before fitness, are working out during a regularly scheduled eating time, or find themselves hungry after a workout.
In addition to these scenarios, age can also be a reason to reach for post-workout fuel.
As you age, building muscle can become more challenging due to a variety of physiological factors. Research has shown that older exercisers may need significantly more protein to trigger muscle growth and should take advantage of eating soon after resistance workouts.1
Why It’s Important to Eat After a Workout
Eating post-workout first became popular after researchers found that when exercisers consumed energy and protein immediately after a workout, they recovered better and experienced greater improvement in fitness markers than those who did not. Specifically, post workout fuel can help with reloading muscle energy stores (glycogen), increasing muscle size and strength, and supporting muscle repair. This translates to feeling more recovered, better fuelled, and ultimately performing better in subsequent workouts.2
Eating protein specifically after a workout can be a valuable tool for building muscle. The presence of certain amino acids, like leucine, in your bloodstream immediately after exercise are very effective in triggering muscle building.1,3 Therefore, including high-quality sources of protein in your post workout fuel is a strategic choice for maximizing results of resistance workouts.
Best Foods to Eat After a Workout
The best foods to eat post-workout depends on many factors - the time of day, whether you want/need a meal or snack, your schedule and need for convenience, if you have access to refrigeration, your specific food preferences, and more. There are plenty of options to help you find what works best for you.
The two main macronutrients to consider for post-workout fuel are carbohydrates and protein. Focus on replenishing with carbohydrates if you completed an endurance style workout, burned a high amount of energy, and/or need to reload energy quickly to complete another workout.1
Protein is important for repairing and building muscle and studies suggest that at least 20 grams post-workout is needed to trigger these benefits. Animal-based protein like whey, and plant-based forms like soy have been found to deliver a beneficial amino acid profile.3
You don’t have to choose between the benefits of carbohydrates and protein, however, to support your fitness goals. Combining carbohydrates with protein after a workout is a winning combination for replenishing glycogen stores, promoting muscle growth, and supporting overall performance.2
Here is a list of quick and easy post-workout meal and snack ideas that deliver around 20 grams of protein and quality carbohydrates. Choose your options based on your preferences and whether you need a larger meal or smaller snack.
- CLIF® Builders® - These portable bars are a perfect post-workout food to help build and repair muscle tissue. They contain 20 grams of complete plant protein plus carbohydrates to top off your tank. I personally like that they are gluten free, do not contain high fructose corn syrup or artificial flavours, and use Rainforest Alliance Certified™ cocoa. Enjoy it with water after training to fuel recovery and get ready for your next workout. For lighter workouts or when you don’t need a full 20 grams of protein, opt for CLIF® Builders® Minis, which are half the size and provide 10 grams of protein.
- 1 cup cottage cheese with fruit - This powerful snack contains a whopping 25 grams of protein. It’s a great snack to quickly grab after coming home from a hard workout. Top with ¼ cup fresh fruit or berries for an extra boost of high-quality carbohydrates.
- Smoothie - Whip up a smoothie using frozen berries, 20 grams of your favourite protein powder and 1 cup of water, milk, or juice of your choice. Milk (dairy or non-dairy) will boost protein intake while juice will add more carbohydrates depending on your needs. Smoothies can be a good option for those who don’t feel like eating solid food post-workout and need something easily digestible.
- 3 large eggs + ½ cup berries - Eggs are a very easy way to get protein in post-workout. 3 eggs provides 20 grams of high-quality protein. A side of berries add complex carbohydrates. Cook the eggs any way you like. For a fast option, make hard boiled eggs ahead of time and you’ll have protein ready to go. You can now find pre-cooked hard-boiled eggs in many grocery stores.
- Protein oatmeal - Mix one packet of plain, instant oatmeal with 1 cup of unsweetened soymilk and heat. Once cooked, stir in 2 tablespoons (32 grams) of peanut butter or peanut butter powder for a lower fat option. This combo is great any time of day, not just the morning. Consider making overnight oats instead for an on-the-go option. Simply let the oats and peanut butter or peanut powder soak in the soymilk overnight then take it with you to the gym or training session.
- Quick egg & bean burrito - Fill a whole wheat tortilla with one cooked egg (any style), ½ cup of black beans, 2 tablespoons (10 grams) of shredded cheese, and some salsa for a delicious dose of protein and carbohydrates. Precooked eggs (sliced hard boiled eggs work great) so all you have to do is assemble and eat. Make it ahead and quickly heat it up for a fast post workout mini meal.
- Tuna and whole grain crackers - If you crave something savoury post-workout, try super portable single serve pouches of tuna (or salmon!) spread on whole grain crackers. Many brands offer flavoured tuna options that make a delicious snack that’s super easy and mess-free. A single serve (2.5-3oz) pouch provides about 18 grams of protein.
Choose the snack or meal that best fits your schedule, lifestyle, and goals. I always encourage my clients to have a mindset of experimentation with their nutrition. Simply test something out and see how it goes and if it makes a difference to your workout and fitness goals. If it doesn't feel right or you get tired of it, simply move on and test another option.
When Should I Eat After Exercising?
The exact time to eat post workout becomes less important when your daily diet is already high in protein and/or you ate before your workout. It becomes more important if your protein intake is inconsistent throughout the day and/or you did not eat before your workout.2 If that’s a category you tend to fall in, then eating within 30-60 minutes post-workout can be very beneficial for your body.
Some studies suggest that there’s a post-workout window of 30-60 minutes where muscles are hyper-receptive to nutrients. Taking in a mix of carbs and protein in this time frame (instead of waiting for an hour or more) may significantly improve muscle repair and growth as well as overall performance. This can be beneficial for both strength and endurance training sessions.3
In my clients who desire to build muscle, change their body composition, or recover more quickly, eating soon after a hard workout has made a noticeable difference for them.
In choosing the right time for you to eat after a workout, consider the time of day you work out, how often you eat throughout the day, if your protein intake is spread out between meals and snacks and your energy and recovery needs. Many people train at times of day where a post workout snack or meal is not only appropriate but could be very beneficial to their performance.
- Karpinski C, Rosenbloom C. Sports Nutrition: A Handbook for Professionals, 6th Edition. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2017.
- Kerksick CM, et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Nutrient Timing. J Int Soc Sports Nut. 2017; 14:33.
- Jӓger R, et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Protein and Exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nut. 2017; 14:20.