Dive into the science of post-workout nutrition with insights from clinical nutrition coordinator Perri Halperin and sports dietitian Jenna Stangland. Learn the ideal combinations of foods to refuel, repair, and recover, enhancing your post-exercise recovery for optimal performance
Thinking about what to eat after a workout may not seem like that big of a deal, but what you put in your body is actually essential to your post-workout recovery. Whether you’ve done intense strength training or just your 10,00 steps, refuelling is important. It takes a balanced meal full of the right foods to make any exercise worth it — healthy eating is key.
Below, the experts break down exactly which types of foods you should eat after a workout (and which ones to steer clear of). Read on to see what they had to say below.
Why you should always eat after a workout
Eating after a workout offers loads of benefits. Perri Halperin, MS, RD, CDN, clinical nutrition coordinator at the Mount Sinai Health System, explains that exercising diminishes your glycogen (which is the stored form of glucose that you need for energy), tears muscle tissue and depletes electrolytes. Eating the right foods will replenish energy levels, increase muscle protein synthesis and rehydrate the body.
A post-workout meal also helps prevent injury. Jenna Stangland, MS, RD, sports dietician and performance advisor for Momentous, says that eating can repair stressed and inflamed cells after an intense training session.
When to eat after a workout
How long you should wait to eat after you exercise depends on a couple of factors. According to Stangland, you’ll want to think about four things: the length of the workout, the intensity of the workout, the type of workout you’ve done, and your personal workout goals.
Generally speaking, if you do an hour-long workout that is lighter in intensity (think a walk or flow yoga) or which doesn’t involve weights, then you could just wait until your next meal to eat. But if your workout is longer than an hour and more strenuous, then you’ll want to eat within 45 minutes to an hour of the workout. This is especially important if you’re trying to build muscle. “Eating a post-workout meal [or] snack sooner enables you to fuel again two hours later to bring in more protein and calories to support the building of muscle mass,” she explains.
What are the best foods to eat after a workout?
Angie Asche, MS, RD, expert nutritionist at Centr, says to focus on the three “Rs” of recovery when thinking of that post-exercise meal: refuelling, repairing and rehydrating. You’ll want to refuel with carbohydrates, repair with protein and rehydrate with fluids and electrolytes.
Halperin agrees and says combining these for a “post-workout trifecta” is ideal. She lists yoghurt and fruit, peanut butter sandwiches, turkey on wholegrain bread with vegetables, hummus with wholewheat pitta and veggies, and chicken with brown rice as some of the simple combos you can make yourself after exercising.
Photo: Thomas Cooksey
Carbs are what you need to replenish your energy, especially if you’re training for several hours or multiple times a day. Stangland says that complex carbohydrates (a.k.a. minimally processed) are the best types of carbs as they will provide a rich source of vitamins, minerals, and fibres. These include foods like wholegrain bread, brown rice, vegetables and fruit.
Halperin says that protein helps repair and build muscle. Studies show that taking in 20 to 40 grams is the right amount of protein to help the body maximise muscle growth and health after a workout. Foods like eggs, yoghurt, cheese, beans, tofu, tempeh, fish, shellfish, chicken and turkey are all good sources of protein.
Stangland adds that foods with high leucine content, which can be found in chicken, fish and cheese, are also a great option as they contain amino acids that turn on muscle protein synthesis.
Carbs and protein also help with recovery. Halperin points to studies that show consuming carbohydrates in a 3:1 ratio to protein help the body recover after exercise. But there are other foods you can consider working into your post-workout meal.
“Anti-inflammatory foods are great after a workout to help with recovery and reducing muscle soreness,” says Stangland. “These include tart cherries, turmeric, dark leafy greens and deep-coloured wild berries.”
She adds that you can also look to omega-3 fats, like those found in salmon, olive oil, walnuts and chia seed, to help the body recover. Studies show that a eating omega-3-rich foods for a week can help to reduce muscle damage. Asche is a big proponent of harnessing the powers of magnesium to support the muscles through soreness, as well as the antioxidant vitamin E, as it may help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress.
So what about fats? Turns out eating healthy fats may be beneficial after you exercise. “You can absolutely incorporate some fat in your post-workout meal or snack, I just recommend prioritising sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat,” says Asche. She lists olives, olive oil, avocado, fatty fish like salmon, nuts like almonds, and seeds as healthy fats to look for.
What should you drink after a workout?
“Consuming a drink after a workout is a great way to get multiple functional nutrients in your body quickly and efficiently,” says Stangland. “Depending on schedules, timing and resources, sitting down for a balanced post-workout snack is not always an option. A drink can get into the bloodstream quickly and deliver the recovery nutrients to fatigued cells.” The best thing you can drink after a workout is (obviously) water. You’ll want to drink two to three cups of water post-workout for every pound you lose during your exercise session, just as the American College of Sports Medicine recommends. While you might consider drinking a sports beverage to help maintain electrolyte balance, Halperin would only recommend this after more strenuous workouts that last longer than an hour – but be aware that they usually have a high sugar content.
You can also consider a smoothie post-workout. Asche recommends drinking one that contains wholefoods rich in protein, carbohydrates and antioxidants, such as a fruit smoothie with protein powder or Greek yoghurt. Stangland likes mixing frozen tart cherries, ground flaxseeds, ice, almond milk, and a whey protein powder to help the body recover.
What should you never eat or drink after a workout?
As for what not to eat after a workout, Halperin says it’s best to avoid sugary foods like cookies, sweets and cakes – they won’t help your muscles recover and may cause an upset stomach.
Stangland adds that you’ll want to avoid simple carbohydrates and anything processed or with lower-quality protein sources. “These would be ‘empty calories’ coming in [to your body] that are not as functional to refuelling, rehydrating and repairing the body after a workout,” she says. Sugary cereals, baked goods, bars, or beverages with a long ingredient list or a lot of preservatives are all no-nos, as are fried foods.
When it comes to drinks, avoid anything with high added sugars as they are inflammatory and won’t help your body recover. Asche adds not to drink anything that will upset your digestive system, lacks protein, or is too high in saturated fat. And if you’re thinking of heading to brunch after a quick pilates session, don’t even think about getting a mimosa as alcohol will interfere with muscle protein synthesis and your quality of sleep, which will result in poor workout recovery.
Exercise is a holistic process, so don’t skimp out on that post-workout meal. You wouldn’t want all your hard work to be for nothing.
Originally published on vogue.co.uk