Optimize your recovery by perfecting your post-exercise meal
When it comes to getting the most out of your training, eating the right foods after a workout is almost as important as the activity itself. It keeps your body from fatigue and possible injury, facilitates muscle building, and helps with recovery by reducing muscular damage and priming you to go just as hard tomorrow.
In general, you should make sure to eat carbs and protein and drink plenty of water or another sports drink after a workout, says Nicole Lund, nutritionist at the Center for Musculoskeletal Care and Sports Performance Center at NYU Langone Health. The carbs you consume will restore glycogen reserves in your muscles, the protein will help reduce muscle breakdown, and the water and sports drink will maintain your electrolyte balance, she says.
But not all recovery fuel is created equal. Getting the right carb-to-protein ratio depends on how you just exercised. Here’s the game plan for maximizing your post-workout nutrition.
What It Is: Your tempo run or interval cycling workout.
Your Body’s Reaction: High-intensity training requires the contraction of fast-twitch muscle fibers for short bursts of power, fueled almost entirely by carbohydrates stored as glycogen, says Lund. Short, quick movements don’t deplete your body’s more lasting energy source—the protein stockpiles, Lund says.
What to Eat: Since you’re draining your easy-access energy stash quickly while most of your protein reserve remains untouched, you’ll want a high carb-to-protein ratio here, meaning you should have more carbs than slowly digesting protein on your plate. The average person should replace carbohydrates at a rate of one gram for every kilogram of body weight, Lund says. For a savory option, try two eggs and a slice of whole-wheat toast with some fruit. A sweeter option: one cup of plain yogurt with one cup of mixed berries and one tablespoon each of chia seeds and honey. If your workout is less than one hour—which is common for HIIT—a bottle or two of water paired with a Nuun tablet is a great way to keep energy and hydration topped off.
When to Eat: Aim to eat a meal within one hour of completing your session, says Ryan Kohler, a performance nutritionist at the University of Colorado Sports Medicine and Performance Center in Boulder.
What It Is: A long run or multihour mountain bike ride at an easy to moderate pace.
Your Body’s Reaction: During these longer endurance activities, you’re likely zeroing out your glycogen storage. Mid-effort fueling is key to replenishing supplies just enough to keep you going, but once you finish, you’ll need to restock with quick-digesting carbs to avoid serious muscle fatigue and system disruption. Because of increased sweat loss with endurance activity, it’s also important to consume additional sodium to prevent hyponatremia, the medical term for when your sodium plummets and you experience symptoms like nausea or fatigue, says Lund.
What to Eat: “Your goal is to eat and hydrate as soon as possible to help muscles recover,” says Lund. Reach for quickly digested carbohydrates at a rate of one gram for every kilogram of body weight. Since you’re working longer, keep that same ratio of carbs, but up the number of calories on your plate. Translation: Eat more. While the same egg and yogurt combos (but larger amounts of each) will work, you can also try a whole-wheat tortilla wrap smothered with two tablespoons of peanut butter and one banana. If you’re in the middle of a serious training block that requires you to dip into your glycogen stores day after day, it’s especially important to increase the carb-to-protein ratio since you’re likely operating at an energy deficit, says Kohler.
When to Eat: Get your balanced meal within 30 minutes of completing your workout, Lund says.
What It Is: This is your gym day, a bodyweight workout, or a resistance activity like bouldering.
Your Body’s Reaction: In strength-based workouts, your body relies on anaerobic energy systems, meaning it’s using muscle breakdown to power movement rather than oxygen, says Lund. That means your muscles sustain microtears at a faster rate than they do in other efforts, making protein—directly responsible for rebuilding muscles—the primary focus of your recovery meal.
What to Eat: “Without protein consumption after a workout, your body will have a hard time repairing muscle fibers and building strength,” says Lund. Look for a lower carb-to-protein ratio in your meal, says Kohler. While protein will be emphasized, carbs are still needed to support the muscle tissue as it rebuilds. Something like three eggs with chopped veggies and white rice will do the trick, he says.
When to Eat: Be sure to eat within one or two hours to maximize your body’s ability to turn your food into muscle, Lund says.