What post-workout meals can help you improve your exercise sessions? You’ve probably worked hard to find the right pre-workout meal to give you the energy to work out and get the results you want. You probably also know that working out uses up the glycogen in your muscles, and that training hard breaks down muscle fibers. What should you eat for post workout meals to restore the glycogen? How about post-workout meals that help to rebuild muscle? You might be surprised at some of the combos trainers and fitness experts choose to refill glycogen stores and rebuild muscle.
What you eat after your workout depends on your goals for performance enhancement.
Post-Workout Meals for Better Performance
In this article:
- When Should You Eat After Working Out?
- Four Goals of Post-Workout Meals
- What Do Carbs Have to Do with It?
- What Are Healthy Post-Workout Meal Carb Choices?
- Which Proteins Are Good to Eat After Working Out?
- Where Do Fats Fit In?
- What’s a Good Protein-to-Carb Ratio?
- Putting It All Together: Post Workout Meals
When Should You Eat After Working Out?
The post-workout “window of opportunity” for a meal can be as short as 15 minutes. Registered dietitian Manuel Villacorta advises that people seeking muscle gains should eat at least 30 grams of protein and 30 to 35 grams of carbohydrates within 15 minutes of working out.
Villacorta stated that, if you’re trying to stay in shape or lose weight, you can extend the “window” up to 45 minutes.
In all likelihood, the “window of opportunity” probably isn’t as strict as 15 minutes. Additional studies published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition showed muscle rebuilding and glycogen gains for meals eaten up to two hours after working out.
Four Goals of Post-Workout Meals
Trainers and nutritionists advise eating the right combination of macronutrients after you exercise for four different reasons.
- Speed up and improve your recovery.
- Rebuild glycogen stores in your muscles.
- Decrease breakdown of muscle protein.
- Increase muscle protein build-up (muscle growth).
Two macronutrients, in particular, carbohydrates and protein, play important roles in these four goals. Fat is less beneficial to post-workout fitness goals than these other two macronutrients, according to many trainers and nutritionists.
What Do Carbs Have to Do with It?
Workouts damage and break down the protein in your muscles. They also use up the glycogen your body stores in its muscles, which enables you to work out in the first place.
Glycogen is a carbohydrate that gives you the energy to work out. Your body turns it into glucose (sugar) while you’re working out. After 90 minutes of working out, chances are most of this fuel will be used up.
Your muscles aren’t the only part of your body that uses glycogen. Your brain also uses glucose from glycogen. Glycogen also helps maintain healthy blood glucose (blood sugar) levels.
After working out, you can restore glycogen from healthy carbohydrates. The carbs you pick can vary. Giving your body the fuel it needs to rebuild glycogen is the reason why so many trainers choose protein powder combined with healthy, low-fat carbs.
What Are Healthy Post-Workout Meal Carb Choices?
Some trainers swear by fruit after workouts, including berries and bananas. Bananas are one of the simplest fruits to eat whole or toss in a protein powder shake. They also have a lot of potassium, which aids in muscle recovery.
Another post-workout carbohydrate is the potato, either sweet or white. Taking micronutrients like vitamins and minerals into consideration, sweet potatoes or yams are an efficient post-workout meal staple.
Other heavy-carb meal choices to rebuild glycogen and nutrients after working out include:
- Oats/oatmeal and other whole grains
- Whole grain pasta
- Whole grain bread (Ezekiel bread or similar)
- Brown rice or quinoa
- Dark, leafy green vegetables (kale, spinach, chard)
Which Proteins Are Good to Eat After Working Out?
You can easily think outside of the broiled skinless chicken breast box for after-workout meals. Choose any protein, from protein powder to nuts, to satisfy your post-workout protein needs. You should aim for about 20 to 30 grams of protein for each post-workout meal.
1. Go Yogurt
If you want to choose fruits as your post-workout carb, Greek yogurt is a natural partner. Greek yogurt is made using a different process than “American” yogurt. The result is higher in protein, lower in fat, and lower in sugar than other types of yogurt. With about 100 to 110 calories per serving and 17 to 20 grams of protein, nonfat Greek yogurt is an ideal post-workout choice.
2. Lean Animal Protein
Since fat doesn’t seem to help workout recovery much and can promote weight gain, lose the skin on your chicken unless you are performing high-intensity workouts. Animal proteins that are good choices after workouts include:
- Skin-free poultry (chicken and turkey)
- Lean pork (tenderloin)
- Lean beef
- Low- or non-fat dairy (cottage cheese, cheese, milk)
- Whey protein powder
3. Plant-Based Protein Choices After Workouts
If you don’t want to eat animal protein, you have a lot of good choices to get the protein and amino acids you need to rebuild muscles and help recovery.
- Nuts and nut butter
- Seeds, including pumpkin, chia, and hemp
- Chickpeas (hummus, roasted, or in salads)
- Soy or nut milk and yogurt
- Plant-based protein powder (soy or pea)
Spinach is a leafy green superfood that contains healthy vitamins and fiber. While it’s not the biggest protein source, spinach can boost a post-workout meal with 4 grams of protein per cup.
Where Do Fats Fit In?
Most performance nutritionists don’t advocate eating a massive cheeseburger and fries after workouts. Fat doesn’t seem to play a big role in post-workout recovery, although one exception is whole milk vs. fat-free milk. Athletes that drank a serving of whole milk vs. a serving of skim milk after working out did see better muscle recovery.
Fat helps your heart, brain, and many body functions.
Foods with healthy fats include:
- Avocados and avocado oil
- Whole eggs
- Dark chocolate
- Nuts and seeds
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Cheese and yogurt
- Coconut milk and coconut oil
What’s a Good Protein-to-Carb Ratio?
Sports nutrition studies to date show that a ratio of 2 carbs to 1 protein will produce the best post-workout results. However, some trainers keep an even 1 to 1 ratio of carbs to protein for their post workout meals.
The ratio of carbs to protein is one area where you can experiment to see which produces the best results. Keep in mind that no studies show that 100% carbs and no protein post-workout will rebuild muscle. Carbs restore glycogen and protein rebuilds muscle, so you have two different macronutrients that meet two different post-workout needs.
Healthy carbohydrates help you restore glycogen stores and provide essential micronutrients. Healthy proteins help muscles to rebuild themselves and offer vitamins and minerals.
The recommended amount of protein you need after a workout is 20 grams. Some trainers will consume 40 to 60 grams of protein at each post-workout meal.
Putting It All Together: Post Workout Meals
You can choose to eat whole foods after a workout or consume a protein shake or smoothie. Each has benefits, and sometimes a shake can get the nutrition in your body faster than waiting to eat a complete, whole food meal.
1. Basic Plant-Based Protein Shake Plus
2 scoops of non-animal protein powder
1 cup nut milk
1 tablespoon nut butter
One slice Ezekiel or other similar bread with the other half of the banana.
2. Animal-based Protein Shake Plus
2 scoops whey protein powder
1 cup whole or skim milk
1/2 cup blueberries or 1/2 banana
1 tablespoon nut butter
Eat the other half of the banana and some blueberries with 1 cup of Greek yogurt.
Keep in mind that if you’re not counting calories, whole-fat milk and milk products like Greek yogurt have shown benefits to people who are working out regularly.
3. High Protein and Veggies
Lean protein (chicken, turkey, salmon, beef)
1/2 sweet potato, baked
1/4 cup whole grains or quinoa
1/4 cup leafy green vegetables
4. Eggs, Grains, Good Fats
2-3 scrambled eggs
1 tablespoon nut butter
Whole grain/Ezekiel-type bread
Now that you know what your options are, you can decide what kinds of post-workout meals are best for you. If you’re jammed for time, protein bars and shakes can be a good choice. Whichever meals you put together, make sure you have a substantial ratio of protein to carbs. Don’t be afraid of healthy fats, but do remember that they don’t help much with post-workout recovery and muscle building goals. Balance your macronutrients and make everything you eat do its job in helping your body perform at its best.
What post-workout meals do you swear by? Share your recipe below!
Up Next: High Calorie Meals To Bulk Up Fast