Your post workout meal is essential for muscle growth and recovery. Whether your goal is to lose weight, maintain, or gain weight, you should focus on getting all 3 macronutrients, water, and electrolytes in your post workout meal.
All foods are made up of 3 building blocks called macronutrients: carbs, protein, and fat. We need a balance of all 3 of these macronutrients in order to have enough fuel to build new muscle mass.
Combining Macronutrients for Post Workout Nutrition
As we mentioned in our Top 10 Pre-Workout Foods blog, carbs are the preferred energy source so our body will use this energy first. Our body likes using carbs so much, that it stores back-up carbohydrates in the form as glycogen in our liver. Our liver will break down glycogen into glucose (sugar), to then use as energy in times of need.
So, after your workout when you feel exhausted and hungry, it is likely that your body used some of its back-up carbohydrate stores. Refueling with adequate carbohydrate is important to make sure that you have enough energy to spare to spend on healing your body after exercise.
Protein is necessary to repair your muscles and promote new muscle growth. It is important to eat protein throughout the day, because our body does not store extra protein like it does with carbohydrates (stored as glycogen) and fats (stored as adipose tissue). That is why eating protein multiple times per day is a good idea if your goal is muscle growth!
Fat is a great source of calories to give your body after your workout. Having fat in a post-workout meal will also help maintain a normal blood sugar, which helps all bodily functions go normally.
How Much to Eat Post Workout
How much energy you need to replenish will depend on the type, and the length of your workout.
Light physical activity for 30 minutes to 1 hour
A light workout would be physical activity that you can do without getting out of breath. For example, going on a brisk walk with your friend and you are able to still have a conversation with them
A light workout is still a workout, and it is great for heart health, but you don’t need any specific post workout meal or snack if you’re eating balanced meals. However, if you’re feeling fatigued or hungry, absolutely grab a snack that has carbohydrates for energy, and protein or fat to keep you full.
Heavy cardio or long runs:
1 hour or longer of moderate to intense exercise
Cardiovascular exercise, also known as “cardio”, focuses on exercising your cardiovascular system (your heart and blood vessels). These types of workouts tend to be on the longer side, and put more wear and tear on your muscles. This extra impact requires extra calories, carbs and protein for healing.
To replenish after a one-hour run, you will definitely want a balanced snack with at least 30 grams of carbs and 7-8 grams of protein. The ideal ratio of carbs to protein for a post workout snack/meal after heavy cardio is 4:1. If you were running for 2 hours, you should aim for at least 45 grams of carbs, and 12 grams of protein. For three hours of running for those of you training for marathons, you should plan a carbohydrate loading 2-3 days before your long runs, and plan a balanced post-workout meal with a minimum of 60 grams of carbs, and 12-15 grams of protein. However, for workouts that reach 3 hours or more, you will likely need additional carbohydrates because you probably burned through a lot of your stored glycogen. At this point you should shift your focus from a post workout “snack” to a balanced meal.
1 to 2 hours of power- or resistance-training
Nutrition for strength training is a little different than cardio-focused nutrition. While you still need a mix of protein, carbs and fat for a post-workout meal, you’ll need a little extra protein because your body is using a lot more muscles. Your ideal carb to protein ratio will be 2:1. As a result, there is more muscle wear and tear, and thus more protein needed for recovery. Aim to have your pre-workout meal within 1 hour of strength training, and have 15-20 grams of protein with carbohydrates to replenish your muscle’s glycogen.
All day events
Sports tournaments or other all-day events also require all-day replenishment. Having light frequent snacks will work best in this scenario. You will have to focus on carbohydrate sources and easily-digested protein if you have less than 1 hour between events. Then refuel with a balanced meal (carb+protein+fat) during longer breaks (2-3 hours). The ideal ratio of 2:1 for carbs:protein applies here as well.
Best Post Workout Food
Post Workout Snacks
Try these protein packed post-workout meals:
Greek yogurt + fruit + peanut butter (or nut butter, see link below)
2 pieces of toast + 2 tbsp peanut butter (or nut butter, see link below)
Hummus + vegetables + pita
Chicken/lean meat + vegetables + rice
Whey protein shake made with fruit or milk (see link below)
For light snacks in between events try:
Bars (low in fiber)
Sports gels (see link below)
Salty snacking can be helpful too, especially if you are outdoors and sweating:
Sports drinks with electrolytes
A handful of salted nuts
Antioxidants, which are in most fruit and veggies, but especially darker fruits, help reduce muscle inflammation and help your body heal quickly. Sports dietitians will often give athletes cherry or pomegranate juice to help with soreness.
Water & Electrolytes
Electrolytes are like little messengers that tell our muscles when to contract and relax, and therefore move!! Without the right balance of electrolytes you can experience painful cramps or muscle fatigue. Both of which would interfere with your performance. Water is also incredibly important because being dehydrated can throw off your electrolyte balance. Our bodies are approximately 70% water, and water is needed for all bodily functions.
For rehydration, a good goal is to drink at least an extra 8 oz of water for every hour of exercise.
Don’t let your tank go empty and refuel after exercise! If you have any questions about fueling for an activity or sport, call us at 301-474-2499 to make an appointment with our sports nutrition expert!
Rebecca Bitzer loves to empower Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) and their clients. Co-author of Welcome to the Rebelution: Seven steps to the nutrition counseling practice of your dreams and Taste the Sweet Rebellion: Rebel against dieting.