What you eat after exercising can either sabotage or accelerate your results. Here’s exactly what to reach for.
Let’s be honest: The best part about working out isn’t the surge in endorphins. It’s biting into that well-deserved meal or snack afterward.
But post-sweat grub isn’t just a tasty reward––it’s a critical component to maximizing your gains. That’s because when you work out, your body taps into its glycogen stores for energy, especially during endurance exercise. And any weight-bearing exercise breaks down muscle tissue. What this really means: Post-workout refueling—to replenish glycogen and rebuild torn muscle tissues—is just as essential to your workout as a warmup or cooldown.
Of course, the proper fuel after a 5K race is likely going to look a little different than what you’d eat following, say, an hour of pumping iron. And your choice of food can either sabotage or accelerate your results.
Here, nutritionists share exactly what you should refuel with after each type of workout for faster gains.
Cardio Exercise (less than 1 hour in duration)
If you’re doing endurance-based cardio for less than an hour, such as swimming, cycling, or running, you’ll want to replenish your lost glycogen stores within 30 minutes of hanging up the towel, says Armen Ghazarians, C.P.T., founder of Finish Fit in Glendale, California. He suggests aiming for a 4:1 ratio of carbs to proteins. For example, if you eat a banana with 30 grams of carbs, you want to add 7 to 10 grams of protein along with it.
Your go-to fuel: 1 cup watermelon with ½ cup Greek yogurt. “The amino acid in watermelon, called L-Citrulline, can help reduce muscle soreness and help replenish the lost electrolytes,” Ghazarians says. He also suggests reaching for a banana topped with 2 tablespoons almond butter, or ¾ cup low-sugar cereal with low-fat or almond milk.
Cardio Exercise (more than 1 hour in duration)
“After a long, strenuous workout like a long hike or race, eat a large meal within 30 minutes,” says Gabrielle Fundaro, Ph.D., a certified sports nutritionist and consultant for Renaissance Periodization. She suggests aiming for at least 300 to 400 calories and 20 to 25 grams of protein. And don’t forget to pair that plate with plenty of water.
Just go easy on the fat. “Fat should be kept fairly low immediately following longer cardio, as it can slow gastric emptying and delay nutrient delivery to muscles,” Fundaro notes. When picking a dish, no more than 30 percent of its calories should be derived from fat, or no more than 10 to 15 grams. And opt for sources with omega-3 fatty acids, like nuts, seeds, and fatty fish.
Your go-to fuel: Salmon, quinoa, and spinach. “Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids in salmon can help stimulate muscle protein synthesis, which can help build stronger muscles,” Ghazarians notes. Other solid options: an acai bowl with fresh fruit and nuts, or turkey, tomato, lettuce and light cheese on whole-grain bread.
Within minutes of finishing your strength training routine, reach for a snack with 200 to 300 calories and 20 to 25 grams of protein to stimulate muscle repair, Fundaro suggests. If you didn’t sweat too much, you probably don’t have to worry about replenishing lost electrolytes.
Your go-to fuel: A protein bar or shake. Packing in protein within minutes after a strength training workout is critical. That means choosing a snack you can stash in your gym bag, like a protein bar, is optimal. Look for ones that contain less than 10 grams of fat and 3 grams of saturated fat.
If you prefer to gulp your gains, opt for a shake with whey or plant-based protein, which has been shown to be just as effective as whey in rebuilding muscle fibers, Fundaro notes. Another protein-filled alternative: tuna with whole-grain crackers.
Hot Yoga or Pilates
If you do a light stretch session, you might not need to refuel immediately. However, if you’ve just done a sweaty hot yoga class, it’s important to hydrate with plenty of water, or even coconut water, to help diminish dehydration, headaches, and cramping, Ghazarians says.
Your go-to fuel: A piece of whole-grain toast with 1 tablespoon almond butter. “The complex carbs can help spike your insulin levels, which can help repair torn muscle fibers,” Ghazarians explains. He also recommends reaching for a protein shake with frozen fruit, or a sweet potato with 1 tablespoon olive oil.
The Most Important Replenisher of All
Regardless of the workout, be sure to drink plenty of H2O, especially in the summer. The American Council on Exercise recommends consuming 17 to 20 ounces of water two hours before exercising, 7 to 10 ounces every 10 to 20 minutes during a workout, and another 16 to 24 ounces after your workout for every pound of body weight you lost in your sweat session.
Note: Please consult your physician before beginning a physical activity program to make sure it’s safe for you.