Post Workout Meals: What to Eat for Recovery

    
Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD
Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD

Training hard puts some stress on your body, and just as pre-workout meals can help you power through your workouts, train harder, and support your nutrition goals, what you eat afterwards can also have an impact. But how can you tell if you need a post workout meal and what recovery options are best?

What to Eat After a Workout

When you exercise, it puts minor wear and tear on your body, effecting your muscle tissue, hydration status,  and depleting nutrients. This damage acts as acute inflammation - sort of like a short-term, minor injury. And the harder and more often you train, the more important recovery becomes. Well executed post-workout nutrition can improve muscle soreness, help you rehydrate, speed up recovery, promote muscle growth, and support your immune system (1,2,3).

For the average individual, a normal healthy diet is plenty to restore lost nutrients and aid in recovery. But, for those looking to get an extra edge on their fitness or focus more attention on their post-workout needs, the type of fuel you choose can influence how well your recovery goes.

To start, here’s how each macro plays a role in replenishing your system:

Carbs

Carbs are one of your body’s preferred sources of energy for workouts because they are a quick source of glucose - a sugar used in all types of training, especially high intensity, explosive movements, and heavy weight lifting (4,5,6). The storage form of glucose, glycogen, is found primarily in your muscles for quick use. So, after a workout, your energy stores are somewhat depleted and your body is primed to absorb carbs pretty efficiently. 

Along with the glucose, your muscles will draw in water and nutrients that all aid in recovery and replenishment. Think of your muscle like a sponge ready to soak up nutrients to store and utilize. 

Eating carbs after the gym can help put some gas back into the tank!

Protein

Protein intake is key for maintaining and building lean mass in general, and may become even more important after exercise, especially strength training.

During workouts your muscles suffer micro tears, breaking down protein in your body. Including a quality source of amino acids (aka dietary protein) is necessary to repair this damage (7,8,9,10,11,12,13). In fact, adding protein post workout, is how your muscles get stronger and potentially bigger, through a process called muscle protein synthesis (MPS) - which is just a fancy way of saying repairing old, broken proteins and building new ones. 

If you don’t supply enough amino acids through your overall diet, this could eventually cause a loss of muscle mass, strength, and negatively impact your fitness. 

Including a protein post-workout is thought to help repair muscle damage, leading to potential increases in strength, performance, and overall lean mass.

Fat

While fat is burned during exercise and a source of long-lasting energy, it is not necessarily something you need to replenish after the gym. Mainly because your body probably has a fairly abundant supply of fat and it's very unlikely you've depleted your stores after one gym session.

It is theorized that faster absorption results in better recovery and utilization of nutrients, and fat is thought to slow down the absorption of certain foods, like carbs. Thus it is typically recommended to choose lower fat recovery foods.

However, some research challenges this common advice suggesting that fat intake does not negatively impact recovery (14,15). Additionally, including healthy fats provides anti-inflammatory properties that may benefit exercise recovery in other ways (16,17).

You do not need to avoid fat after a workout, but you probably don’t want to overdo it either. Include moderate amounts of healthy fats in your overall diet to grab the benefits of this macro and support overall fitness and health.

Meal Timing: Does the Anabolic Window Exist?

There is quite a bit of debate around whether or not there is a time limit on optimal post-workout recovery. You might have heard this referred to as the “anabolic window of opportunity”. 

Because your muscles are hungry for fuel after the gym, and blood flow is increased to deliver nutrients efficiently for up to an hour, it is theorized that this is the best time to recover. Of course, this still depends on your fitness goals, general nutrition intake, and level of training.

In actuality, it’s not that clear cut and there is no conclusive research indicating when exactly post workout meals are best (18,19). For most people, waiting until your next meal is just fine - and recovery timing isn't a crucial component to your diet or fitness success. 

Where this differs is with high level athletes training for multiple hours at a time or multiple times per day. In this case, strategic nutrient timing becomes more warranted to get them from one training session to the next and to support performance.

Based on the existing research, recovery should be emphasized anywhere from immediately following your training to up to two hours after the gym. Which is why a sweet spot of 20 minutes to 1 hour is commonly suggested.

The Best Recovery Foods

There are a wide variety of nutritious foods that can support your post-exercise needs. Here are some of the top options to consider:

Simple vs. Complex Carbs

Carbs are found in just about everything! Of course not all carbs are the same - they can be found in sugary foods and anything that grows out of the ground, including fruits, vegetables, and grains. 

All carbs can help you refuel, but some carbs work faster than others. For recovery purposes, more simple carbs like white rice and sugars, can help deliver glucose to your muscles more quickly. Whereas, complex carbs provide more long-lasting energy.

Some of the best post workout carbs for good nutrition and faster replenishment include:

  • White Rice
  • Potatoes
  • Pasta
  • Bread
  • Chocolate milk
  • Fruit
  • Oats

Lean Proteins

The best proteins for recovery are complete proteins that supply all essential amino acids at once. These typically come from animal based foods and seafood, and some plant based options like soy and quinoa.

Dairy may have some unique benefits due to its high levels of complete protein, simple carbs and hormones positively associated with muscle gain (20).

There are also slow and quick release proteins to consider. Slow release proteins (like casein) supply small amounts of amino acids over a longer period of time after consumption, while quick release (such as whey protein) do the opposite. It is thought that including both types of protein can help supply an immediate dose of amino acids to your muscles after exercise as well as continue to support recovery over longer periods of time. Luckily most whole food options contain both types of protein.

Some of the top complete protein options to look for are:

  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Shrimp
  • Whitefish
  • Grass-fed beef
  • Cottage cheese
  • Greek yogurt
  • Eggs 
  • Tofu
  • Quinoa

Unsaturated Fats

Healthy fats, especially omega-3s act as powerful anti-inflammatories in our diets. And some research suggests they may also benefit performance recovery for this very reason (21,22). Moreover, the right types of fat provide heart health benefits. 

Here are some of the best healthy fats to reach for after the gym: 

  1. Salmon
  2. Avocado
  3. Flaxseeds
  4. Chia seeds
  5. Nuts and nut butters

Nutrient Dense Foods

Micronutrients (aka vitamins and minerals) can also assist in better recovery, especially foods high in antioxidants like vitamin E and C (23,24). Replacing key nutrients lost through sweat, like magnesium and potassium may offer benefits (25,26,27). Additionally, Zinc, plays a role in muscle synthesis (28).

The easiest way to ensure you are getting a good balance of these nutrients is to opt for more nutrient dense foods in your diet every day - especially fruits and veggies. Here are some great nutrient-dense recovery options to consider: 

  • Dark leafy greens
  • Carrots
  • Broccoli
  • Oysters
  • Berries
  • Dark chocolate
  • Beans

Post Workout Meal Examples

To get the right combo of carbs, protein, healthy fats and good nutrition, here are some easy post workout meal examples you can use: 

Do You Need a Post Workout Meal?

Your post workout nutrition needs are most heavily determined by your overall fitness goals - whether you are looking to lose fat, gain muscle, or improve your performance. The need for recovery fuel can also differ from one person to the next depending on what you ate before the gym, how hard your workout was, when you plan to eat your next meal, and your daily calorie and macro goals.

For the everyday, non-athlete individual, adequate post-workout nutrition is most likely accomplished by eating a meal within a couple of hours of leaving the gym. But for those looking to get more strategic with their intake, fine-tuning your recovery options and timing can certainly offer some potential benefits. 

Based on your overall health goals, here is how to plan for the ultimate post-workout game-plan: 

Fat Loss

Similar to pre-workout foods, recovery and refueling can often be accomplished through normal eating for most people, and a large amount of food or carbs for replenishment is not always necessary - especially if you are trying to lose weight.

Often times people will feel pressured to consume a specific post-workout snack or beverage, but when you are trying to cut calories, this can cause you to add unnecessary intake to your day, and essentially “waste your workout”. 

When it comes to fat loss, the key things to consider are:

  • Daily calorie control
  • Whether or not you ate before the gym
  • The timing for your next meal
  • The type and duration of the workout

As long as you maintain overall calorie control, post-workout foods are not going to ruin your diet. But if they are adding additional calories, you may want to skip it and juts eat your next meal instead. 

If you workout fasted, your body is in greater need of some sort of recovery, especially protein for your muscles. But again, as long as you eat a meal within an hour or two of the gym you should be just fine. 

Be realistic with yourself. If you aren't training for long periods of time, or at high levels of intensity, you likely don't need a specific recovery regimen.

Bottom line: As long as you maintain daily calorie control, what you eat after a workout does not significantly impact your ability to burn or lose body fat.

Muscle Gain

If you are looking to gain muscle, post-workout nutrition becomes slightly more important. Mainly because it’s an opportunity to add more calories to your day and support weight gain. Additionally, including a healthy mix of carbs and protein after the gym can benefit muscle hypertrophy and recovery.

This becomes even more important if you are working out fasted, as your muscle stores are depleted already and hungry for fuel. Prolonging this fasted state is likely not going to do you any favors, and may potentially inhibit muscle protein synthesis. Thus, it is important to make sure you eat something after the gym if you are looking to put on muscle mass. 

Depending on your level of intensity and duration, the recommended intakes for carbs and protein are:

  • 1.0-1.5 g/kg carbohydrate 
  • 0.3-0.5 g/kg protein

For a 150 pound adult, this would equal 68 to 102 grams of carbs and 20 to 35 grams of protein -which can easily be accomplished with a balanced meal. 

Bottom line: Post-workout meals are an opportunity for calories and key nutrients that support your muscle building efforts. 

Improve Performance

If you are looking to improve your overall fitness. Nutrient timing can be something to play with. However, this still comes as part of the full diet package deal - meaning a single meal before or after the gym is not going to impact your performance as much as your overall intake and consistent nutrition strategy. 

If you are looking at post-workout foods to help you train harder or perform at a higher level, your focus should be on the following: 

  • Replenishing lost glycogen stores
  • Re-hydrating
  • Adding protein to assist in muscle repair and growth
  • Nutrient-dense foods that promote good nutrition for overall recovery

To support better recovery, aim to get a macro balanced meal - moderate carb, high protein, and moderate fat within a few hours of training and resume normal eating for the day to replenish lost fuel and repair any muscle damage. Additionally, you'll want to drink plenty of fluids for adequate hydration. 

The more intense your workout, the more calories and carbs you need. 

Bottom line: Your overall daily intake is much more impactful to your fitness goals than post-workout meals. And for most people, a healthy, balanced meal after the gym is plenty to refuel and replenish your body. 

Planning Your Post Workout Nutrition

Just as no single food is going to make or break your diet, post-workout food isn't going to transform your fitness or recovery either - your overall diet remains the most important factor, regardless of your fitness goals. 

For most people, normal eating (aka your next meal) is likely still sufficient in supporting proper recovery after the gym.

When you should consider including a specific post-workout option:

  • You are training multiple times a day or for more than a couple of hours at a time
  • You were fasted prior to training 
  • You are looking to gain muscle
  • You will not be able to eat for another three hours or more

Need help getting on a better routine overall? We've got meal prep solutions that will not only help keep your diet on point, but also simplify the whole process. Our expert team plans, cooks, and ships your food right to your door, so you can focus on everything else!

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