There’s all kinds of info out there about what you should consume – and when – after working out. But what does the science say? And how does that translate to real choices when you’re standing in front of the cupboard trying to figure out what to eat?
Let’s take a look.
Why is it Important to Eat After Working Out?
When you exercise, your muscles experience micro-tears, you lose fluids through sweat, and your body uses the glucose stored in your body for quick energy. (Yep, even if you’re Keto!) First, it uses the glucose that’s freely available in your bloodstream, and then it dips into the glycogen reserves stored in your muscles and liver.
After your workout, your body needs to:
- replenish the glycogen stored in your muscles and liver
- build and repair muscle tissue
- replace fluids and electrolytes lost through sweat
Eating the right foods after exercise can help your body do these jobs more quickly and efficiently – helping you recover faster, limiting muscle soreness and fatigue, and keeping you performing at the top of your game.
When to Eat After a Workout
Your body’s ability to build and repair muscle is enhanced after a workout[*]. This is called the “anabolic window,” and experts used to think it only lasted 30–45 minutes after exercising. However, newer research is mixed, and some studies have shown that this window may last several hours.[*]
The bottom line is: most people don’t need to panic about eating as soon as they finish working out – but it is a good idea to try and have a meal within two hours.
You may want to try to eat sooner – within 30 minutes if possible – if:
- You did a long cardio or endurance workout – research has shown that delaying consuming carbs more than two hours after a long cardio workout may result in reducing muscle glycogen synthesis by 45%.[*]
- You fasted before your workout – for example if you work out before having breakfast in the morning.
- You’re lifting heavy weights or doing other resistance training.[*]
How to Build Your Plate for Optimum Recovery
Your body needs a combination of all three macros to function at its best, but after working out it’s especially important to eat:
- high-quality protein, to repair and build muscle
- healthy carbohydrates, to replenish glycogen stores.[*]
How Much to Eat After Working Out
How much you need to eat will depend on how hard and how long you worked out, plus other lifestyle factors – your age, how often you exercise, and what your goals are (for example, if you’re trying to build muscle or lose weight).
Follow your hunger and be guided by how you feel. The best way to learn what works for you is to keep records of what you ate and how you felt – using the Carb Manager Daily Log will help you figure out what’s working and what’s not.
When you exercise, you experience micro-tears in your muscles. Your body uses the amino acids in the protein you eat after a workout to repair these tears and to build new muscle – a process called muscle protein synthesis.[*][*] An amino acid called leucine is especially important for muscle building and repair.[*]
Experts recommend consuming 0.25g of protein per kg of body weight (or 10 to 20 grams) after a workout to maximize muscle-protein synthesis.[*]
Consuming carbs after exercise helps replenish your body’s glycogen stores, which become depleted during workouts. You’ll need more carbs if you’ve done a long endurance workout, exercise daily or more than once in a day.
Experts recommend consuming 1.1–1.5g of carbohydrates per kg of body weight.[*] But studies have also shown that a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet can promote better muscle protein synthesis than a traditional, higher-carb diet – so don’t panic if you’re Keto.[*]
But even if you’re eating Keto or low-carb, make sure you have some carbs with your post-workout meal, as eating carbs and protein together has been shown to maximize muscle-protein and glycogen synthesis.[*][*]
How much fat you need will depend on your diet and goals.
Fat slows down how fast your body is able to absorb the nutrients in a meal, but studies have shown that adding more fat to a meal doesn’t affect muscle glycogen synthesis[*] and may even promote more muscle growth after a workout than a lower fat meal.[*]
What to Eat After a Workout
Here are some quick and easy ideas for post-workout snacks and meals. Check out our recipe database for thousands more ideas. If you’re a premium member, you can search our members’ database to find recipes with the specific calories and macros you want to consume.
Keto or low-carb
- Smoothie with high-quality protein powder, greens, berries and Greek yogurt
- Omelet or scrambled eggs with sausage, bacon or salmon
- A good-quality Keto or low-carb protein bar
- Tuna or chicken salad on Keto toast or celery sticks
- Trail mix and jerky
- Veggie sticks and guac or dip
- Cheese and salami with chopped veggies
- Cobb salad
- Hard-boiled eggs
- An omelet wrap with chicken or salmon, mayo and salad
Higher carb options for endurance workouts
- Smoothie with a banana – plus high-quality protein powder, greens, berries and Greek yogurt
- Chickpea pasta with spinach and salmon
- Grain-free oatmeal or granola with Greek yogurt and fruit
- Tuna or chicken salad – on a sandwich or with crackers
- Veggie sticks and hummus
- Cassava pasta with chicken
- An apple or a banana with nut butter
- Chicken or beef taco salad with grain free tortilla chips
- Egg and Paleo waffles
What Not to Eat After a Workout
When we say you need some carbs to replenish your glycogen stores, we don’t mean sugar or refined carbs like cookies, cakes or white bread. These will spike your blood sugar and leave you feeling terrible. You might not feel like digesting a heavy meal but stick to carbs that will digest slower and provide your body stable energy – like vegetables, berries, or whole grains if you eat them.
Make sure your meal contains a source of fat to slow down your digestion, help you absorb fat-soluble vitamins, and provide long-lasting energy – but stay away from fried foods and vegetable oils, which can cause inflammation.[*][*]
Depending on the type of exercise you’re doing, your body can sweat out between 0.5 and 2 liters of fluid an hour. This fluid is made up of water and essential minerals like sodium, potassium and calcium (known as “electrolytes”).
It’s important to replace both the water and the electrolytes after your workout to keep you from getting dehydrated, which can cause headaches, poor recovery, and muscle cramps.
The American College of Sports Medicine also recommends[*]:
- drinking about 17 ounces (500ml) of water about 2 hours before you work out
- drinking regularly throughout your workout – water is fine if you’re exercising for less than an hour. If your workout is longer than 60 minutes, you could choose to use an electrolyte or sports drink instead – go for a low sugar version if possible.
The Bottom Line
As a general rule of thumb, experts recommend consuming 10 to 20 grams of protein and a source of healthy carbohydrates within two hours of working out.
Try to eat sooner if you fasted before your workout or were resistance training, and increase your carbs to replenish your glycogen stores if you did a long endurance workout or work out every day or more than once in a day.
Don’t forget to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water during and after your workout.
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