Nothing feels better than finishing an intense workout. You’ll also be famished! But if you want to keep the momentum going, don’t just grab any meal. Your post-workout food will make or break how your body recovers.
You need to understand that there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” answer. The best meal to eat depends on multiple factors. How long did you work out? What kind of exercise did you do? How intense was it? Even the temperature and your fitness level matter.
However, there are some general rules you can follow. These cover the 3 most important components of a post-recovery meal. From there, you can adjust each factor depending on your workout routine.
Muscle cells contain protein. Intense exercise damages these cells, but the right food will make sure they properly recover. That’s where protein comes in. Working out metabolizes amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Tougher routines, as you can imagine, break down more amino acids. It explains why athletes need more protein than the casual exerciser.
Regardless of your workout, make protein a priority. Both endurance and resistance training promote muscle breakdown, even during the post-recovery period.1
Carbs are the body’s first source of energy. But unlike protein, it isn’t stored, so you need to refuel throughout the day. This is even more important after breaking a sweat! The more energy you used, the more carbs you’ll need.
Even the brain needs carbohydrates. If there’s not enough, “hangriness” and weakness are sure to crop up. It’ll easily take away from those feel-good endorphins.2
Additionally, a 2010 study found that the combination of carbs and protein enhances muscle recovery. On average, muscle damage also decreases by 27%, while muscle soreness drops by 30%. Muscle performance also improves the next day. Protein can’t do it alone, so don’t forget about those carbohydrates.3
A tough workout will make you sweat up a storm. This cools down the body but also makes you lose tons of electrolytes. These minerals, which have an electric charge, control muscle function and fluid balance.4
Without enough, you’re at risk for dehydration. It’s not the best setup for optimal recovery! This is even more important on hot and humid days when you’re prone to sweating buckets.
Post-Workout Meal Ideas
Aside from the list above, focus on antioxidants. Intense physical activity promotes oxidative stress, but eating antioxidants will lessen the damage. Take your pick from vegetables and/or fruits. To get started, check out this sample post-workout meal. Feel free to adjust the ingredients to suit your taste buds.5
1. Leafy Green Chicken Wrap
Use a whole grain wrap or pita bread. You can either use 2 medium-sized kale leaves or 1 cup of baby spinach. Add 3-ounces of shredded chicken breast. To finish it off layer it with hummus or avocado.
2. Snack Option
The ideal snack option post-workout would be whey protein in milk or water. This is because of its convenience. If you cannot afford protein powder, then try a dollop of Greek yogurt, a nut trail mix, egg with hummus, or just blueberry toast with cottage cheese. A handful of unsalted almonds could also be a quick and filling snack option.
A 14-ounces sports beverage would be good. Drink a sports beverage with 5 to 8% carbohydrates with electrolytes, 20-30 meq/L of sodium, and 2-5 meq/L of potassium. Avoid beverages with added sugar as much as possible.6
Want a more exact game plan? Consult a nutritionist or health coach for customized guidance.
|↑1||Fielding, Roger A., and Jascha Parkington. “What are the dietary protein requirements of physically active individuals? New evidence on the effects of exercise on protein utilization during post‐exercise recovery.” Nutrition in Clinical Care 5, no. 4 (2002): 191-196.|
|↑2||D’Anci, Kristen E., Kara L. Watts, Robin B. Kanarek, and Holly A. Taylor. “Low-carbohydrate weight-loss diets. Effects on cognition and mood.” Appetite 52, no. 1 (2009): 96-103.|
|↑3||Stearns, Rebecca L., Holly Emmanuel, Jeff S. Volek, and Douglas J. Casa. “Effects of ingesting protein in combination with carbohydrate during exercise on endurance performance: a systematic review with meta-analysis.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 24, no. 8 (2010): 2192-2202.|
|↑4||Electrolytes. University of Maryland Medical Center.|
|↑5||Selsby, Joshua T, and Stephen L. Dodd. “Heat treatment reduces oxidative stress and protects muscle mass during immobilization.” American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology 289, no. 1 (2005): R134-R139.|
|↑6||Sawka, Michael N., Louise M. Burke, E. Randy Eichner, Ronald J. Maughan, Scott J. Montain, and Nina S. Stachenfeld. “American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Exercise and fluid replacement.” Medicine and science in sports and exercise 39, no. 2 (2007): 377-390.|