When I’m enjoying a post-workout glow, the last thing on my mind is what I’m eating. It’s hard for my brain to get past the “Need food now!” stage, especially if I’ve spent time during burpee sets or Savasana daydreaming of fluffy scrambled eggs or overnight oats for breakfast.
We’ve been taught that diet and exercise are separate for so long. (Anybody else grow up thinking goldfish and juice boxes were the best post-soccer game snack?) The reality is that everything in your body is interconnected, and to get the most out of a workout, you need to pay attention to how you’re fueling it, including after a workout (not just before).
“Physical movement requires energy,” says Maya Feller, MS, RD, and CDN at Maya Feller Nutrition in Brooklyn. “Post-workout is the ideal time to replenish lost stores.”
A rule of thumb? Eat within 60 minutes or so of your workout (or sooner if you’re doing heavier cardio or HIIT classes). Here’s what you should be eating after your workouts:
Post-Workout Requires Balanced Whole Foods
The best post-workout foods have a blend of different nutrients so you can quickly and easily fuel up. The foods you choose depend largely on your goals, whether that’s recovering more quickly, increasing muscle growth, or focusing on endurance.
“After a hard workout, you want to eat a mix of protein and carbohydrates,” says Boston-based nutritionist and registered dietitian Sarah Gold. “The protein is important for repairing the small (completely normal) muscle tears that occur during exercise and carbohydrates that help replenish used up stores.”
Gold suggests focusing on balanced whole-food snacks and meals, rather than turning to protein shakes or supplements. “A big myth I see is that you only need protein,” she says. “ I always recommend whole foods over powders and supplements, since whole foods offer a host of other health benefits and tend to be more satisfying.”
Meet the Expert
- Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN of Brooklyn-based Maya Feller Nutrition is a registered dietitian nutritionist who is a nationally recognized nutrition expert. Maya shares her approachable, real food based solutions to millions of people through regular speaking engagements, writing in local and national publications, via her social media account on Instagram, @mayafellerRD, and as a national nutrition expert on Good Morning America.
- Sarah Gold is a registered dietitian, nutrition communication expert, food blogger, and owner of Sarah Gold Nutrition, a virtual private practice and consulting business in the suburbs of Boston. Sarah is also a spin instructor, avid runner and triathlete.
Recover with Workout-Specific Meals
“Short duration, lower-intensity workouts may not require significant nutrition modification while longer duration, higher-intensity, and more strenuous workouts will,” says Feller. “It is important to remember that all activities, regardless of their intensity, utilize energy and proteins that will need to be replenished.”
That’s because when you workout, your body uses glycogen (a carbohydrate) and proteins stored in muscle tissue. The harder you work out, the more reserves you deplete, and the more you’ll need to pay attention to what you’re eating afterwards.
“High endurance activities, including running, swimming, and HIIT or spin classes, use a high amount of glycogen for performance,” she says. “In comparison, weightlifting or bodybuilding are not as taxing to glycogen stores, but will require increased amounts of protein repair.”
The Best Foods to Eat After a Workout
When creating your post-workout meal plan, consider what you enjoy eating, and time your workouts around meals if you’re not ready to jump into a completely new routine. “Focus on whole foods and build a balanced meal or snack with a mix of protein, carbs, and healthy fats,” says Gold.
With that in mind, check out this list of dietitian-recommended post-workout foods, below.
You may have heard of chocolate milk as the ultimate recovery food, and that’s because it meets the ideal ratio of carbohydrates to protein: 1:3. Says Feller, “Chocolate milk contains a balanced amount of carbohydrates and proteins, and for those who enjoy and tolerate it, it can be a quick and easy way to begin replenishing after working out.”
Lots and Lots of Water
While water may not be a food, hydrating after a workout is an essential part of recovery, especially since you lose water as you sweat. If you're not a fan of drinking water, try water-rich foods like watermelon, celery, and oranges. Coconut water is also a great option as it's high in electrolytes.
Avocado is a healthy fat that pairs well with crisp bread, toast, and eggs to make a satisfying post-workout breakfast. “My activity of choice is usually running, [so I usually eat] crisp bread with avocado and hummus, poached eggs over shallots, and arugula or mustard greens,” says Feller.
Avocado is one of Gold’s go-tos, too: “I typically exercise in the morning, so I’ll have avocado toast with greens and an egg.”
Eggs or Lean Meats
While protein isn’t the be-all, end-all of recovery, it’s still important to make sure you’re replenishing the energy you’ve expended. You’ll want to make your post-workout more of a meal than a snack, so adding eggs, lean meats, or plant-based proteins like chickpeas and tofu make a difference.
Greek Yogurt With Berries
Another protein-packed snack is yogurt with nuts, granola, or berries. “A Greek yogurt parfait with fruits and nuts for breakfast contains both carbs and protein, which is ideal for recovery,” says Gold. It’s an easy on-the-go snack, too. Just make sure to check the label for sneaky additives or sugars and flavoring, since all yogurt isn’t created equal.
Nut Butter on Whole Grain Crackers or Toast
Recovery is all about balancing the protein-to-carbohydrate ratio, and nut butters, hummus, or tahini can be great options to start. Combine this with banana, fruit, or a hard-boiled egg to round out the meal. “Whole grain crackers with nut butter, fruit, and a hard boiled egg [is a great choice],” says Gold.
Building a smoothie with antioxidant-rich and anti-inflammatory foods like berries, pineapple, and greens can be great for your recovery. Your smoothie should have a balance—and enough ingredients to feel full. (These green smoothie recipes get the thumbs up.)