7 Top Post-Workout Foods & Why They Work

Find out what foods are proven to help you recover from a tough workout. (Photo: istetiana/AdobeStock/Livestrong.com)

Post-exercise recovery can be simplified into 3 Rs: rehydrate, refuel and rebuild. Rehydrating replaces lost fluids and electrolytes from sweat, while refueling focuses on carbohydrates to restore muscle glycogen and essential amino acids from high-quality proteins help repair and rebuild muscle tissue and stimulate muscle growth.

As a general rule, try to get 15-25 grams of quality protein, with 0.5 to 0.7 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight immediately post-exercise. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends carbohydrates within the first 30 minutes of stopping exercise to optimize the update of glucose into muscles. Since whole foods provide hundreds of bioactive compounds, such as antioxidants that may provide additional benefits for enhancing your recovery, focus on whole foods first and supplements second.

1. Smoothies, Drinks and Shakes
Your first goal when recovering is restoring proper fluid balance within your body. Even being modestly dehydrated can reduce peak performance and your metabolic rate. Since muscles are comprised of about 75 percent water by weight, getting fluids back into your body should be your first goal. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends drinking 16 to 24 ounces of fluids for every pound lost during exercise.

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For hydration purposes, what you drink isn’t as important as how much you drink so opt for whatever you enjoy: water, sports drinks, coconut water, smoothies or shakes.

2. Chicken or Bean Burrito with Salsa
There’s nothing like Mexican food to help rebuild your broken muscles. Whether you choose a black bean or chicken burrito, the combination of tortilla with protein and the carbs from rice are great fuel for achy muscles. Skip the sour cream and opt for guacamole for the antioxidants and healthy fats in avocado, and pile on the tomato or corn salsa for even more antioxidants. Add black beans because they’re high in protein as well as being antioxidant all-stars. In fact, one study found that black beans contain several times more antioxidant capacity per serving compared to fruits such as oranges, apples or cranberries.

3. Cottage Cheese with Fruit and Cereal
Cottage cheese has one of the best protein-to-calorie ratios. A cup of two-percent cottage cheese has 200 calories and 27 grams of protein and no added sugars. What’s more, cottage cheese is one of the richest sources of the amino acid leucine — with nearly three grams per one-cup serving. Leucine is the most important amino acid for building muscle. But for leucine to increase muscle-protein synthesis, insulin is essential, so carbohydrates are needed with leucine to raise insulin levels. To get enough carbs with your cottage cheese, add one cup of fresh fruit (strawberries, pineapple or grapes), and top it off with one-quarter cup of whole-grain cereal or granola.

4. Whole-Wheat Toast with Banana and Nut Butter
Bananas are one of the most popular fruits of athletes. Their readily digestible carbohydrate helps replenish your muscles’ glycogen stores while elevating insulin which helps shuttle amino acids into muscle tissue. Try two slices of whole-wheat bread toasted and top each slice with one and one-half teaspoons of nut butter and half of a banana. Partner with a glass of milk to get at least 20 grams of protein.

5. Greek Yogurt with Fruit and Oats
Greek yogurt is strained so it has about twice as much protein and half the sugar of traditional yogurts. For overall health, plain Greek yogurt is generally recommended to keep added sugars in check, but when you’re trying to rebuild post-exercise, it’s the time to enjoy a sweetened Greek yogurt to get the simple carbohydrates your muscles crave.

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A one-cup serving of plain Greek yogurt has about 130 calories and 23 grams of protein. Make a parfait with one cup of Greek yogurt, one cup of fresh or frozen berries, one to two teaspoons of honey (or maple syrup) and a half-cup of raw quick-cooking oats. The fruit and oats both are antioxidant rich to help reduce the inflammation associated with exhaustive exercise.

6. Crackers with Turkey and Cheese
Sometimes having a plate of salty finger foods beats a sandwich. The combination of 10-12 whole-grain crackers (i.e. Crunchmaster gluten-free, Triscuits, Kashi TLC, Back to Nature), three ounces of sliced turkey breast and one ounce of low-fat cheese is a perfect combo to meet your carbohydrate and protein requirements. Plus, the high sodium counts in these choices will help your body rehydrate and replace electrolytes. When enjoying salty foods, be sure to drink plenty of water to help shuttle fluid from your GI tract into your bloodstream.

7. Avo-Egg Salad Sandwich
Egg salad sandwiches are a great post-workout food because each medium egg provides six grams of protein and the amino acids in eggs are considered the most bioavailable, making them the gold standard for protein options. Enjoy an egg salad sandwich made with hardboiled eggs, vinegar, Dijon mustard and chopped chives. For a healthier twist, instead of using mayo, try mashed avocado. You’ll get all the creaminess of mayo but with the added antioxidants of avocado. Serve on whole-wheat bread with tomato and lettuce.

Click here to find out what other foods you should be eating post-workout.

By Julie Upton, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D.

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