What to Eat After a Workout to Make the Most of Your Session

Post-workout nutrition is a yummy part of exercise recovery, but what to eat after a workout—and when you should start refueling—isn’t as clear-cut as you may assume.

That’s because there are a lot of misconceptions out there, due to both outdated info and the belief some people have that their exercise should be used as a punishment to “pay” for certain eating habits, Audra Wilson, R.D., C.S.C.S., a registered dietitian and certified strength and conditioning specialist with Northwestern Medicine, tells SELF. For example, some people think that no matter what, they need to chug a protein shake before they’ve even cooled down from their workout, while others shy away from carbs afterward.

But proper nutrition after a workout is really important—just as much as fueling properly before a workout. Your goal with eating beforehand is to stock your body with the fuel it needs to complete your workout (without messing with your stomach). Meanwhile, the main things you’re hoping to accomplish with eating after a workout are good recovery and refueling for future workouts.

It’s not that surprising that misconceptions abound about what to eat after a workout. But how to best refuel your body doesn’t have to be super complicated. Here, top sports-nutrition experts explain what you need to know about post-workout nutrition—including protein, carbs, hydration, liquid nutrition, and more.

1. Eat a solid dose of protein every few hours.

Experts once believed in the “anabolic window,” a short time immediately following your workouts during which your body could absorb nutrients and use them for recovery like muscle building. That’s why many people believed they had to down a protein shake before they even re-racked their weights. After all, getting adequate protein after a workout (strength or cardio) promotes muscle recovery and growth, Wilson explains.

But the current know-how is that getting in protein, while important, isn’t quite so urgent. For example, recent studies show that muscle grows back from those microscopic, exercise-induced tears equally well whether you refuel one, two, or even three hours after exercise. It turns out that that anabolic window, if it even exists, is pretty wide open (think of it more as a “garage door of opportunity,” according to a 2020 review in the journal Nutrients).

Instead, the key to muscle recovery seems to be dousing your tissues with decent doses of protein a few times per day, not only after your workout. Research from 2018 published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition suggests that for optimal muscle effects, exercisers should get between 0.40 and 0.55 grams of protein per kilogram of their body mass four times per day. For a 150-pound adult, that’s four meals with about 27 to 38 grams of protein each.

So what does this mean for you? After a workout, you definitely should try to include a solid amount of protein in your next snack or meal, but you don’t have to rush it. For most exercisers, that’s going to be 20 grams or more in the hours after your workout, which you can get in one cup of Greek yogurt or cottage cheese, three eggs, protein shakes with one scoop of whey protein powder, oatmeal made with milk and topped with almonds, or one large chicken breast. And try to make protein a focus throughout the rest of your day’s meals and snacks too.

2. Increase carb and calorie intake after long, hard workouts.

All workouts burn carbs and calories—it’s your workout duration and intensity that determines how many. The longer and harder your workouts, the more likely you’ll need extra calories for energy and repair, especially from carbohydrates to keep your blood sugar and glycogen (carbohydrates stored in your liver and muscles) at a healthy level, Wilson says.

Remember, carbohydrates are your body’s primary energy source and are critical to replenish after exercise, she says.

After something like a low-intensity upper-body workout or a short run, you don’t really need to increase your carb or calorie intake over what it usually is, David Creel, Ph.D., R.D., a psychologist and registered dietitian with the Cleveland Clinic, tells SELF. In that case, your regular meal size and breakdown of macronutrients (carbs, protein, and fat) should suffice. What you absolutely should not do, though, is skimp on refueling after, which many people may be tempted to do, especially if they view exercise as a punishment or a way to “work off” foods they’ve eaten. You never have to “earn” or “pay” for food.

Adding extra carbs becomes important if you’re working continuously at a high intensity—say, running or doing CrossFit—for more than an hour. In that case, you may start to need post-workout carb-rich snacks, meals, or beverages above your normal to restock your glycogen levels. Forty to 60 grams of carbs (paired with your roughly 20 grams of protein, of course) will likely do the job for most people, Wilson says.

Also, the longer and harder you work out, the sooner you'll want to replace those carbs. Good carb options include fruits, chocolate milk (yep, you get the protein hit there too), juices, bread, pretzels, crackers, toast, pasta, potatoes, and smoothies. The type of carbohydrates you take in after your workout doesn’t really matter as much as it does before you exercise, when experts recommend you stick to simple, refined carbs that are low in fiber to avoid GI distress. Afterward, your body should be okay to process fiber-rich, whole grain choices if that’s what you feel like eating. (The only exception to that would be if you’re feeling symptoms of low blood sugar after a workout—more on that below—in which case simple carbs would be the better choice.)

If you’re coming out of a moderate-intensity 30-minute workout and aren’t hungry afterward, you should be totally fine to wait until your next meal for carbs and their calories, Wilson says. (And, by now, you know protein isn’t urgent.) If you are hungry, you can reach for a snack, looking for options with both carbs and protein.

That said, nothing about post-workout nutrition should be strict or one-size-fits-all. Listen to your body and satiety levels, and care for yourself accordingly. Take notice of any symptoms of low blood sugar (tiredness, irritability, headache, brain fog, dizziness) as a sign you need some simple, easy-to-digest carbs ASAP, regardless of the intensity or length of your preceding workout.

3. Take advantage of liquids (and electrolytes).

Many people are already non-optimally hydrated during the day, which can make dehydration more likely when you’re working out. That can be a problem, since dehydration during your workout may worsen post-exercise muscle soreness.

That’s where liquid nutrition, including straight-up water, sports beverages, shakes, and smoothies come in handy, Wilson says. Even if you hydrate before and during your workouts, you will likely lose some fluids by the time you cool down, especially if your workouts are high-intensity, long-duration, or in extreme temps.

Losing as little as 1% to 2% of your body weight in water signals dehydration. So, if you normally weigh 150 pounds, losing more than 1.5 pounds between the beginning and end of your workout means you’re officially dehydrated. Every pound lost equals roughly 16 ounces of fluid gone, Wilson says.

To fully replenish lost fluids, you’d need to drink about 1.5 times as much as you lost during your workout, she says. And, yes, if you want to get technical, you can strip down and weigh yourself naked both before and after your workouts to see how much you’ve lost so you can look to replace it exactly—but only if you would find this genuinely helpful and not potentially triggering or overly intense in any way.

An easier way to stay on top of your post-workout hydration is to pay attention to your urine color. If your post-workout pee color is darker than when you started, or anything darker than a light yellow or straw color, start sipping. Choices for fluids include water (if you're not especially hungry or don't have any particular carb refueling to do), protein shakes (if you want to combine your fluid needs with protein refueling), and fruit-and-protein smoothies or chocolate milk (if you want some carbs and protein).

Lastly, keep in mind that as your body loses fluid through sweat, it also loses electrolytes. These minerals, including sodium, chloride, and potassium, both help get water into your body’s cells and aid in cell signaling, Wilson says.

Your post-workout drinks and snacks will likely naturally contain electrolytes in small amounts. If, however, you find yourself covered in a white, gritty substance (that’s salt!) after your workout, that means you’re losing a significant amount of electrolytes in your sweat, and you need to make a special point of replacing some lost sodium, chloride, and potassium, she says. Some easy electrolyte sources include fluids like sports drinks or Pedialyte, as well as foods like pretzels, bananas, sweet potato, nuts, and oranges.


Originally Appeared on SELF