Exactly What to Eat for Muscle Recovery, According to a Dietitian

It's a rule of three: protein, carbs, and electrolytes.

<p>Getty Images</p>

Getty Images

After a tough workout, it’s totally understandable if you feel like eating anything in sight. Nothing works up an appetite like a lengthy run or powerlifting session. But, to help your muscles build back stronger, you probably don’t want to reach for any old snack at the bottom of your gym bag. (That packet of leftover airplane pretzels or a half-melted chocolate bar aren’t going to do your strength levels many favors.)

Instead, you can think of eating right for muscle recovery as a rule of threes: “After a workout, you want to look for foods that deliver three things: protein, carbohydrates, and electrolytes,” says Amanda Blechman, RD, director of scientific affairs for Danone North America. “Protein helps rebuild muscles, carbohydrates refuel your body’s energy stores, and electrolytes replenish important nutrients that you lose in sweat.”

We’re digging into how (and why) to incorporate these elements into meals and snacks so you can bounce back better post-workout.

Related: Your All-Inclusive Guide to Active Recovery

The Importance of Protein for Muscle Recovery

Protein, protein, protein—sometimes it seems like the exercise world beats us over the head with its emphasis on this macronutrient. But after a workout, protein really does perform the heavy lifting of muscle repair. “When you exercise, your muscles actually get tiny, microscopic tears that need to be repaired, and that’s how new muscle gets built. In order for that to happen, your body needs protein,” explains Blechman.

Besides coming to the rescue like a mini muscle medic, protein also shores you up for subsequent workouts. A 2022 research review found that eating enough protein helped support lean muscle mass, increasing strength, power, and balance and lowering the risk of future injury.

Still, not all protein sources are created equal when it comes to post-workout noshing. “I recommend high-quality or ‘complete’ proteins after a workout because they deliver adequate amounts of all nine of the essential amino acids, or protein building blocks that our bodies need but cannot make on their own,” says Blechman. Animal proteins like meat, cheese, eggs, and yogurt all contain the full panel of essential amino acids, as do soy foods, pistachios, and quinoa.

So, exactly how much protein should you be aiming for after exercise? It depends. Your weight, the length and intensity of a workout, and various health conditions are all factors that can influence protein needs. In general, though, Blechman recommends striving for about 20-25 grams in your post-workout snack or meal to optimize muscle repair. Plenty of plant and animal proteins can fit the bill. A 3-ounce chicken breast, for example, contains 23 grams of protein, while a 3-ounce can of tuna contains 20 grams. Or, reach for dairy. “I always look to the yogurt aisle and especially like high-protein snacks like Oikos Pro because you can get 20 grams of protein in one convenient package," explains Blechman. "Ready-to-go smoothies are great, too, and can be paired with something like string cheese, hardboiled eggs, or nuts to help get you to that protein sweet spot.”

Related: The 10 Best Protein Powders for Every Health Goal, Tested and Reviewed

How Carbs Promote Muscle Recovery

If protein is the macro of repairing, carbs are the macro of refueling. When you pound it out on the treadmill or kickbox up a storm, your body taps into a sugar stored in your muscles called glycogen. “After intense exercise, your glycogen stores are going to be depleted, so you need to consume carbohydrates to help build them back up,” says Blechman.

Carbs don’t just restore your energy levels after a workout—they can also help amino acids reach your muscles more quickly, ultimately boosting recovery. Because of the way carb consumption stimulates insulin production, research shows that they decrease protein breakdown, facilitating muscle growth.

Much like protein, the target number of carbs to eat post-workout varies from person to person (and workout to workout). “Longer, more intense exercise means more depleted glycogen stores and a higher amount of carbohydrates needed to replenish, whereas a brisk walk around the block will probably leave you with glycogen stores to spare,” says Blechman. As a general goal, though, you can follow the National Academy of Sports Medicine’s recommendation of 1.0-1.5 grams of carbs per pound of body weight after an intense workout. (For a 150-pound person, that’s 68-102 grams.) Slow-digesting, fiber-rich complex carb foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, and legumes all make great choices.

Vitamins and Minerals to Add Post-Workout

Macronutrients aren’t the only nutritional building blocks that support workout recovery. Various micronutrients—AKA vitamins and minerals—are another important element in restoring balance after tough exercise.

Specifically, your body needs replenishment of electrolytes lost through sweat. These include sodium, potassium, magnesium, and chloride, among others. Electrolytes are essential for a variety of bodily functions, from muscle contraction to energy production, so it’s critical to get them back into your bloodstream. There’s always the option to grab a sports beverage, of course, but other commonplace foods and drinks contain electrolytes, too. Cow’s milk, orange juice, and coconut water are all rich in vitamins and minerals, as are foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and seeds.

While you’re restoring your micronutrient supplies, keep calcium and vitamin D in mind as well. “Calcium and vitamin D are two important nutrients to look for in recovery foods, as they’re required for overall muscle and bone health, yet are often under-consumed,” explains Blechman. “Dairy foods like milk, yogurt, and cheese can often provide many of these nutrients."

Related: The 13 Best Electrolyte Powders of 2023, Tested & Reviewed

Putting It All Together: Meals and Snacks for Muscle Recovery

Need some post-workout food inspiration?

These meals and snacks offer a balance of carbs, protein, and electrolytes:

  • Green salad with chicken and citrus vinaigrette

  • Smoothie with frozen fruit, Greek yogurt, and peanut butter

  • Egg salad sandwich on whole grain bread and a piece of fruit

  • Quinoa grain bowl with black beans, veggies, and salsa

  • Beef or turkey jerky and cheese with whole wheat crackers

Timing Meals and Snacks for Optimal Recovery

When it comes to refueling after a workout, timing matters. If you wait too long to eat, you won’t reap the most effective benefits of protein, carbs, and electrolytes. “I recommend eating a recovery meal or snack within 30 minutes of a tough workout when your body is highly responsive to nutrient intake,” suggests Blechman. “It’s a great window to give your body more of what it needs to repair and refuel and get the most out of the foods you’re eating to recover."

Even if you can’t squeeze in the perfect post-workout snack, realize that your whole day’s nutrition also helps create the right conditions for muscle recovery. “While pre-workout and post-workout foods are important, I recommend eating a variety of nutritious foods throughout the entire day, as well, to support your body and help it recover and perform at its best on an ongoing basis,” says Blechman.

Related: 14 Post-Workout Snacks Trainers and Dietitians Swear By

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