The cornerstone of post-workout nutrition is a careful combination of protein, carbohydrates and fluids. The basic recommendation is to consume 10 to 20 grams of protein after a workout, depending on your body weight, says Bonci. And depending on the type of workout you complete, adjust your carb-to-protein ratio, she adds.
For example, after a strenuous workout, aim for a 2 to 1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein (meaning 20 to 40 grams of carbohydrates and 10 to 20 grams of protein). If you have completed a consistent (aerobic) workout such as running, the ratio shifts to 3 to 1 (with 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates and 10 to 20 grams of protein), says Bonci.
Another key component to keep in mind when training after a workout is the intensity and duration of the workout you have just completed.
“Recreational exercisers who train two to three times a week for 30 to 45 minutes can easily recover by eating their regular balanced meal containing carbohydrates (to refuel) and protein (to build and muscle repair), such as oatmeal and eggs, yogurt and granola, a sandwich and milk, or chicken and rice, “says Nina Kolbe, a registered nutritionist and member of the Forbes Health Advisory Board.
Meanwhile, those who spend 60 to 70 minutes training at a higher intensity can benefit from a 200 calorie snack consisting of carbohydrates and protein. And more serious athletes (think someone who trains up to 4 hours a day) should be supplied with fuel quickly, aiming for a much higher calorie, carbohydrate and protein diet, Kolbe says.
It is also a mistake to rely solely on your intuition, as research suggests that people do not always make optimal choices for healthy foods after exercise. In a 2018 study at Nutrients, the researchers presented the gymnasts with the choice of a snack to be consumed after completing their workouts. Participants were randomly selected to make the choice before or after training – and time made a difference. Participants were 26% less likely to pick an apple after exercise, and 45% more they are more likely to choose a coffee than if they had chosen foods before exercise. The study findings underline that forward planning is key.
Some good choices for a post-workout nosh who check all the important boxes include:
- Chocolate milk. “Chocolate milk has everything you need after a workout – carbohydrates, proteins, fluids and electrolytes,” says Collingwood. In fact, consuming milk after exercise increases muscle protein synthesis and rehydration, replenishes glycogen stores, and relieves muscle soreness after exercise, according to a 2019 scientific review. European Journal of Sport Science.
- Eggs and toast with whole wheat. Whether boiled, mixed, stewed or in a vegetable omelette, eggs are a stellar source of protein (with an average of almost 11 grams of protein per large). Meanwhile, toast provides high quality carbohydrates.
- A smoothie (made with whey protein powder, coconut water, fruits and vegetables)with Fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants that protect cells from damage caused by exercise, and protein helps repair muscle, Collingwood says. Whey protein, in particular, significantly reduces post-workout blood levels for biomarkers of muscle damage due to strength training, according to a 2020 study in Nutrients.
- Dried fruits and nuts with a serving of cherry juice. Fruits and nuts provide healthy carbohydrates, proteins and fats, and cherry juice can help with muscle soreness after exercise, Bonci says. In fact, research has found that consuming Montmorency cherry juice, which contains phytochemicals with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, improves muscle strength recovery after intense strength training.
- Yogurt, berries and a sprinkling granola. The combination of yogurt, which is high in protein, and berries, which contain carbohydrates and antioxidants, replenishes glycogen stores in your muscles and helps muscle recovery, Collingwood says. Granola adds salt and flavor.