Eating foods containing carbs and protein may help support your muscles after exercise. Experts recommend eating shortly after your workout for the most benefit.

Consuming the right nutrients after exercise can help you optimize your fitness goals.

During exercise, your muscles use up their glycogen, which is the body’s preferred fuel source. This results in your muscles being partially depleted of glycogen. Some of the proteins in your muscles can also be broken down and damaged during exercise.

After your workout, your body rebuilds glycogen stores and regrows those muscle proteins.

However, research suggests that eating the right nutrients soon after exercising can help your body do this faster. Properly fuelling your body after exercise can also help:

  • decrease muscle protein breakdown
  • increase muscle protein synthesis (growth)
  • improve your mood
  • enhance recovery

Keep reading to learn more about nutrition after workouts.

Macronutrients for post-workout recovery

Macronutrients are a group of nutrients your body needs in large quantities to provide the necessary energy it needs to function.

The three macronutrients are protein, carbs, and fat. These may each play a role in your body’s post-workout recovery process.

Protein helps repair and build muscle

Exercise triggers the breakdown of muscle protein. The rate at which this happens depends on several factors, such as training volume, intensity, and frequency.

Consuming an adequate amount of protein throughout the day gives your body the amino acids it needs to repair and rebuild these proteins. It also gives you the building blocks required to build new muscle tissue.

The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) recommends consuming 20 to 40 grams (g) of protein every 3 to 4 hours. This may help improve your exercise performance, muscle recovery, and body composition.

It’s also important to consume protein before and after exercise.

A 2017 study found that eating protein pre-workout and post-workout has a similar effect on muscle strength, hypertrophy, and body composition changes.

Eating protein before exercise may also decrease the amount you need to eat after without affecting recovery.

However, if you’re specifically aiming to build muscle, the ISSN recommends eating high quality protein within the first 2 hours after working out to stimulate the building blocks for new muscle tissue.

Carbs help with recovery

Your body’s glycogen stores are used as fuel during exercise, and consuming carbs after your workout helps replenish them.

The rate at which your glycogen stores are used depends on the activity.

For example, endurance sports cause your body to use more glycogen than resistance training. For this reason, if you participate in endurance sports like cycling and running, you might need to consume more carbs than someone engaging in weightlifting.

The ISSN recommends eating a high carb diet of 3.6 to 5.5 g of carbs per pound (8 to 12 g per kilogram [kg]) of body weight each day to help maximize your glycogen stores.

Furthermore, insulin secretion, which promotes glycogen synthesis, may be better stimulated when carbs and protein are consumed at the same time.

Within the first 4 hours after working out, the ISSN recommends consuming 0.4 g of carbs per pound of body weight (0.8 g of carbs per kg) with 0.1 to 0.2 g of protein per pound of body weight (0.2 to 0.4 g of protein per kg) during each hour to help restore glycogen faster.

That said, these recommendations are targeted to the needs of endurance athletes. You may need less if you’re focusing on resistance training.

Fat may provide some benefits

According to the ISSN, not enough evidence suggests whether you should limit fat intake after a workout.

Many people think that eating fat after a workout slows digestion and inhibits the absorption of nutrients. While fat might slow down the absorption of your post-workout meal, it may not reduce its benefits.

For example, a 2006 study showed that whole milk was more effective at promoting muscle growth after a workout than skim milk.

Similarly, a 2017 study found that eating whole eggs instead of egg whites was more effective at promoting muscle protein synthesis post-workout.

Having some fat in your post-workout meal may not affect your recovery. But more studies are needed on this topic.

The timing of your post-workout meal matters

The timing of your meals is important to maximize recovery and muscle growth because your body’s ability to rebuild glycogen and protein is enhanced after exercise.

Sports nutrition researchers have been studying nutrient timing for more than 40 years.

In the past, experts recommended eating your post-workout meal within 45 to 60 minutes. It was believed that delaying carb consumption by as little as 2 hours after a workout could lead to as much as 50% lower rates of glycogen synthesis.

However, more recent research suggests the post-exercise window to maximize the muscular response to eating protein is wider than initially thought, up to as many as several hours.

Consuming a meal rich in whole carbs and protein before exercising may also increase your post-workout food intake window, as you may still feel some of the benefits of the pre-workout meal.

Foods to eat after you work out

The primary goal of your post-workout meal is to supply your body with the right nutrients for adequate recovery and maximize your workout’s benefits. Choosing easily digested foods will promote faster nutrient absorption.

The following table contains examples of high quality, easily digested foods:

Sample post-workout meals and snacks

Combinations of the foods above can create great meals that give you all the nutrients you need after exercise.

Meals

Here are some quick and easy meals to eat after your workout:

  • grilled chicken with roasted vegetables and rice
  • egg omelet with avocado spread on whole-grain toast
  • salmon with sweet potato
  • tuna salad sandwich on whole grain bread
  • whole-grain toast and almond butter
  • quinoa bowl with sweet potatoes, berries, and pecans
  • oatmeal, whey protein, banana, and almonds

Snacks

Here are some delicious snacks to eat after your workout and throughout the day:

  • tuna and crackers
  • cottage cheese and fruits
  • pita and hummus
  • rice crackers and peanut butter
  • cereal with dairy or soy milk
  • Greek yogurt, berries, and granola
  • protein shake and banana
  • whole grain crackers with string cheese and fruit

Make sure to drink plenty of water

Staying properly hydrated before and after your workout ensures the optimal internal environment for your body to maximize results.

During exercise, you lose water and electrolytes through sweat. Replenishing these after a workout can help with recovery, performance, and injury prevention.

The National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA) recommends drinking 500 to 600 ml of water within 2 to 3 hours before exercising, and 200 to 300 ml within 10 to 20 minutes of exercising.

After exercising, the NATA recommends re-filling what you lost during your workout.

What is the best thing to eat after a workout?

Some foods to eat after exercising may include a combination of chicken, potatoes, fish, rice, fruits, vegetables, and plant-based proteins.

Should you eat carbs or protein after a workout?

Research suggests that eating a combination of protein and carbs after exercising is the best way to maximize recovery, muscle growth, and injury prevention.

When should I eat a post-workout meal after a workout?

The ISSN recommends eating high quality proteins and carbs within 2 hours of exercising.

Takeaway

Consuming the proper amount of carbs and protein after exercise is essential.

It stimulates muscle protein synthesis, improves recovery, and enhances performance during your next workout.

It’s important not to go much longer than a few hours before refueling with a meal or snack.

Finally, replenishing lost water and electrolytes can complete the picture and help you maximize the benefits of your workout.