By Andrew Heffernan
Wondering what to eat after a workout to refuel and quell those post-workout hunger pangs? It's a good question to consider because post-workout nutrition is crucial: Your muscles are primed for growth and recovery, and your body is crying out for replenishment.
Nail your post-workout nutrition, and you'll get more from your time in the gym, under the bar, or out on the road. Fail to eat properly after a workout, and you leave a lot of progress on the table.
So what's the best formula for refueling? It's not rocket science; it's just two main ingredients. Here's your guide to post-workout nutrition.
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Protein is abundant in animal products, as well as some plant-based foods:
Carbs are plentiful in:
You can also find simple carbs in the form of sugar — most notably table sugar (aka sucrose) and other forms ending in the suffice "-ose" like dextrose, fructose, and glucose.
While food consists of thousands of different compounds, the "big blocks" of nutrition are the three macronutrients — protein, carbohydrates, and fats — measurable in scoops, cups, and larger servings. Post-workout protein and carbohydrates are essential. Fat is okay to include as well, but less important in that post-workout window.
A good workout is a form of beneficial stress: Lifting weights, running, swimming, cycling, even dancing with intensity and focus damages muscle tissue, causing individual fibers to fray and break.
In the hours — and sometimes days — following a workout, however, your muscles regrow and repair a little bit larger and stronger than they were before. If you're consistent with your workouts and smart about recovery, that tiny amount of regular growth adds up over months and years to muscles that are measurably stronger and bigger.
The nutritional raw material for new muscle tissue is amino acids, mostly found in dietary protein. And right after your workout — when the process of rebuilding starts — is the moment your body needs those amino acids the most. "Muscle breakdown is at its peak at that point," says Poli. "So you need those raw materials to rebuild."
If you're serious about getting fit, you should consume about 0.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day (meaning someone weighing 200 pounds should aim for at least 140 grams of protein daily). Ideally, you should consume that protein in small portions spread evenly throughout the day. But if you have to choose, prioritize that post-workout meal: "You'll help spur muscle growth while simultaneously minimizing muscle damage," says Poli.
Carbs get a bad rap. Listen to some self-styled nutritional gurus, and they'll tell you that bread, rice, pasta, sugar, and other starches are the source of all metabolic evils — from obesity to diabetes to heart disease.
But if you're a serious exerciser, carbs deserve a prominent place in your workout recovery arsenal. While you don't need mounds of white flour and sugar in your diet, carbs in and of themselves are anything but unhealthy. They're an efficient, clean-burning fuel for virtually every function in your body, from movement to breathing to reading these very words. And research has shown that restricting carbohydrates may lead to a reduction in athletic performance during certain types of activities.
That's because high-intensity activities (strength training, sprinting, and many sports) rely heavily on carbohydrates for fuel — usually in the form of glycogen, which is stored directly in your muscles. Without carbs, your body burns fat instead, which works fine for lower-intensity activities like walking and jogging, but burns too slowly to power high-intensity sessions. (If you've ever tried running sprints or strength training when you're very hungry, you'll know what we're talking about!) So a carb-deprived exerciser is often a slower and weaker one, too.
Post-workout, glycogen stores run low, and it's essential to top them off if you want to avoid a hard crash. Carbs will do that for you. Worried about fat gain? Don't be: After a workout is when your body needs those carbs the most. They're very, very unlikely to wind up on your waistline as long as you keep your choices and portions within reason.
Fats have many functions in the body — skin, organs, brain, and cell health, to name a few — but they aren't of particular importance after a workout. "If you're on a very low-carb diet or have a lot of weight to lose, you might skip the carbs and have a little healthy fat after a workout," says Poli. "It all depends on your goals, but in general, protein and carbs are your best bet."
Consuming a LADDER protein shake after a workout can help your muscles recover and repair so you can perform your best.
However, it's always recommended to get your macros from whole foods. So, what foods have a good balance of carbohydrates and protein? For most people, a combination of a protein food with a carb works great. Here's some inspiration:
You could even occasionally have something processed, like some chocolate along with a glass of milk. Failing that, there are plenty of post-workout drinks available that are ready for consumption. Just don't skip the post-workout meal. For a regular exerciser, it might well be the most important meal of the day.