Have you ever had a great workout, you feel strong and proud of your hard work, then the next day you can barely move?
This issue could be that you don’t know what to eat after a workout and your muscles aren’t getting the proper nutrition they need for fast recovery.
In this article, we’re going to cover how food can help you recover quicker, the 15 best foods to eat after a workout, and finally some additional pointers for better after workout recovery.
How Does Food Help You After Exercise?
To understand how food helps in recovery, you have to understand the main components that food breaks down into – or its macronutrients.
A macronutrient (or “macro,” for short) is a substance required in relatively large amounts by living organisms, including you, which you get from food or drink. The three macros are protein, carbohydrates, and fats.
After a workout, your body needs protein otherwise it can become catabolic, which means it eats away at itself for fuel (1).
When you work out, your body uses up its glycogen stores as fuel. Think of glycogen like little muscle batteries. When you work out, they dry up. But when you consume carbohydrates after a workout, they refill your little glycogen batteries (2).
After a workout, your body tries to rebuild its stores of glycogen and repair and regrow muscles.
Knowing what to eat after working out and eating the right foods can help speed along this process and enhance your recovery.
Key Point: Consuming the right foods after exercising can help your muscle proteins rebuild and your glycogen levels recover, so you feel less pain and recover quicker. It also helps add new muscle growth.
Protein and Carbohydrates
This section discusses how the two most important macronutrients, protein and carbohydrates are essential to your body’s post recovery activities.
Protein – Helps Repair and Build Muscle
Proteins are commonly referred to as “the building blocks of muscle.” When you workout, you break down your muscle fibers.
When you eat protein after exercise, it aids in muscle repair (3).
Eating protein post workout will also prevent you from losing the lean mass that keeps your body looking toned and muscular (4).
Choose lean proteins such as chicken, nuts, dairy, lean beef and bison if you’re looking to reduce weight. This can be in the form of a meal (if exercise precedes a meal) or as a light snack. There are more examples of lean proteins below.
Carbohydrates – Helps Your Muscles Recover Quickly
Carbohydrates, or carbs, are a macronutrient, like protein, and are your body’s primary fuel source. When you workout, you deplete the glycogen (or energy) in your muscles.
Endurance sports like running or swimming tend to consume glycogen stores at a faster rate than resistance sports like weightlifting.
It’s also important to eat plenty of good carbs if you exercise more than once a day.
Choose whole grains and all natural carbohydrates, such as oats, quinoa, whole wheat pasta or bread. I like to work these into the next meal, so if you have a kick butt workout before breakfast, have some oatmeal after. If you hit the gym before lunch or dinner have a plate of whole wheat pasta topped with veggies and lean protein. There are more examples of healthy carbs below.
Key Point: Eating a meal with both protein and carbs will assist with glycogen storage and building of muscle protein.
Best Foods To Eat After A Workout
Now that you understand the significance of macronutrients for muscle recovery, you need to know which foods are the best sources for them.
Foods that are easy to digest will help your body absorb nutrients faster. The following list contains foods that are simpler to digest and provide the right nutrients for your body.
Here are the 15 best foods to eat after a workout:
- Egg whites
- Greek yogurt
- Cottage cheese
- Whole eggs
- Rice (brown)
- Kidney beans
- Sweet potatoes
- Pasta (whole wheat)
- Fruits (berries, bananas)
- Black beans
How Soon Should You Eat After A Workout?
For a short period of about 45 minutes your body can absorb more protein. This period immediately following a workout is known as the “anabolic window” (5).
The idea behind the anabolic window is that after a workout, your body can use protein to build muscle better than it could at any other time (6).
In addition, studies have shown that your body replenishes glycogen (your muscle’s energy stores) at a more rapid rate during the anabolic window period (7).
By increasing your protein and carbohydrate intake immediately after a workout, your body can use the food you eat better to rebuild itself, which results in faster recovery and fewer aches and pains.
Key Point: Try to eat 20-40 grams (¾ to 1 ½ ounces) of good protein or carbs within 45 minutes of a workout.
Importance of Water After Working Out
Drinking plenty of water has also been shown to have many proven benefits for post workout recovery, including improved metabolism, flushing out toxins, reducing muscle fatigue, and improved muscle recuperation.
In addition to hydrating your body, just drinking cold water is shown to actually increase the number of calories you burn, known as water induced thermogenesis. Studies have shown drinking 500ml of water can increase metabolic rate by up to 30% (8).
Key Point: Don’t wait until you are thirsty to re-hydrate. Keep your body functioning like a machine by drinking plenty of water before, during, and especially after a workout.
It’s important that you get enough protein and carbohydrates during the 45 minute “anabolic window” after a workout for fastest recovery. This is the best time for your body to use protein to repair muscle and quickly restore your glycogen batteries.
If you can’t eat within 45 minutes, try not to go longer than 2 hours before eating again.
Choose foods from the list of best foods to eat after a workout (above) and you can be sure you’re getting the right nutrients to your body.
Also make sure to replenish the water your body loses during exercise through sweat.
Try these tips for what to eat after a workout and the next time you have a workout that you can be proud of, you’ll know you can do it again the next day, too.