What to Eat After a Workout


Whatever kinds of exercise you like to do, you need to support your body with good nutrition. That includes eating appropriately before, during, and after your workouts—although the truth is not as complicated as you may have been told. Let’s dig in (ha) to what you should be eating after a workout, and why.

Am I wasting my workout if I don’t eat the right thing afterward? 

Good lord, no. I want to make sure to address this myth because it’s a popular thing for influencers to say: “STOP doing this,” and “you’re going to RUIN your GAINS if you do that.” Post-workout nutrition is often a subject of these garbage claims. 

The truth is: You cannot “waste” a workout. Exercise has a great many benefits, and the timing of your nutrition only slightly modifies some of them. Even without ideal nutrition, your muscles will still get stronger, your heart will still get healthier, your stretching routine will still improve your flexibility, and so on. So, no, you haven’t wasted any time. You might see improved results if you get your nutrition in order, though.

What does your body need after a workout? 

Here are the things that your post-workout meal should, ideally, accomplish: 

  • Provide some protein to help with muscle growth, maintenance, and repair.

  • Provide some carbs to help replenish muscle glycogen (carb stores) quickly. 

  • Digest quickly enough to allow those nutrients to reach your bloodstream soon.

  • Contribute appropriately to your overall nutrition for the day. 

How soon should I eat after a workout? 

Look, there’s no law about this. People will sometimes talk about a 30-minute window, or a two-hour window, but the truth is that the timing just does not matter very much

The one time I’d pay attention to timing is if you’ll be doing another workout in less than 12 hours. In that case, make sure to eat some carbs as soon as you reasonably can after the first workout. There’s no hard deadline, but ideally you’d eat those carbs within maybe an hour or so. 

When it comes to resistance training, like lifting weights, you’ll want to eat a protein-containing meal within four to six hours of the previous meal. It doesn’t matter very much when you do your workouts. So it’s fine to finish your lift and then chug a shake, but it’s also fine to wait until you get home and then have a real dinner. 

Why you (may) need carbs after a workout

Carbs are our body’s preferred energy source for hard exercise. Athletes who eat a lot of carbs before and during a workout—especially something like an endurance race—tend to perform better than those who don’t. 

We also store carbs in our muscles, and those carbs are available during exercise as well. This storage form of carbohydrate is called glycogen, and each muscle has their own stash of it. Exercise uses up some of this glycogen, and our body will work over the next day or two to replenish it. Eating carbs right after a workout can help to replenish our glycogen faster than if we just waited to encounter carbs in our regularly scheduled meals.

If you want to optimize post-workout carb intake: Buckle up, this is intense. Research shows that the best way to replenish glycogen stores quickly is to eat 1 to 1.5 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of your bodyweight within 30 minutes of a long or hard workout. That means if you weigh 150 pounds (68 kg) you’ll want to have between 68 and 102 grams of carbs in that post-workout meal. That’s five to seven slices of bread. Then you’d do that again every two hours for the next six hours. Fortunately, there’s no need to cram your glycogen stores full after every workout. 

If you want to eat a “good enough” post workout meal: Have a meal with some carbs. A sandwich with two slices of bread would be a good start. Or a smoothie with about a cup of fruit. Or just your regularly scheduled next meal. A cup of brown rice contains about 45 grams of carbs. 

Why you (may) need protein after a workout

Protein is the nutrient that gives us the building blocks of muscle. Eating an animal’s muscle tissue, and using it to build our own, is the same kind of idea as smashing your brother’s LEGO castle and using it to build one for yourself. (Plant protein works too, of course.) 

Not only does protein provide the raw ingredients to build muscle, it also triggers MPS, or muscle protein synthesis. Resistance training (like lifting weights) also triggers MPS. If you want to build or maintain muscle, you should lift weights and eat protein. Eating protein right after a workout was once thought to double up on that muscle-building signal, but later research showed that the timing isn’t that critical. That said, it won’t hurt to get some of your daily protein in a post-workout meal. 

There’s another benefit to protein: It’s understood to help our bodies make better use of the carbs in the post-workout meal. Some sources say that a 1:4 ratio is ideal, with one gram of protein for every four grams of carbs. (This is the number that catapulted chocolate milk to the “ideal recovery drink” title, although I’d argue that there’s nothing special about chocolate milk; plenty of less-heavily-marketed foods can do the same job.)

If you want to optimize post-workout protein intake: Eat 0.4 to 0.5 grams of protein per kilogram bodyweight (so, about 30 grams if you weigh 150 pounds) in both your pre-workout and post-workout meals. The post-workout meal should be eaten within about three hours after your workout, and the pre- and post-workout meals should be within six hours of each other. 

If you want to eat a “good enough” post workout meal: Have a meal containing protein (and carbs!) within a few hours after your workout. For most of us, normal meals will do the trick without planning anything special. You’ll have breakfast after your morning workout, for example. 

How post-workout nutrition fits into the big picture

It’s more important to get your overall nutrition on track than to nail down the details of your post-workout meal, snack, or shake. If what you eat after a workout makes it harder to hit your targets for the day, it’s not worth worrying about. 

For example, if you’re trying to keep your total calories under control, a massive amount of carbs after a workout may not be appropriate or necessary. On the other hand, if your post-workout shake has a good amount of protein in it, keeping that shake in your diet may help you to reach your overall protein goals. 

I have more information here on how to figure out how much protein you need in a day. Carbs and fats can be more flexible, but remember that a higher-carb diet tends to be better for athletic performance than a low-carb diet. (That doesn’t mean you can’t exercise while eating low-carb, but your body will make good use of any carbs that you do ingest.) Your total calorie intake should also be a factor in deciding what to eat.

Ultimately, your biggest levers to pull are how much food you eat, whether you get enough protein, and how “healthy” your diet is (for lack of a better term)—for example, you should try to get some veggies and variety in there. It’s better to have a post-workout meal that helps you meet your daily goals than one that may seem “optimal” but makes it harder to arrive at the bottom line you want for the day.

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