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Planning the Perfect Post-Workout Meal: Nutrition, Recipes & More

During a workout, the body’s cells experience increased metabolic demand. This translates to a higher consumption of the macronutrients that contribute to your body’s energy supply. Though this elevated expenditure of energy may be sparked by your exercise, even after your session ceases, the metabolic demand remains.

So, how do you know how much of which nutients are needed to meet these demands? Though many factors will affect your exact aims for that post-workout meal, the type of workout and your pre-workout nutrition are two of the most significant considerations.

Wait- but isn't post-workout nutrition incredibly intricate? Doesn't it require the perfect balance of branch chain amino acids and dextrose delivered with equally perfect timing? Well, yes and no.

For athletes that are working out in the morning after a period of fasting, in accordance with a bodybuilding diet, 0.4 grams of protein per kilogram of lean body mass combined with some simple carbohydrates (most any protein shakes or full meals should supply an adequate amount) should be consumed within two hours of a workout (Aragon & Schoenfeld, 2013).

When not fasting, it is only essential to ensure that your body has this protein available proximal to a workout, meaning a meal or shake that delivers adequate protein before or after your session should suffice.

Because an excess amount of protein ingestion does not create significant problems, we recommend consuming smaller pre- and post-workout meals that each meet the protein recommendations for your weight.

Alternatively, for post-workout nutrition after an endurance workout, such as an enduring run or swim at an accelerated pace, the emphasis should be placed on consuming adequate carbohydrates to replace the energy used.

Consuming a snack with a combination of carbohydrates and some protein after exercising increases the rate of muscle glycogen storage, providing larger stores of energy to fuel the next bout of activity (Zawadzki et al., 1992). Eating carbohydrates also increases the production of insulin and promotes muscle repair (Berardi, 2015).

Try to get 0.8 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight after an aerobic workout (van Loon et al., 2000). For a 160-pound (72.5 kg) person, this translates to 58 grams of carbohydrates.

To meet either need, the five meals listed below provide a healthy balance of macros to help your body recover. Try some of these simple recipes today!

Top 5 Post-Workout Meals

Açaí Protein Bowl

This fruity concoction is full of the nutrients your body needs after a strenuous workout. Its use of protein powder and its liquid form also ensure that these components are easy to digest such that your body can utilize them effectively. You can find the full recipe for this bowl here.

Calories: 338 | Protein: 42.9 | Fat: 6.4 g | Carbs: 29.9 g

Detox Smoothie

This vegan protein shake offers almost a 1:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein, making it an idyllic means for those with dietary restraints to build muscle, particularly when taken after a morning workout to kickstart the rest of your day. Find the full recipe here.

Calories: 176 | Protein: 19.7 g| Fat: 10.1 g | Carbs: 24.7 g

Matcha Protein Smoothie

This simple smoothie adds essential nutrients and a uniquely palatable taste to your post-workout protein shake. Ideal for a post-cardio treat, this shake offers simple sugars to quickly replenish glycogen stores. Find the full recipe here.

Calories: 176 | Protein: 10.2 g| Fat: 7.8 g | Carbs: 17.8 g

Grilled Salmon & Side Salad

Season your salmon with a sprinkle of salt and crushed black pepper before grilling up this fatty fish for a filling protein that pairs well with salad. Sprtiz the fish with lemon and serve with a simple side salad, complete with cucumber, red onion, tomato, and arugala — all tossed with a tablespoon of olive oil and balsamic vinegar to taste.

Calories: 224 | Protein: 20.3 g| Fat: 6.3 g | Carbs: 23.9 g

Quinoa Stuffed Peppers

These stuffed peppers are a satiating source of the macros you need. While the starches offer a sustained source of energy, it is best consumed as an end-of-day meal to contribute to your overall macro count rather than as a fast-acting source of protein and carbohydrates after a fasted workout.

Calories: 534 | Protein: 30.0 g| Fat: 7.5 g | Carbs: 88.3 g

The Best Post-Workout Meal to Maximize Recovery

Taken together, scientific evidence supports the use of a healthy post-workout meal to replenish lost nutrients and stimulate muscle recovery. Of course, you do not want to offset the hard work you just completed by loading on the calories. Those that are not aiming to build muscle should limit their intake to between 200 and 300 calories to refuel the body, paying close attention to the nutritional content of their collation. This is aligned with the recommendation for athletes to eat 5-6 smaller meals throughout the day.

Protein shakes or smoothies are a popular and convenient way to support your post-workout metabolic needs. When selecting protein shake powders consider the source of the protein and consider it in the context of your overall daily intake. Also, if you are an athlete at a collegiate, elite, or professional level, be aware of supplement regulations specific to your level of sports to ensure the protein shake (or any other supplements) that you are taking is within your sports regulations.

Another convenient and affordable option for post-workout refueling is chocolate milk, which provides a combination of carbohydrates and protein to refuel tired muscles. Plus, it provides other essential nutrients including potassium, vitamin D, vitamin A, and B-vitamins.

Additional Considerations for Enduring Workout Sessions

Running long distances may require mid-workout nutrition.

During aerobic and anaerobic exercise, the body shifts through fuel sources depending on the intensity and duration of the activity. For example, the body has about 2 hours worth of stored carbohydrates (aka glycogen) to fuel moderate to high-intensity exercise, after 2 hours the athlete will need to replenish carbohydrates with food or drinks to maintain the intensity level without “hitting the wall.”

Without this additional sustenance, it will be necessary to dial back the intensity and switch to burning fat as fuel. It should also be noted that, under normal circumstances, the body does not metabolize protein during exercise (Quinn, 2016).

Additionally, during any workout, you have likely lost some fluid from sweat, so it’s important to remember to replenish fluid stores in the recovery period and throughout longer workouts. How much fluid you need will vary depending on the amount of fluid lost.

For more ideas on the nutritional needs elicited by your workout routine, check out our pages on pre- and post-workout snacks, high-protein snacks, protein shakes, and high-protein foods!

Recipes for Post-Workout Snacks

Preparing a plate that provides the perfect provision of protein, carbs, and fats is essential, so we invite you to use these simple recipes to do so. Each selection is low in calories and rich in both starches and protein to provide the perfect fuel for your recovery!

Chocolate Goji Berry Bars {gluten-free}

Chocolate Goji Berry Bars Recipe {gluten-free}

These scrumptious snacks supply the rich savor of dark chocolate with a blend of superfoods that each bring essential nutrients to the table! Add a scoop of hemp protein powder for optimal benefits and enjoy this replenishing collation after your morning workout to power you through the workday!
Ingredients: Pitted dates, almond butter, quinoa puffs, goji berries, raw pistachios, coconut oil, dark chocolate chips.
Total Time: 20 minutes | Yield: 8 bars

No-Bake Granola Bars {gluten-free, vegan}

No-Bake Granola Bars Recipe {gluten-free, vegan}

A chewy treat that is fun to eat, this delicious granola bar is packed with complex carbohydrates and protein in a compact and lightweight package. This snack only takes minutes to make and can also be used as pre-workout bite!
Ingredients: Gluten-free rolled oats, peanut butter, dried tart cherries, pistachios, flaxseed meal, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, agave syrup. unsweetened applesauce, melted cacao nibs or dark chocolate.
Total Time: 15 minutes | Yield: 8 - 10 servings

Post-Workout Snacks

These snacks supply a combination of carbohydrates, protein, and fat plus they are quick and simple to pack on the go! Stock up on some of the snacks below to always have a perfect portion ready for your post-workout needs.

References

Aragon, A. A., & Schoenfeld, B. J. (2013, January 23). Nutrient Timing Revisited. Functional Foods The Connection Between Nutrition, Health, and Food Science, 65-89. doi:10.1201/b16307-5

Berardi, J. (2015). The importance of post workout nutrition. Retrieved from http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/berardi4.htm

Brooks, G.A. & Mercier, J. (1994). Balance of carbohydrate and lipid utilization during exercise: the “crossover” concept. Journal of Applied Physiology, 76(6), 2253-2261.

Quinn, E. (2016, April 05). What You Eat Can Make Or Break Your Workout. Here's Why. Retrieved April 07, 2016, from http://sportsmedicine.about.com/od/sportsnutrition/a/Energy_Pathways.htm

van Loon, L.J.C., Saris, W.H.M., Kruijshoop, M., & Wagenmakers, A.J.M. (2000). Maximizing postexercise muscle glycogen synthesis: carbohydrate supplementation and the application of amino acid or protein hydrolysate mixtures. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 72(1), 106-111.

Zawadzki, K.M., Yaspelkis, B.B., & Ivy, J.L. (1992). Carbohydrate-protein complex increases the rate of muscle glycogen storage after exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology, 72(5), 1954-1859.

Debunking Common Myths of Post-Workout Nutrition

There are a lot of "common knowledge" aphorisms related to the ideal post-workout meal. If you believe the sum of internet knowledge from advocates of bodybuilding and maximizing muscle gains then you might think the following:

  • There is a two-hour anabolic window after an exercise during which your meal should be consumed
  • Carbohydrates and protein should be easily metabolizable to give your body access to glycogen and protein ASAP (protein shakes are better than whole foods)
  • You need to spike insulin levels after a workout to prevent the breakdown of protein

Well, as it turns out, after decades of study- the jury is still out on these common assumptions.

The only truth to the two-hour window is that some nutrients are indeed replenished more efficiently during this time. Unfortunately, this accelerated replenishment doesn't help you build muscle any more effectively (unless you are replenishing the local glycogen levels of a muscle group with the intent to work the same group within a mere 8 hour period... so if you're doing a double day for legs, yes, by all means sugar up in those two hours after your morning workout).

Other evidence that supports the notion of the anabolic window pairs the post-workout meal of expiremental groups with a pre-workout meal to show the significance of nutrition proximate to workout rather than the necessity of this nutrition directly after a workout.

Eating food is important. Before or after the workout? Not so much. Just make sure it's near enough to fuel your body right.

Increased flexibility when timing nutrients. For endurance, carbs are essential- but for muscular, meh, who cares. Protein all the way, between 20 and 40 grams before and after is recommended with a 3 - 4 hour gap between meals to allow for a 90 minute training session (aiming for about 0.4 - 0.5 g of protein per kg of lean body mass). Update bodybuilding diet or protein shakes: lutein is important.