5 healthy, satisfying foods to eat after a workout that will give your muscles the best chance to recover
- After a workout, you should be getting a healthy balance of protein and carbohydrates.
- Great post-workout protein sources include lean meat, like fish and chicken, and grains like quinoa.
- Include additional vitamins and nutrients in your post-workout meals with avocados and leafy greens.
When your workout is finished, you might think that the important work is behind you. But what you eat after your exercise can have a real impact on your fitness.
"The one concept I try to get athletes to understand is that the benefits from the workout don't occur until the workout is over, and your body is recovering and trying to get stronger or faster," says John M. Martinez, MD, a sports medicine physician who has worked with the USA Triathlon team.
Martinez recommends that people - especially those training at a high level - eat a meal rich in protein and carbohydrates within an hour of finishing their workout.
Ideally, these carbs and protein should be from whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and lean meat, but protein supplements or shakes can work in a pinch. The protein will help repair and build muscle, while carbohydrates will stabilize blood sugar and prevent the body from breaking muscle down.
Here are some of the best foods for a post-workout snack or meal.
1. Fish or chicken
Fish and chicken provide lean protein, which should be the cornerstone of any post-workout meal or snack, says Martinez.
Lean proteins - which include fish, beans, and boneless, skinless poultry - allow you to get all the health and muscle-recovery benefits of protein, with fewer calories and less saturated fat than proteins like beef or pork.
Tip: Preparing protein ahead of time can make it easier to replenish post-workout. Steamed or baked fish, or grilled poultry, can easily be prepared the night before and eaten shortly after a workout.
Quinoa is a complex whole grain that has the two post-workout essentials: carbohydrates and proteins.
Tip: You can prep a protein-packed quinoa bowl with fish or chicken and add fruits, like avocado, and vegetables, like kale for an additional boost of important nutrients.
For example, one avocado has about 13 grams of monounsaturated fat, 2.5 grams of polyunsaturated fat, and 3 grams of saturated fat. This high fat content takes longer for your body to digest keeping you feeling fuller for longer compared to, say, eating a bowl of plain white rice that's mostly simple carbs.
Tip: For an added protein boost, avocados can be paired with a hard-boiled egg or chickpeas.
4. Dark leafy greens
"Leafy vegetables are packed with micronutrients and vitamins, so they are a healthy part of a balanced diet for athletes," Martinez says.
Specifically, dark leafy vegetables provide important nutrients like calcium and iron, which can help you perform. Calcium helps muscles repair and contributes to bone strength, while iron helps regulate metabolism and energy consumption.
The best examples of these dark, leafy greens include:
Tip: A post-workout meal is the perfect time to sneak an additional serving of vegetables into your day. If you're making a protein smoothie, add spinach, or saute some kale to go with your quinoa.
5. Protein shakes or chocolate milkProtein shakes are popular because they're a quick and easy way to get protein after a workout. However, it's important to make sure that you're drinking a high-quality protein shake that isn't filled with sugar. Rather than just following ads, Martinez says it's important to do your homework on your shakes.
"The protein supplement industry is a huge, multi-billion dollar market with great marketing departments," says Martinez. "That said, protein shakes are convenient and easy to mix up and drink after a workout. The high-quality protein shakes usually supply about 30 grams of protein including 3 to 4 grams of the amino acid leucine, which helps promote muscle growth."
If you don't have protein powder, some people claim that chocolate milk is a great post-workout drink - though Martinez says it has no special benefits. "It does work as a recovery drink because it has carbohydrates and protein, but it's really no different than having any other meal with those macronutrients," he says.
The best time to eat after a workout
A 2013 study recommended that pre- and post-workout meals be separated by no more than four hours. If you space them further than that, you might feel fatigued, and not replenish the energy necessary to exercise and repair your muscles.
Stephenson says most people like to wait for their heart-rate to come down before eating, which normally happens within 10 to 20 minutes of ending a workout. Taking a shower then eating is a common and effective approach, she says.
Overall, it's most important to eat protein after a workout in order to help your muscles repair. "After a workout, it's all about providing your body with the building blocks it needs to repair and strengthen your muscles," Stephenson says.Related Article Module: The 25 best plant-based protein sources for vegans and vegetarians
There are many ways you can get this protein, and depending on your preferences and the time you have, you may opt for different types of foods. This is reflected in Stephenson's own post-workout routine.
"Seafood, eggs, and yogurt are my go-tos, but sometimes I find it's faster and easier to make a high-quality, nutrient-dense protein shake that has everything in it," she says. "I have to 'grab and go' a lot, so this makes sense for my schedule."