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The cornerstone of post-workout nutrition is a careful combination of protein, carbohydrates and fluids. The basic recommendation is to consume 10 to 20 grams of protein after a workout, depending on your body weight, says Bonci. And depending on the type of exercise you completed, adjust your ratio of carbohydrates to protein, she adds.
For instance, after a strength-training workout, aim for a 2-to-1 ratio of carbs to protein (meaning 20 to 40 grams of carbs and 10 to 20 grams of protein). If you completed an endurance (aerobic) workout like jogging, the ratio shifts to 3-to-1 (with 30 to 60 grams of carbs and 10 to 20 grams of protein), says Bonci.
Another key component to keep in mind when fueling up post-workout: the intensity and duration of the exercise you just completed.
“Recreational exercisers who train two to three times a week for 30 to 45 minutes can easily recover by having their usual balanced meal that contains carbs (to refuel) and protein (to build and repair muscle), such as oatmeal and eggs, yogurt and granola, a sandwich and milk, or chicken and rice,” says Nina Kolbe, a registered dietitian and Forbes Health Advisory Board member.
Meanwhile, those who spend 60 to 70 minutes working out at a higher intensity might benefit from a 200-calorie snack consisting of carbs and protein. And more serious athletes (think someone who trains for up to 4 hours a day) should refuel rapidly, aiming for a much higher-calorie, carbohydrate- and protein-based snack, says Kolbe.
It’s also a mistake to rely on your intuition alone, as research suggests people don’t always make optimal choices for healthy snacks after exercising. In a 2018 study in Nutrients, researchers presented gym-goers with the choice of a snack to be consumed after they completed their workouts. The participants were randomly chosen to make the choice before or after the workout—and the timing made a difference. Participants were 26% less likely to choose an apple after the workout, and 45% more likely to choose a brownie, than if they’d picked snacks before the workout. The study’s findings underscore that planning ahead is key.
Some good choices for a post-workout nosh that check all the important boxes include:
- Chocolate milk. “Chocolate milk has everything you need after a workout—carbs, protein, fluids and electrolytes,” says Collingwood. In fact, consuming milk after exercise enhances muscle protein synthesis and rehydration, replenishes glycogen stores and eases post-exercise muscle soreness, according to a review of scientific research in a 2019 issue of the European Journal of Sport Science.
- Eggs and whole-grain toast. Whether they’re hardboiled, scrambled, poached or in a vegetable omelet, eggs are a stellar source of protein (with an average of nearly 11 grams of protein for a large one). Meanwhile, toast provides high-quality carbs.
- A smoothie (made with whey protein powder, coconut water, fruit and vegetables). The fruit and veggies contain antioxidants that protect cells from exercise-induced damage, and the protein helps with muscle repair, says Collingwood. Whey protein, in particular, significantly reduces post-exercise blood levels for biomarkers of muscle damage due to strength training, according to a 2020 study in Nutrients.
- Dried fruit and nuts with a serving of tart cherry juice. The fruit and nuts provide carbs, protein and healthy fats, and the cherry juice may help with post-exercise muscle soreness, says Bonci. In fact, research has found that consuming Montmorency cherry juice, which contains phytochemicals with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, improves the recovery of muscular strength after intensive strength-training exercise.
- Yogurt, berries and a sprinkling of granola. The combination of yogurt, which is high in protein, and berries, which contain carbs and antioxidants, replenishes your muscles’ glycogen stores and assists with muscle recovery, says Collingwood. The granola adds crunch and flavor.