We all know that moving our bodies is essential for both our physical and mental health—but refueling our bodies afterward is equally important. Still, many of us don’t refuel properly. This expert guide will help ensure you’re getting the post-workout nutrition you need.
Why Post-Workout Nutrition Matters
“Following exercise, what you eat (as well as when you eat it) is crucial for how you recover, build muscle, burn fat, and make progress,” says The Vitamin Shoppe Wellness Council member Josh Axe, D.N.M., D.C., C.N.S., doctor of natural medicine, clinical nutritionist, and author of Keto Diet.
“While it’s associated with loads of health benefits, exercise is technically stress, and causes micro-damage to your tissues that needs to be repaired,” Axe explains. “You might think you’re building muscle while you’re working out, but it’s after exercise that these gains actually occur.”
In fact, in the 30 to 60 minutes after a workout, your muscles are primed to refuel and repair—and eagerly waiting for the nutrients (namely carbs and protein) they need to do so.
Signs You Don’t Eat Enough Post-Workout
Whether you’re in a rush to get back to the office or just forgot to pack a proper snack, it’s easy to neglect refueling after a workout. And that impacts our progress.
“If you ignore hunger signs after a workout, you may miss out on muscle mass gains, become dehydrated, experience dips in energy and brain power, and risk binging later,” says Monica Auslander Moreno, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., nutrition consultant for RSP Nutrition.
The following four signs indicate you’re not eating enough after getting sweaty.
1. Your Muscle Gains Have Been Lame
“When you don’t replenish with carbs and protein after your workouts, you might find that you’re not gaining much muscle,” says Axe. You may also feel unusually sore or more prone to aches and pains.
While carbs provide muscles with the energy they need to function, protein provides amino acids they use to repair and build new tissue.
If you don’t eat within an hour or so of working out, you increase the risk of your body using its own muscle tissue for energy—a process called muscle wasting, Axe explains. When this happens, not only is it incredibly difficult for your body to synthesize new muscle tissue, but it also struggles to preserve the muscle you already have.
2. You Feel Fatigued, Foggy, And Moody
Another sign your post-workout eats aren’t getting the job done: You feel downright awful in the hours following getting your sweat on.
Without adequate nutrition at the right time (soon before or after exercising), many people experience a drop in blood sugar, says Axe.
Called hypoglycemia, low blood sugar signals to your body that it’s running low on its main energy source, glucose. This can cause irritability, sluggishness, and even a little shakiness.
3. Your Urine Is Dark
While re-fueling with actual food is super-important post-workout, don’t forget about restocking on H2O, too!
“If you sweat a lot during your workout or exercise for more than 60 minutes, it’s important to drink extra water after,” says Axe. You’ll also want to make sure you replenish electrolytes, like potassium, sodium, and calcium, which are lost via sweat.
“If you aren’t peeing very light yellow or clear after a workout, you’re dehydrated,” says Auslander Moreno. You may also feel a little woozy and fatigued, have a dry mouth, and notice an unusually fast heart rate.
What A Proper Refuel Looks Like
Whether you’re a competitive athlete or just want to work out hard and see results, eating a balanced, whole food-based diet is essential—and your post-workout fuel is no exception.
The following foods and nutrients are especially important post-exercise.
“Proteins are made of small units called amino acids, which are the body’s building blocks for muscle,” says Axe. If you want to feel strong, perform well, and make progress, protein is a nonnegotiable.
While you’ll want to eat about a gram of protein per pound of body weight total each day, Auslander Moreno recommends shooting for 20 to 25 grams post-workout, specifically.
Grass-fed meat, eggs, and fish are all great whole-food options, but incorporating a quality protein powder into your routine can also help you get your fill. Though whey has long been hailed for its ability to boost muscle protein synthesis (the muscle-building process), a plant-based protein made from a blend of sources will also do the trick.
2. Complex Carbohydrates
Since you use stored sugar called glycogen to power exercise, eating carbs after exercising will ensure you re-stock the glycogen you need to recover and go hard tomorrow.
However, not any candy bar or slice of white bread will do. Focus your carb consumption on complex carbs (like oats, legumes, sweet potatoes, or starchy veggies), which pack more nutrients and break down more slowly than simple carbs.
For optimal glycogen replenishment, the International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends consuming 0.5 to 0.7 grams of carbs per pound of body weight within 30 minutes of training.
4. Fruits And Vegetables
Active people may use (and need) more of these nutrients, so it’s crucial they load up on produce to feel their best.
Plus, since unprocessed plant foods are high in volume yet low in calories, they help you eat to your heart’s content without going overboard on calories, says Axe.
Aim for five to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables per day—and incorporate a few of those servings post-workout. Axe loves bananas—which provide fiber and potassium, and are easy on the stomach—after a good sweat.
What Not To Eat Post-Workout
When your body needs a quick energy refuel after you exercise, “you might find that you crave sugary foods or high-calorie processed foods,” says Axe.
“However, resorting to processed foods after exercise can leave you feeling fatigued, interfere with muscle building, and contribute to inflammation,” says Axe. Over time, chances are it’ll also just contribute to weight gain, too.
Kind of defeats the purpose of taking the time to move your body, right?
How Much Is Too Much?
Important as refueling post-workout may be, you don’t have to force a large meal down your throat every single time for the sake of making gains.
“More food—protein, included—is not always better,” says Axe.
If you worked out at a low intensity for 30 minutes or less, you won’t need to refuel as aggressively as someone who lifted heavy weights or sprinted for an hour.
In fact, if you just went for a quick jog, for example, you may be good to go with just some extra water afterward.
“Keep the big picture in mind,” says Axe. Ultimately, the key is to eat intuitively
“If you’re hungry after a workout, it’s snack time!” says Auslander Moreno. (Just remember to eat enough that you feel satisfied—but not stuffed.) Not hungry? Don’t force it.
While these guidelines can help you nourish your body properly after exercising, always follow your body’s signals and eat based on your hunger cues.