Sure, if you’re committed to living a healthy lifestyle, you probably don’t skip out on your workouts—but what about your post-workout refueling routine? After all, proper nutrition after training has a huge impact on the results you see—whether you’re training for a marathon or building a more muscular body.
Plain and simple, exercise stresses your body. As your working muscles contract to power you through whatever movement you’re doing, you churn through your energy stores and create tiny tears in your muscle tissue. That’s why post-workout nutrition—which provides your body with the nutrients it needs to restock its energy stores, rebuild damaged muscle tissue, and grow bigger and stronger—is so important.
Here’s what four fitness and nutrition experts recommend you load up on after your next sweat.
When you work out, your body first uses whatever sugar you have in your blood for energy. Once that’s used up, it typically relies on the glycogen—a form of sugar stored in your muscles and liver—for fuel. So if you want to work out again at some point, you need to refill the tank! “Your post-workout nutrition is all about replenishing the glycogen you depleted during exercise, which you can do by eating carbs,” explains dietitian and exercise physiologist, Jim White R.D.N., owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios. Research shows that your body is extra-efficient at using carbs for glycogen after exercise—and that glycogen helps offset muscle breakdown.
Both fast-digesting simple carbs and slow-digesting complex carbs will do the trick. If you’re on-the-go and need something quick, fruit (like a banana or an apple) is an easy simple carb option. Bars (like Bonk Breaker’s Peanut Butter and Chocolate Brownie) also come in handy in a pinch. If you have time for more of a meal, go for a complex carb like quinoa, whole-wheat bread, or brown rice, suggests Jonathan Valdez, R.D.N., owner of Genki Nutrition and spokesperson for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
If your workout involved strength training, which can create micro-tears in your muscle tissue, you also need to eat ample protein post-workout. “After your workout, your body repairs those micro-tears so your muscles grow bigger and stronger than before, but it needs protein to do it,” says White. Why? Protein is made up of molecules called amino acids, which are the ‘building blocks of muscle.’
White recommends eating a post-workout meal that contains a two-to-one ratio of carbs to protein. That’s about 30 to 50 grams of carbs and 15 to 25 grams of protein. Some easy combos include brown rice and beans, chicken and sweet potatoes, and smoothies made with protein powder and fruit.
While a good source of protein, like chicken breast or whey protein powder, provides a wide variety of amino acids, three—called the ‘branched-chain amino acids’ (BCAAs)—are particularly important post-workout. The BCAAs (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) play a number of roles in the muscle recovery and building process: Leucine signals our muscles to begin muscle protein synthesis (the process through which they rebuild and grow), while isoleucine and valine can be used as energy sources.
If you’re not noshing on animal proteins like steak or eggs (which are rich in BCAAs) after hitting the gym, Valdez recommends adding a scoop (usually about five grams) of a BCAA supplement to your water after strength training. (Two scoops of BodyTech’s Strawberry Lemonade Critical Aminos XT is our go-to.)
The most abundant amino acid in our bloodstream, l-glutamine plays a major role in recovery after a hard workout by bolstering our immune system, promoting glycogen storage, and warding off muscle breakdown. In fact, one small study published in the Journal of Exercise Science & Fitness reported that supplementing with glutamine for four days after strength-training significantly reduced muscle soreness.
You’ll find l-glutamine in most protein powders, but it can also be taken in stand-alone powder, pill, or liquid supplements. (BodyTech makes both unflavored powder and capsule options.) It’s also found in foods like meat, dairy, tofu, beans, eggs, and spinach, says White. Take up to five grams per day to support recovery.
We know you’ve heard this one before, and that’s because it’s important. In fact, replenishing the fluids you lost during exercise is just as important as re-fueling with carbs and protein, says Valdez. Water is a necessary ‘ingredient’ for muscle protein synthesis, and one study published in the Journal of Athletic Training even suggests that failing to hydrate properly after a workout can exacerbate soreness.
Monitor the color of your urine to gauge your overall hydration status—the paler the yellow, the better. Or, weigh yourself before and after your workouts, and drink 16 ounces of fluid for every pound lost during exercise, says Valdez.
Antioxidants do a body good in so many ways—and exercise recovery is one of them.
Let’s start with ginger: “Research has shown that adding ginger to your meals can help decrease delayed-onset muscle soreness by up to 25 percent,” says Marie Spano M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., C.S.C.S. How? Potent antioxidants in the root called gingerol, shogaol, and zingerone. (Gingerols in particular have been shown to modulate post-workout inflammation.) Spano recommends adding a teaspoon or two of ginger into a meal (it’s great in stir-fries), tea, or a smoothie within two hours of exercising.
Another antioxidant to try: tart cherry. Research published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports found that marathoners who consumed 11 ounces of tart cherry juice leading up to, on the day of, and following their races experienced less muscle soreness. Researchers believe antioxidant compounds called anthocyanins found in cherries work their magic on post-exercise inflammation. Try stirring a cup of tart cherries into your Greek yogurt or oatmeal, or adding eight ounces of unsweetened tart cherry juice—like Dynamic Health’s Tart Cherry Juice Concentrate—to your post-workout smoothie.
Pin this infographic to keep your post-workout nutrition game strong: