Food may not be the first thing on your mind as your pounding heart slows down and you catch your breath after a tough gym session or long run. But you better start stuffing your face, if you want your body to benefit from that hard work you just put in. You need a post-workout snack within the 30 minutes after you finish your workout for two reasons: to replenish glycogen (energy) stores you just used and to give your body protein to repair existing muscle as well as build new muscle, says Nora Minno, a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer in New York City.
"Refueling after a workout is crucial, because if your body doesn’t get the carbohydrates and protein it needs to produce energy and repair muscle, it will start breaking down proteins in the body which can lead to loss of muscle — the exact opposite of what you want from a workout," Minno says.
But don't go chowing down on a bacon cheeseburger with curly fries and a milkshake just yet.
Water, protein, and complex carbohydrates are what you need most after your run, circuit training, or class — whether you dig intense yoga, HIIT, barre, boxing, dance, Pilates, or spin. If you did some light cardio, like around 30 minutes, you only need about 10 to 15 grams of protein. If you do an intense or longer workout, your muscles need 15 to 30 grams of protein for recovery and replenishing your energy stores.
"The best post-workout snacks and meals are ones that have a combination of protein to restore your muscles and fiber-rich carbohydrates to help your body absorb the protein — with proper hydration," says Brigitte Zeitlin, registered dietician in New York City and founder of BZ Nutrition.
Minno recommends aiming for 10 to 20 grams of protein for repairing muscle. The more muscle you have, the easier it is to maintain or lose weight, whatever your goals are. "Keeping our lean muscle mass high is important, not only to maintain strength, but to maintain a healthy metabolism," Minno says.
Eating your snack within that 30-minute window can be tricky if you like a nice relaxing shower after your workout. So pack your snack in your gym bag and start nibbling before you hop in, unless you shower and dress in 15 minutes and can grab your food immediately afterward.
Try to keep your snack under 225 calories. But many of us don't count calories, so just be mindful of your portion size. You don't want to negate all the sweaty hard effort you just put in, do you?
Consider these delicious workout-recovery recipe ideas suggested (mostly) by Minno and Zeitlin:
1. Plain lowfat Greek yogurt with ½ cup fresh fruit, and (optional) teaspoon of honey. When it comes to yogurt, you might as well go Greek. It sometimes has twice as much protein as regular yogurt, and no more added sugar. Greek yogurt does contain a lot less calcium, though. Whatever yogurt you decide on, never buy the flavored kinds. They have so much added sugar, you might as well eat a bowl of ice cream instead. So add your own fresh fruit, and get more nutrition and fiber.
2. Slice of whole grain bread with four slices of turkey, and vegetables too if possible. Our Smushed Turkey and Cheese Sandwich can provide some inspiration. Use a whole-grain bun instead of the sweet yeast bun, but otherwise, you could follow this recipe. Make sure you use mustard instead of mayonnaise, and feel free to add a vegetable (or two). Get our Smushed Turkey and Cheese Sandwich recipe.
3. Banana or apple with 1½ to 2 tablespoons of an unsweetened nut butter of your choice. Zeitlin prefers almond butter. "You can get the individual to-go packets of nut butter and store them in your gym bag for easy access," Zeitlin says. "My favorite brands here are Justin’s and Barney Butter. Bananas are super portable too and can be found at most gyms, bodegas, Starbucks, or drug stores if you forget to grab one from home." It's also a great option for vegans, Minno says. The banana provides potassium, an important electrolyte for muscle function, as well as carbohydrates. The almond butter contains leucine, and important amino acid in muscle recovery. This is a little fancier, but if you have time, consider our English Muffin with Bruléed Banana and Peanut Butter recipe.
4. Five to 10 whole-grain crackers with string cheese (or mozzarella, provolone, or Laughing Cow cheese). Those kinda glossy, butter-colored sticks of cheese from which you peel strings take more time to eat and they're lower calorie than other cheeses. But if you don't want to sacrifice taste on your cheese choice, go with your favorite kind. We understand. As far as crackers, Triscuit original crackers have no added sugar and are a good fiber-full option. Wasa crackers are also good.
5. Smoothie with a scoop of protein powder, ½ cup fresh fruit, milk, and a teaspoon of honey. If you can't carry fresh fruit and milk around all day before you workout, just bring some protein powder with you and pour it into one of those bottles that have a ball in them to break up the powder when you shake it up. Our Healthy Blueberry Smoothie recipe is similar to the dietitians' suggestion. Yogurt (Greek is preferred because it has tons of protein), milk, blueberries, a banana, spinach, spices, and honey make this an easy, healthy post-exercise snack that gives you the protein and other nutrients you need to get through the rest of your day with gusto. Get our Healthy Blueberry Smoothie recipe.
6. 1 ounce of nuts and a 1/4 cup of dried fruit. A 100-calorie pack of Wonderful Pistachio nuts is a great post-workout snack and available in nearly every drugstore you pass on the way home from the gym, Zeitlin says. "These guys have that protein-fiber combo in one snack, with 6 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber per serving, plus good-for-you fats," she says.
7. Hummus, pita, and vegetables such as some fresh greens, shredded carrot, or tomato slices. Try our Easy White Bean Hummus, which replaces chickpeas with cannellini beans. This hummus is better after it's warmed to room temperature after fridge storage, so it seems safe to eat after a couple hours away from the fridge. Get our Easy White Bean Hummus recipe.
8. One to two hardboiled (or scrambled) eggs with a piece of whole grain toast. If you want to make this into more of a meal, then go with 2 to 3 eggs and add ¼ of an avocado to the toast, and you have the perfect post-workout meal, Zeitlin says. Minno loves how most convenience stores sell individual packs of hardboiled eggs now. "They're an incredible source of protein, so perfect for post-workout, and easy to grab and eat on the go," Minno says. "I love to eat these after a strength workout." Try our Perfect Hard-Boiled Eggs recipe.
9. Massive maple oat cookies are fun. The dietitians didn't recommend this recipe, but we did. Anytime you can have a cookie and feel healthy, we're down. In this Men's Health recipe, rolled oats, whey protein powder, peanut butter, maple syrup and either chocolate chips or raisins make five large cookies that are great for when you're on the go and can't cook at home right after your exercise. Get the recipe.
10. Quest Bars are under 200 calories, high in protein, low in simple carbohydrates, and contain simple ingredients. "They also taste delicious and come in a variety of flavors, so I never get bored," Minno says. The bars also have complex carbs, which can help after any workout.
The same principles for post-workout snacks apply to post-workout meals, just a bit more of it. Make sure you’re giving your body protein and complex carbs, with a lot of vegetables, of course. If it's for breakfast or lunch, just up the portion size of some of our snack suggestions and add in vegetables.
When you want something more substantial at dinner time, consider a few of Minno's favorite post-workout meals:
- 5 ounces of grilled or baked salmon, ½ cup cooked quinoa, and 2 cups steamed spinach.
- Tofu stir-fry with brown rice and vegetables. Use brown rice in our Teriyaki Tofu and Veggie Stir-Fry recipe.
- Turkey chili with lean ground turkey, black beans, and tomatoes. This version uses cannellini beans, but consider our Easy Spicy Turkey Chili recipe.
For recipes that are great for before exercise, check out our 10 Recipes to Fuel Your Workout gallery.
— Head Photo: Kayla Itsines.
Amy Sowder is the assistant editor at Chowhound in New York City. She loves cheesy things, especially toasties and puns. She's trying to like mushrooms. Her running habit is the excuse for her gelato passion. Or is it the other way around? Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and her blog, What Do I Eat Now. Learn more at AmySowder.com.