The Best Post-Workout Fuel

by Carmen Roberts, M.S., R.D., L.D.N. Health Professional, Medical Reviewer

Refueling your body after exercise is just as important as eating before your workout.

Just as the pre-workout meal is crucial to sustain your energy during your workout, the post-workout meal ensures that you are putting the right nutrients back into your body. Here are some things to consider after your next workout.

Eat the right combination of foods

Many bodybuilders know that they need to eat protein after weightlifting to help rebuild muscle that has broken down during their workout. What many people don’t realize is that carbohydrate repletion is just as important.

A post-workout meal containing an adequate amount of complex carbohydrates is essential to restore glycogen levels in the muscles, which can be depleted after exercise. Carbohydrates are also needed to move essential nutrients into the muscles after exercise.

Timing is key

During exercise, your body burns fuel from your pre-workout meal, breaks it down, and stores the energy as glycogen within the muscles. A few hours after working out, muscles can begin to break down unless you replete what has been lost during exercise.

Within the “golden hour” after exercise, which is described as the 30 to 60 minutes after a workout has ended, your body is most effective at absorbing carbohydrates and protein. This is because muscle stores of glycogen are at their lowest level, and muscle fibers have been depleted. Eating a nutrient dense recovery meal that is high in both lean protein and complex carbohydrates is the perfect way to refuel your body after exercise and to ensure that muscle is not broken down for energy.

Morning meals

If you are an early morning exerciser, breakfast really is your most important meal of the day. Try one of these energy-boosting meals:

Omelet with vegetables

Combining the complete protein in eggs with the complex carbohydrates in fresh vegetables make this a great post-workout breakfast.

Greek yogurt with granola

granola with yogurt

Greek yogurt has twice the protein of regular yogurt. Adding a heart-healthy granola made with whole grains and nuts provides a perfect balance of protein and carbohydrates.

Fruit salad and cottage cheese

cottage cheese and fruit

Combining high-fiber fresh fruit with low-fat cottage cheese can help to replete carbohydrates lost during the workout and provide protein for muscle rebuilding.

Whole-grain cereal and milk

cereal and milk

A breakfast favorite, the perfect balance of complex carbohydrates and protein in a bowl of cereal is a quick and easy way to refuel after your morning workout. It can easily be eaten on the go or at your desk at work.

Scrambled eggs and whole-wheat pancakes

eggs and pancakes

You can make whole grain pancakes at home on the weekend and freeze them in individual bags to eat in the morning throughout the week. Many chain restaurants that serve breakfast also provide healthy breakfast options such as this if you need to grab your breakfast on the go.

Lunchtime options

If you work out on your lunch break at work, you need a quick and easy lunch to eat at your desk before you get back to work. Here are some simple things you can pack to eat after your workout:

Chicken salad on whole-grain bread

chicken salad sandwich

Making your own chicken salad at home with low-fat mayonnaise is a great, high-protein sandwich filling. The whole-grain bread provides the essential complex carbohydrates that you need after your midday workout.

Protein salads

quinoa salad

A mixed grain salad topped with lean protein such as chicken, fish, or steak is an easy thing to make with last night’s dinner leftovers. Make sure you add some whole grains to your salad such as quinoa or whole-wheat pasta to give your body enough complex carbohydrates for muscle repletion.

Sandwich wraps

sandwich wrap

Make a wrap with a whole-grain tortilla and lunchmeat such as turkey, chicken, or roast beef. Add vegetables such as fresh spinach, tomato, and grated carrot to give you more complex carbohydrates with added nutrition.

Dinner options

If you work out in the evening, you are most likely starving when you get home. Refuel your body with a sufficient amount of lean protein and complex carbohydrates to satisfy you. Eat an adequate portion of chicken, salmon, beef, or other seafood to fill you up. Couple your protein with fresh vegetables, or starches high in complex carbohydrates, such as sweet potatoes.

No time for a meal?

If you don’t have time for a meal, you can satisfy your body’s need during that golden hour with a simple drink. While drinking plain water replaces sweat, remember that you also need carbohydrates and protein to replenish what has been lost in your muscles. There are a number of post-workout drinks on the market that have a good balance of protein and carbohydrate for muscle recovery. Check the label to make sure that your drink isn’t high in simple sugars. You can also make your own protein shake at home with something as simple as protein powder and milk.

Chocolate milk…it’s not just for kids!

chocolate milk

Surprisingly, low-fat chocolate milk can be even better than any sports drink because it has the right carbohydrate/protein combination for recovery. It also contains electrolytes, calcium, and a small amount of sugar to help refuel your muscles after a workout. Researchers at Indiana University found that chocolate milk is an effective recovery aid after exercise.

The bottom line

Refueling your body after workout is crucial to ensure that your body is burning stored body fat instead of breaking down muscle for energy. Remember to make smart choices after your workout. You worked hard to burn those calories, so make sure you are putting quality nutrition back into your body after exercise.

Carmen Roberts, M.S., R.D., L.D.N.
Meet Our Writer
Carmen Roberts, M.S., R.D., L.D.N.

Carmen is a Registered Dietitian. In addition to writing for HealthCentral, she has spent her career working at Johns Hopkins and is also an adjunct faculty instructor for Excelsior College. Carmen has over 20 years of experience in nutritional counseling, education, writing, and program management and is a certified specialist in adult weight management. She enjoys educating her students and clients about how nutrition affects the body and its role in overall health and wellness.