If you’re not currently refueling after trainings and competitions, you might want to reconsider.
The muscles are like sponges after exercise, absorbing protein to build and repair muscle. They’re also storing carbohydrates — the muscle’s main source of fuel — in preparation for your next bout of activity.
Consider replenishing your body as a key part of your training routine. You haven’t truly finished your workout until you’ve refueled.
This article covers when to fuel after exercise, what nutrients to focus on, and some sample meals and snacks.
When to eat after exercise
It’s recommended to refuel within an hour or so following training or competition because your muscles are primed for absorbing nutrients.
It’s especially important to refuel as soon as possible after exercise if you are a competitive athlete who has another intense training or competition within the next 24 hours, or if you are someone who participates in multiple workouts per day.
Refueling after exercise can either look like a full meal or just a quick snack depending on what time of day your workout is. For example, if your next full meal isn’t planned for 2-3 hours after your workout, a quick recovery snack is recommended.
In contrast, if you schedule your workouts to end within an hour of breakfast, lunch, or dinner, a post-workout snack would not be necessary as long as your meal is balanced and contains adequate amounts of protein and carbs.
What to eat after exercise
It’s a common misconception that protein is the only nutrient needed post-workout.
While protein is undoubtedly recommended after exercise, there is another key nutrient needed for muscle recovery: carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates are readily absorbed by your muscles after exercise to replenish much-needed fuel. Eating carbs also promotes muscle gains by releasing insulin and reducing cortisol, a hormonal response that helps build muscles.
In fact, it’s recommended to eat three times more carbs than protein in your recovery meals and snacks. For example, a general recommendation is to eat 75 grams of carbohydrates and 25 grams of protein after exercise.
Lastly, don’t forget the fluids. It’s highly important to restore fluids and electrolytes lost through sweat. Drinking until you are no longer thirsty is one way to do it. However, exact fluid needs are specific to the athlete — a sports dietitian can calculate your individual fluid needs and help you develop a personalized hydration plan.
Example recovery meals and snacks
So, what does recovery fuel rich in protein and carbs look like?
Here are some examples of recovery meals and snacks:
Eating protein and carbohydrates after exercise helps you build and repair muscle. For optimal recovery, opt for a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein. For example, a protein shake and fruit, or other food combinations containing around 15-25 grams of protein plus 45-75 grams of carbohydrate.
While these are general recommendations, keep in mind that a registered dietitian can help you build a refueling plan based on your individual needs and training schedule.
Makayla Meixner is a performance dietitian and founder of Own It Nutrition. She specializes in fueling strategies for athletes and offers both individual and group nutrition coaching services.