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Post-Workout Meal: What Should You Eat After A Workout?

By Marc Perry / July 1, 2017

This article is a follow up to my pre-workout meal article written last week and a Q&A I did with Men’s Fitness1 on the subject of pre and post-workout nutrition.

While the world of nutrition is rife with controversy, most experts agree a proper post-workout meal can improve results versus no meal at all. The challenge is simplifying all the nuances to consider so you can eat a post-workout meal that works well for you.

What are the specific benefits of a post-workout meal? What meal ideas can work best for you? These questions and a lot more will be answered in this introductory article on post-workout nutrition. For more reading, I’ve linked to several research reports throughout the article.

Post-Workout Meal Benefits

Numerous studies2 show the benefits of post-workout nutrition, which include:

1) Prevents Muscle Breakdown – A tough strength training workout will create microscopic tears in your muscle fibers. If adequate nutrients are not supplied before and/or after the workout, these muscle tears can lead to further muscle breakdown, which means your muscle is broken down to form protein that your body uses as energy to repair itself.

2) Increases Protein Synthesis – After a strenuous workout, your body is biochemically primed to suck in nutrients. Your muscles are highly insulin sensitive, which means those carbs you eat can help shuttle protein into your muscles, instead of getting converted into fat. Insulin is a storage hormone that has a bad reputation because it is integrally involved in fat storage. After a workout, however, insulin is your friend and a proper post-workout meal can improve muscle building and increase fat loss.3

3) Faster Recovery – A properly timed post-workout meal with the right nutrients can help decrease soreness in your muscles for a given amount of training. For example, if you are able to recover in only a day as opposed to 2-3 days, that means you can train harder and more frequently, which will lead to better and faster results.

4) Glycogen Replenishment – Regardless of the type of workout, if you are working out intensely, your body will use glycogen as fuel. Glycogen, which is stored in your muscles and liver is best described as your body’s preferred fuel source for workouts. Depending on the duration, type, and intensity of exercise, glycogen stores can become depleted. Eating ample carbs after a workout can not only promote protein synthesis, but also help replenish energy stores to keep you feeling energetic the rest of the day.

Post-Workout Meal Timing

There is a lot of debate as to the proper timing of a post-workout meal, but the preponderance of evidence suggests eating immediately after a workout as generating superior results.

A 12-week study4 conducted with previously untrained men examined the effects of consuming supplemental protein “immediately after versus two hours after a strength-training session. Those who consumed protein immediately after their workout gained significantly more muscle size and strength than those who consumed it two hours removed from their workout.”

Because of studies like this one, the 30-60 minute period after a workout is known as the “window of opportunity” to help maximize the training effect.

Post-Workout Meal Size & Breakdown

Given that the speed with which nutrients reach the body is critical, we need to take into account rates of digestion to maximize the nutrient delivery effect. Dietary fat slows down digestion, so a post workout meal should be low in fat. While protein in the form of meat can take a good 3-4 hours to digest whey protein5 takes as little as 20-30 minutes to hit the bloodstream. Fast digesting carbs are ideal post-workout to help maximize the insulin effect and replenish glycogen stores. The only time when eating processed carbs is a good idea (other than on the occasional cheat meal) is post-workout. Fruit can also work well, which is what I prefer.

Whey protein combined with a fast digesting carbohydrate in liquid form has emerged as the top post-workout meal of choice for anyone from athletes to bodybuilders to recreational exercisers. Consider a carb to protein ratio of anywhere from 1:1 to 3:1, with an average of 2:16 depending on the duration and intensity of the workout (i.e. 60 grams of carbs to 30 grams of protein). Sports nutritionists will typically recommend consuming 0.25 to 0.40 grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight.

Your post-workout meal is the only meal in my opinion where a protein shake should be considered. Whole, natural foods are superior for getting a lean, healthy body for a number of reasons ranging from greater satiety to increased thermic effect (food burns calories during digestion whereas shakes do not).

Please keep in mind focusing on total calorie intake, smart food choices, and proper exercise are far more important than maximizing the “window of opportunity” of the 30-60 minute post-workout period. I can’t emphasize this enough. Sadly, pre and post-workout nutrition has sabotaged many fat loss programs because of excess calorie intake. People lose sight of the forest amidst the trees.

Post-Workout Meal Ideas

Let’s tie everything together we’ve learned so far to create some effective post workout meals:

  • Whey protein shake mixed with a couple handfuls of fruit (banana, strawberries etc.)
  • Whey protein shake combined with dextrose (fast digesting carbohydrate)
  • Whey protein “Ready to drink” shake with 20-30 grams of protein and 20-60 of carbs
  • Lean protein with fast digesting starchy carbs (i.e. grilled chicken with potatoes and veggies)
  • 16 ounces of chocolate milk (not as effective as whey shake, but adequate)

    …and don’t forget to drink plenty of water! A good 16+ ounces can help you optimize your performance.

    In addition to whey protein, there are two other supplements worth mentioning that are supported by research (1) creatine and (2) glutamine. As I’ve discussed in depth, I’m not a huge fan of dietary supplements in general, for a number of reasons. With that said, ingesting 5 grams of creatine post-workout has been shown to help7 and 5-10 grams of glutamine post-workout can help improve recovery8 from a workout. In fact, some people swear by glutamine substantially reducing muscle soreness in the days following a workout (delayed onset muscle soreness).

    While I didn’t cover all the minutiae with post-workout nutrition, I tried my best to cover the basics that are most relevant. Feel free to ask any questions if you need more detail!

    Show 8 References

    1. The Fit 5: Pre- and Post-Workout Nutrition. Men’s Fitness. 2012
    2. Poole C, Wilborn C, Taylor L, Kerksick C. The role of post-exercise nutrient administration on muscle protein synthesis and glycogen synthesis . Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (2010) 9, 354-363.
    3. Westcott W, Martin W, La Rose R, Stoddard S. Fitness – Research Update: Protein and Body Composition . Athletic Business. 2008.
    4. Cribb P, Hayes A. Effects of Supplement Timing and Resistance Exercise on Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy. Exercise Metabolism Unit, Center for Ageing, Rehabilitation, Exercise and Sport; and the School of Biomedical Sciences,
    5. Hulmi J, Lockwood C, Stout J. Effect of protein/essential amino acids and resistance training on skeletal muscle hypertrophy: A case for whey protein. Nutrition & Metabolism 2010, 7:51.
    6. Van Loon LJ, Saris WH, Kruijshoop M, Wagenmakers AJ. Maximizing postexercise muscle glycogen synthesis: carbohydrate supplementation and the application of amino acid or protein hydrolysate mixtures . Am J Clin Nutr. 2000 Jul;72(1):106-11.
    7. Cribb PJ, Williams AD, Stathis CG, Carey MF, Hayes A. Effects of whey isolate, creatine, and resistance training on muscle hypertrophy. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007 Feb;39(2):298-307.
    8. Varnier M, Leese GP, Thompson J, Rennie M. Stimulatory effect of glutamine on glycogen accumulation in human skeletal muscle . American Physiological Society. 2012.

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    62 Comments

    • Smitha says:

      Marc, thank you for the excellent article!! I am concentrating on weight loss, my workout is mainly half an hour cardio and half an hour weight training. Should I be consuming a post work out mean to enhance my fat loss? If yes what do you think is the best meal for me? Usually I consume a protein shake. Many thanks for your help!

      Smitha

      • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

        @Smitha - A post-workout drink will not help you burn more fat. Most studies that regard post workout drinks relate to muscle building. I do think a post workout drink can be helpful to keep your muscle during a fat loss program. From that perspective, keeping it simple with maybe 20 grams protein and 30-40 grams carbs can do the trick. Stick with whey protein isolates when you can. Finally, consider that you need to include the calories from the post workout shake in your overall calorie intake. Very important.

    • Mark says:

      Hey Marc,

      i do alot of running and weight training, is protein shake and 1 cup of oats ok for postwork out?

      • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

        @Mark - That sounds good to me.

    • Smitha says:

      @Marc: thank you Marc! I have been trying out you suggestion and have observed a significant fat loss! I have been following all your articles and Its been very helpful.. great job! :)

    • James says:

      Hi Marc

      I am an endomorph in a muscle building phase. I wanted to get your thoughts on my PWO shake - USN Muscle Fuel Anabolic, which I have as soon as I get to the locker room.

      I fear it does not have enough 'fast carbs', so I actually have a banana PWO too.

      About 1.5 hours after workout when I get home, I have a whole meal - low GI carbs and protein type.

      Also, do you have any particular advice for vegetarians?

      Regards
      James

      • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

        @James - I really don't have an opinion on supplements I'm not familiar with unfortunately. The challenge with supplements is they are not evaluated by the FDA and most are ineffective, or have side effects. For more, check out our article on dietary supplements.

    • James says:

      Good read thanks!

      And any advice for vegeterian muscle building please?

      • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

        @James - not too much, other than to look into supplements that may help you get more protein (and I'm not the biggest fan of supplements generally speaking). I've hear Sun Warrior is solid. Also, consider you may be deficient in vitamin B, calcium, and omega 3's, so those supplements may help as well. Sometimes a vegetarian diet may not provide the vitamins and minerals your body may need. It also varies by the individual.

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    • Angel says:

      Hello Marc,

      I am a college student, a mother also. I am 31 years old, 5.2, 108 lbs. I normally have my breakfast (eggs whites, cheese, some fruit and carbs), then a snack around 10am such as a fruit or some nuts, for lunch some protein and veggies and very little carbs, then I get home around 3 and do some intense work out for about 30 min and right after that I have a protein shake.. (Beverly protein UMP, ice cubes and water), and in about an hour or so I have something for dinner... some grilled chicken/canned tuna/fish and vegetables. What I want is to gain maybe 10 lbs but lean muscle. Does my diet sound good to you? What should I change? Any suggestions for late snacks also?? I normally get hungry again around 9:30!!

      Sorry for the multiple questions

      • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

        @Angel - I'm not a nutritionist, so I don't make specific nutrition recommendations in terms of building a specific diet plan. I can tell you I would consider tracking your calories for a few days to make sure you are eating enough calories (ideally a good 300-500 more than you burn) along with roughly 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight in combination with lifting heavier and heavier weights over time. I MUST write a muscle building 101 article, so thanks for the reminder!

    • Mark says:

      is Waxy Maize waste of money?

      i heard that fruit is no good after a workout some people tell so many different things.

      and also they say OATS is no good becasue it's a slow carb.

      if your doing sprints and bike riding then a weights is whey shake, 1 APPLE and Honey good postworkout?

      • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

        @mark - It sounds like you are coming across a lot of "they say". Do what works for your body. A fast digesting carb can be a fruit and fast digesting protein can certainly be most whey protein isolates. Whether or not they have impurities or not for a specific brand is something you should look into. Whey shake + apple and honey sound reasonable, could also consider whey protein and one banana. I'm not familiar with the specific product you mention, so don't have an opinion on it. Good luck!

    • John says:

      "Whole, natural foods are superior for getting a lean, healthy body for a number of reasons ranging from greater satiety to increased thermic effect (food burns calories during digestion whereas shakes do not)."

      Pretty sure this is incorrect. While the TEF might be lower with liquid foods, surely digestion and absorption of ANY food is still energy consuming.

    • Nate says:

      Mark I struggle to digest protein shakes.can I consume food suchain as a scrambled eggs and tuna after a session?

      • Kristin says:

        That's a great question, Nate! While we think that protein shakes are totally fine to include in your diet if you want to, you don't have to have them. In fact, they're not necessary to either building muscle or losing fat. We think it's much better to meet your calorie and nutrient goals with whole foods. So - yes. You can absolutely have eggs and tuna after a workout instead.
        -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

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