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What to Eat Post-Workout for Recovery & Muscle Growth

What to Eat Post-Workout for Recovery & Muscle Growth

Optimizing your post-workout nutrition is essential for enhancing recovery and seeing results from your workouts. In this article, we’ll cover the three critical elements of a post-workout meal to replenish your body’s energy stores and support a physical transformation. 


By Andres Ayesta, MS, RD


Key Points

  • Post-workout nutrition is critical for maximizing the results of a workout session and preparing you for your next workout. 
  • When building a post-workout meal or snack, keep in mind the “3 R’s” — Repair, Refuel, and Rehydrate.
  • Repair: consume sufficient protein, with daily intake being more important than immediate post-workout timing. 
  • Refuel: consume a source of carbohydrates, to replenish glycogen stores.
  • Rehydrate: drink sufficient water each day to support muscle repair, joint function, and overall performance. 
  • Supplements such as protein powder, essential amino acids, and tart cherry juice may be considered to help with muscle building and reduce soreness following exercise. 

Why Post-Workout Nutrition Matters

shopping for food after a workout

What you eat after your workout plays a crucial role in determining the effectiveness of your training and helping you recover before your next session. From replenishing energy stores to providing essential building blocks for muscle repair, your post-workout nutrition habits will help you avoid fatigue, minimize soreness, grow your muscles, and reach your fat loss goals (1, 2). 

There are three key components of post-workout nutrition that we’ll cover in this article, along with discussing specific snacks and meals that are great choices post-workout. Whether you're a fitness enthusiast hitting the gym regularly or you’re just starting out on your health and fitness journey, understanding what to eat post-workout is your key to reaching the full potential of your training.


Who Should Follow This Post-Workout Nutrition Advice?

The strategies for post-workout nutrition described in this article are for non-athletes who are going to the gym 3-5 times a week. If your goal is to enhance body composition and performance through regular training, you're in the right place. If you’re an athlete gearing up for a race, competition, or game, you will have more specific nutrition needs post-training — especially if you work out more than once per day. The advice here is based on sports nutrition research, but athletes should speak with a registered dietitian about their unique needs. 


The Basics of Post-Workout Nutrition

When you’re feeling hungry post-workout there are 3 main goals to keep in mind as you are assembling a meal or snack: Repair, Refuel, and Rehydrate — the “3 R’s”. So, let’s break down what each “R” means in practical terms. 

 

Repair

The first component of post-workout nutrition is consuming adequate protein. Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids, which are used by the body to repair and grow muscle fibers. When considering the timing of protein post-workout, current research suggests that total protein intake during the day is the most important factor for optimizing muscle growth (1). That means, you don’t have to rush to chug your protein shake within 30 minutes of a workout or risk losing your “gains”! (3, 4).

Current daily protein recommendations for people trying to improve their body composition (increase muscle and lose fat) range between 1.8-2.7 g/kg or 0.8-1.2 g/lb. (5). A simple guideline is to eat 1 gram of protein for every pound of body weight — for example, a 150 lb. person would have a goal of 150 grams of protein daily. 

However, research findings on protein timing are complicated by small sample sizes and various confounding factors (4). Furthermore, there is no harm and possibly some benefit to having a protein-rich meal close to the end of your workout (6). Therefore, having a post-workout meal or snack with ~30 grams of protein can be a helpful guideline to help you hit your daily protein goal and maximize muscle growth (7).

Recommended Protein Sources

  • Chicken breast
  • Salmon
  • Eggs/egg whites
  • Greek yogurt
  • Cottage Cheese
  • Lean beef
  • Tofu
  • Quinoa
  • Turkey
  • Whey protein
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Milk (try ultra-filtered milk for a higher protein option)

Refuel

Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred source of energy, and they’re stored in the form of glycogen in the muscles and liver. When you work out, glycogen in the muscles gets used up for energy. By including carbs in your post-workout meal, you’re able to refuel your body before your next workout (8). 

Research has found that a combination of carbohydrates and protein post-workout is best for replenishing glycogen and promoting muscle protein synthesis (i.e., repairing and growing your muscles) (8). Carbs also stimulate the production of insulin, which is a hormone involved not only in managing your blood sugar levels, but also in many of the reactions that lead to muscle recovery and growth (2, 8).

Recommended Carb Sources

  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Brown Rice
  • Quinoa
  • Oats
  • Whole Grain Bread
  • Fruits (e.g., bananas, berries)
  • White Potatoes
  • Legumes (e.g., lentils, chickpeas)
  • Pasta (whole grain or legume-based)
  • Barley
  • Whole Grain Cereal

Rehydrate

The final component of post-workout nutrition is replenishing the fluids lost during a workout as sweat. Adequate hydration gives your muscles a hydrated environment to repair, and it helps to keep joints moving smoothly. Additionally, failing to hydrate properly during and after your workout can impact performance, affecting aerobic endurance and cognitive abilities (2, 9)

For athletes, the standard recommendation is to drink 24 oz of water for every pound lost through exercise (2). However, most non-athletes can follow the guidelines of roughly 72 oz. of water per day for women and 100 oz. for men, with some additional water consumed throughout workouts (10).

If you’re exercising for more than an hour, sweating intensely, or in a hot climate, you may also choose to have a sports drink to replenish electrolytes (2). However, it’s important to keep in mind that many of these drinks are high in calories, and total calories based on your personal goals should be considered.


Examples of Post-Workout Meals and Snacks

The following are suggestions for post-workout meals that contain a combination of protein and carbs. The size of your post-workout meal or snack can be determined by personal preferences and the timing of your workout. 

  • Protein shake or bar and a piece of fruit (e.g., apple, banana, orange, handful of grapes)
  • Fruit smoothie with a scoop of protein powder, Greek yogurt, silken tofu, or egg whites
  • Overnight protein oats
  • Eggs, whole grain toast, and a small bowl of Greek yogurt with fruit
  • Protein pancakes
  • Turkey and vegetable wrap on a whole wheat (or high protein) tortilla
  • Taco bowl with lean ground beef, chicken, or turkey, sweet potato, and veggies
  • Burrito using a whole grain tortilla, with lean ground beef, black beans, brown rice, and your choice of vegetables

Supplements for Recovery and Muscle Growth

supplements for post workout recovery

In addition to whole foods, post-workout supplements can play a role in enhancing recovery. Options to consider include protein, essential amino acids (EAAs), and tart cherry juice. 

As mentioned, total daily protein intake is the most important component of post-workout nutrition for muscle growth. Protein powder can be a convenient way to boost protein intake, in addition to the protein from whole food sources. Whey protein isolate is a high-quality complete protein that is recommended for anyone aiming to build muscle, enhance recovery, and reduce muscle soreness (11, 12). 

Research also suggests that the post-workout supplementation with free-form essential amino acids, combined with a whey protein supplement, can maximize muscle recovery and growth (13). You can learn more about the science behind this powerful combination here.

Finally, an additional supplement that may be beneficial for recovery is tart cherry juice, which is known for its anti-inflammatory properties. Post-workout, it provides a quick source of carbohydrates, but notably, research has found that tart cherry juice can reduce muscle soreness and may help speed up recovery after resistance training (1). 

Incorporating these supplements into your post-workout routine (all of which are included in Shifted Recovery - Post-Workout Formula) can provide a comprehensive approach to recovery, when combined with balanced nutrition from whole foods and adequate rest. 

Conclusion

The "3 R's" — Repair, Refuel, and Rehydrate — provide a simple nutrition strategy to guide your post workout nutrition.  Ensuring adequate protein intake facilitates muscle repair and growth, carbohydrates replenish the body’s source of fuel, and rehydrating with water replaces fluids lost during exercise and ensures you’ll be ready – mentally and physically – for your next training session.

Beyond whole foods, supplements such as protein powder, essential amino acids, and tart cherry juice can complement a well-rounded approach to post-workout nutrition, enhancing the recovery process. Remember, individual needs and preferences should shape these practices, and seeking professional advice is recommended for a personalized approach.

About the Author

Andres Ayesta is a sports dietitian and the founder of Planos Nutrition, with over 12 years of experience helping people transform their nutrition and lifestyle. He works with busy professionals and parents to help them lose weight, improve their confidence, and show up as the best version of themselves, using a personalized, evidence-based nutrition blueprint.

With a bachelor's degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Southern Indiana and a master's degree in Exercise Science and Sports Nutrition from the University of Central Florida, Andres has earned numerous certifications, including Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach (CSCS) and Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD).

He is a licensed Registered Dietitian in the state of Florida and provides coaching programs worldwide. To connect with Andres, you can find him on TikTok @andresthedietitian or Instagram @andresayesta


References:

  1. O’Connor E, Mündel T, Barnes MJ. Nutritional Compounds to Improve Post-Exercise Recovery. Nutrients. 2022 Nov 29;14(23):5069. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9736198/

  2. Kerksick CM, Wilborn CD, Roberts MD, Smith-Ryan A, Kleiner SM, Jäger R, Collins R, Cooke M, Davis JN, Galvan E, Greenwood M. ISSN exercise & sports nutrition review update: research & recommendations. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2018 Aug 1;15(1):38. https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-018-0242-y

  3. Schoenfeld BJ, Aragon AA, Wilborn C, Urbina SL, Hayward SE, Krieger J. Pre-versus post-exercise protein intake has similar effects on muscular adaptations. PeerJ. 2017 Jan 3;5:e2825. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28070459/

  4. Schoenfeld BJ, Aragon AA, Krieger JW. The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013 Dec 3;10(1):53.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3879660/

  5. Phillips SM, Van Loon LJ. Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to optimum adaptation. J Sports Sci. 2011, 29, S29-S38. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22150425/

  6. Cintineo HP, Arent MA, Antonio J, Arent SM. Effects of protein supplementation on performance and recovery in resistance and endurance training. Front Nutr. 2018 Sep 11;5:83. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6142015/

  7. Mallinson JE, Wardle SL, O'Leary TJ, Greeves JP, Cegielski JE, Bass JO, Brook MS, Wilkinson DJ, Smith KE, Atherton PJ, Greenhaff PL. Protein dose requirements to maximize skeletal muscle protein synthesis after repeated bouts of resistance exercise in young trained women. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2023 Dec;33(12):2470-81.https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/sms.14506

  8. Alghannam AF, Gonzalez JT, Betts JA. Restoration of muscle glycogen and functional capacity: role of post-exercise carbohydrate and protein co-ingestion. Nutrients. 2018 Feb 23;10(2):253.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5852829/

  9. Judge LW, Bellar DM, Popp JK, Craig BW, Schoeff MA, Hoover DL, Fox B, Kistler BM, Al-Nawaiseh AM. Hydration to maximize performance and recovery: Knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors among collegiate track and field throwers. J Hum Kinet. 2021 Jul 1;79(1):111-22. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8336541/

  10. "Water." Institute of Medicine. 2006. Dietary Reference Intakes: The Essential Guide to Nutrient Requirements. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://nap.nationalacademies.org/read/11537/chapter/15

  11. Hulmi JJ, Lockwood CM, Stout JR. Effect of protein/essential amino acids and resistance training on skeletal muscle hypertrophy: a case for whey protein. Nutr Metab. 2010 Dec;7(1):1-1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2901380/

  12. Cermak NM, de Groot LC, Saris WH, Van Loon LJ. Protein supplementation augments the adaptive response of skeletal muscle to resistance-type exercise training: a meta-analysis. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Dec 1;96(6):1454-64.  https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0002916523029271?pes=vor

  13. Park S, Church DD, Azhar G, Schutzler SE, Ferrando AA, Wolfe RR. Anabolic response to essential amino acid plus whey protein composition is greater than whey protein alone in young healthy adults. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2020 Feb 10;17(1):9. https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-020-0340-5 
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