Post-Workout Nutrition

People are always asking us what to eat after a workout. Someone, somewhere, starting telling everyone that chocolate milk was an ideal recovery drink, and everybody jumped for joy. And it is a great recovery drink, but there’s a catch: you actually have to DO a workout challenging enough to merit recovery.

There’s a lot of science behind post-workout refueling. Conventional wisdom states that in order to reap the most benefit from exercise, you must not only replenish the fuel depleted during activity, but also provide enough fuel to aid recovery. A post-workout snack should average about 2-300 calories, with a carb:protein ratio of 3:1. Hence, chocolate milk. Perfect carb:protein ratio, and even a little fat to sweeten the pot. This is the same formula on which most pre-packaged shakes and energy bars are based.

The rationale behind these long-hallowed numbers is that we utilize glycogen during exercise, which is basically energy stored in the cells. Post-workout, our glycogen stores are depleted, and we need to restock by eating carbohydrates. The protein is for your muscle recovery – when you strength train, tiny tears form in your muscle fibers. This is a good thing. During recovery, the muscle rebuilds and repairs itself — and grows back stronger than it was before. The amino acids found in protein are essential to this process.

The 3:1 (or sometimes 2:1) ratio is recommended for the casual exerciser. Body builders and endurance athletes use different proportions to accommodate their specific performance goals.

And how does one achieve this perfect ratio? You have to count calories, and unless you’re eating or drinking a specially formulated post-workout food, you’ll just have to wing it a little. By the way, if you’re a woman and you use pre-packaged recovery foods (like protein powder), you should probably cut the serving size in half.

“What about fat?” you may ask. The truth is, there are a select few experts in the fitness world that embrace the health benefits of fat. A couple resources that offer alternative (and wildly different) perspectives on post-workout nutrition are:

Brendan Brazier, Vegan Ironman, author of Thrive and creator of Vega Nutrition


Mark Sisson, author of The Primal Blueprint and blogger at Mark’s Daily Apple

For most of us, it’s not that complicated. For less than one hour of easy to moderate exercise, you don’t really need to worry about carb:protein ratio, or counting calories. An apple would be fine, for example. Or if you’re not really hungry and it’s an hour before lunch, you can just wait for lunch. Just make sure to rehydrate.

For more strenuous exercise, or anything over an hour, you’ll need something more. But again, most of us are not working out intensely enough to merit a whole protein shake or Power Bar (do people still eat those?).

Most of us exercise for two basic reasons: to feel better, or to lose weight. Maybe a combination of the two. With that in mind, your post-workout meal does not need to be rocket science: don’t eat too much, but don’t starve yourself. It is a good idea to have something, and after a strenuous or extra-long workout, you need a little of everything: protein, fat, carbohydrate. An apple with almond butter, or some yogurt and strawberries would be perfect. Your serving size should be about the size of your fist for solid food, or your two hands cupped together for liquids. Of course, you should adjust according to your body type, appetite, and activity level.

Here are some of our staff favorites:

Sam: Date/nut balls, apple or orange slices, or plain ol’ water

Lucas: Raw, grassfed milk

Trish: Banana and protein, usually some kind of shake

Ry: Chocolate milk

Damon: Something salty – I won’t tell you what – he must sweat a lot!

One more note about post-workout recovery: the most important piece of the puzzle is HYDRATION. Make sure you’re well hydrated to begin with, but as soon as you’re done, have at least 12 ounces of water. Adequate water intake aids digestion, regulates appetite, and is the only factor known to reduce Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS).

And while we’re at it, you can rehydrate with good old water. Gatorade and other sports drinks are unnecessary for the average exerciser — you simply don’t need electrolyte replacement. If you must have a sports drink, dilute it by at least half.

Always listen to your body. If you struggle with fatigue and muscle weakness throughout the day, play around with your protein intake and post-activity foods. If you feel sluggish and bloated, maybe try eating a little less or skipping the post-workout snack altogether.

Like this article? Stay tuned for the prequel – what to eat before a workout. 

Written by Sam

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