I’m something of a fitness fanatic and have been for the last 10 years. I swim, bike, run and do yoga. I’ve completed two marathons, dozens of half marathons and more 5Ks and 10Ks than I can count, and I walk religiously. I log 10,000 steps each and every day.
And while the short- and long-term benefits of exercise are well known — physical activity can elevate your mood, heart rate, reduce your risk of contracting a chronic disease and improve the quality of your skin — these benefits are moot if you fail to stretch regularly and eat properly as you recover from your workout.
But how much should you eat, and when? Several experts weigh in about the best pre- and post-workout snacking habits.
Best Snacks for Light and/or Moderate Activities
The type and amount of food you need after a workout varies. “With a light workout, a post-workout snack isn’t always needed,” Diana Gariglio-Clelland, a registered dietician from Balance One, tells SheKnows. Her advice? Let hunger be your guide. “If you aren’t hungry or feeling weak right away [wait and just] make sure you have something on hand in case you get hungry before your next meal.”
Natasha Trentacosta, a pediatric and adult sports medicine specialist and orthopedic surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, agrees. “Following light workouts, recovery is less important,” Trentacosta says.
As for what you should eat, Trentacosta suggests keeping it simple. “Water is an important nutrient which should be replenished after any workout,” she says. If you’re hungry, consider carbohydrates, proteins and fats — like fruit and cottage cheese, apple slices with string cheese, or tuna on crackers.
Best Snacks for Strenuous Activities
When it comes to weight training, lengthy workouts, prolonged aerobic activity and/or endurance runs, eating after a workout isn’t optional, it is essential. Gariglio-Clelland tells SheKnows, “the body needs carbohydrates and protein to recover… as carbs rebuild glycogen,” the body’s primary source of sugar (and energy) and protein helps repair muscles that have been broken down and damaged from the workout process.
“Carbohydrates are crucial to restore muscle glycogen stores and minimize exercise-induced hypoglycemia,” Trentacosta says, and “amino acids and proteins are integral for post-exercise muscle protein synthesis.”
But you shouldn’t consume carbs and proteins blindly. “For a strenuous or longer duration workout,” Melissa Morris, a professor of nutrition and applied kinesiology at the University of Tampa and part-time writer for Exercise.com, tells SheKnows, you should have a plan. “The goal should be a ratio of 2:1 or 4:1 (carbs to protein). A 2:1 ratio would be more for strength or muscle building and a 4:1 ratio would be more for recovery for endurance or aerobic activities.”
Options include eggs on whole wheat toast, salmon and rice, pita and hummus, a peanut butter banana protein shake, turkey and cheese (with grapes or apples) and Greek yogurt with berries, almonds and/or granola. Chocolate milk also works wonders.
While distance running and cycling differ substantially from that of Pilates (or yoga), there are a few guidelines everyone should keep in mind. “A good post-workout snack should be 200 calories, or less than 300,” Gariglio-Clelland says. High-fat foods should be avoided. “While fat is very good for us, it naturally slows our digestion,” Deidre Blommquist, a nutrition coached, NASM CPT and certified CrossFit trainer, tells SheKnows. “When we have fat directly after a workout, we undo [progress].” You should also steer clear of alcohol, candies, cookies, sweets and other high-sugar foods. And you should consume your snack or meal shortly after you finish your exercise routine.
“Your body has a ‘window of opportunity’ after exercise when your muscles are more sensitive to certain nutrients and hormones that aid in more effective muscle recovery,” Maggy Doherty, a registered dietitian and the owner of Doherty Nutrition, says. “With the right nutrients, within 30 to 60 minutes post-exercise you can recover more efficiently, increase muscle mass [and] burn more body fat.” Bloomquist agrees: “Eating post-workout will help reduce soreness, keeping you active.”
So remember that whether your workout is short or long, low-impact or high stress, what you eat — and when you eat — matters.
A version of this story was published August 2019.
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