Just as a healthy diet is essential fuel for a good workout, the food you eat after you hit the gym plays an important role in recovery. “Your body is extra receptive to the nutrition you give it within an hour or two of working out,” says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, author of “The Superfood Swap.” The right recovery foods can help your body’s muscles and energy storage get back to high-performance levels so you can continue to have great workouts, build muscle and burn fat.”
Here, a look at why carbs are ideal for post-workout recovery, the case for pairing them with protein and RD-approved options to try:
Several studies have shown carbohydrates replenish glycogen in the muscles, counter exercise-induced changes to the immune system and reduce muscle soreness and improve performance in subsequent exercise. If you ignore recovery nutrition, “you may start the week strong, but fatigue will set in and your performance will start to decline as the week goes on,” warns Blatner.
“Carbohydrates are a necessary fuel source for the body,” adds Kelly Jones, a Philadelphia-based sports and fitness dietitian. “Poor recovery from exercise due to lack of carbs will lead to excessive hunger and binge eating tendencies, lethargy and feelings of stress as well as increased muscle soreness. Over time, it can lead to muscle weakening, poor immune function and increased injury risk.”
While carbohydrates refill your fuel tank after a workout, be sure to choose foods that are also rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, says Jones. Avoid refined carbs that are highly processed and stripped of nutrients.
Carbohydrates like fruits and starches, including apples, sweet potatoes and rice are good options to restore blood glucose levels and muscle glycogen stores.
“If you ingest carbs without protein post workout, you’ll recover your glycogen stores and blood sugar levels, but will be missing the critical repair nutrient to begin muscle recovery and regrowth,” Jones says. “Protein also helps promote satiety and prevents blood sugar levels from spiking and crashing when ingesting carbs.”
Moreover, research published in the journal PLOS One compared performance of cyclists who received carbohydrate supplements to those who received carbohydrates and protein within a two-hour post-workout window. The combination of protein and carbohydrates improved performance; on carbohydrates alone, performance declined.
Blatner suggests eating a meal or snack within one hour of a workout, adding, “If your regularly scheduled healthy, balanced meal comes within an hour or less after a workout, eat your meal as the recovery food. But if you won’t be eating a healthy, balanced meal for more than an hour, add in a carb plus protein snack.”
Her go-to options for post-workout meals include oatmeal and scrambled eggs with veggies and avocado; low-sugar granola and Greek yogurt with berries; or brown rice, black beans, spinach and a couple tablespoons of guacamole. Apples with almond butter or whole-grain crackers and cheese are also great snack options that have the right mix of carbohydrates and protein.
You can also try chocolate milk, which has been hailed as the ideal recovery drink because it contains carbs, protein, healthy fats, water and electrolytes. In one 2019 study, researchers found the combination of nutrients made the childhood favorite “superior” to other recovery drinks.