Post-Workout Nutrition: What do we need and why?!

Time to chat about post-workout nutrition because it’s super important :) What we eat after a workout is essential to recovery and achieving our goals. I remember that some of my friends in college did not want to eat after a workout because they thought they were “un-doing” everything they did. This was so not me – no, I usually rushed to the pasta bar which was still doing my body a disservice but at least I was not starving myself.

I usually have a hard boiled egg and a banana right after I finish a workout. (Then I have my “breakfast” or my first meal of the day). IMPORTANT NOTE: Your post-workout does not replace a meal – it is a necessary source of additional nutrients. 

I am really excited to dive into this in more detail in my studies in my Sports Nutrition course as right now my coursework has only scratched the surface. So what do I think we need to eat post-workout?

Protein + Carbohydrates + Water  

Protein, carbs and water are the necessary components in order to replenish our body, glycogen storage (the storage of carbohydrates in our muscles and liver, aka our energy) and re-build our muscles. Am I getting too science-y? I promise it will make sense.

So what do you eat? Well, that’s not an easy answer. Your post-workout nutrition really depends on you, your body, your activity and your goals.

But I want to give you a few quick tips in thinking about your post-workout nutrition.

Timing: Various research shows the importance of eating/drinking within 10-45 minutes of activity. After exercise, our bodies have tiny tears in our muscles. Our body is likely dehydrated and possibly even glycogen deficient. The enzymes that help our bodies re-synthesize our muscle glycogen (energy) are most active following exercise – the longer we wait to eat, the longer it takes to recover. Your body is best at storing this recovery nutrition right after exercise so be prepared and eat something when you are still sweating! It’s super easy for me to throw a hard boiled egg and banana into my gym bag before leaving the house.

Egg and banana

Protein: Protein provides the necessary amino acids for muscle proteins to repair. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and we need to obtain the essential amino acids because our body cannot produce them. Our muscles are made up of three branch chain amino acids (BCAAs) and the most abundant of these BCAAs is called leucine (it is believed to best stimulate muscle protein synthesis). Therefore we need to replenish our body by eating (or drinking) sources of protein – especially leucine.

Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates are needed to replace the glycogen loss and increase their storage. Carbs are the most effective way to reduce post-workout soreness as well.

Hydration: Water is necessary to replace the loss of water we experienced through exercise. Our body is made up of 70% water – our blood is 90% water. We need water in order for our systems to function properly and effectively.

Post-Workout Nutrition Part 1

So what exactly and how much do you need to eat?

Well, as I said, this depends on you: your body, your activity and your goals.

Your body: How tall are you? How old are you? What is your body composition?

Your activity: How intense is your activity? Are you going for a walk, a 3 mile run, a 10 mile run, lifting weights, or yoga? How hard did you work? (Be honest…)

Your goals: Are you looking to lose weight? Are you striving to maintain weight? Are you aiming to gain weight?

I wish I could write a customized plan for each and every one of you (I can one day if you want to be my client!) but right now I can offer this:

An excessive amount of protein is not necessary. Most studies show that our bodies do not absorb more than 20g of protein at one time. Half of a “meal size”* portion of protein is a good place to start for your post-workout nutrition. The best foods containing the amino acid leucine are found in animal protein sources: chicken, beef, eggs, whey protein and other high quality dairy sources.

Your post-workout carbohydrate is very important too. Half to a full “meal size”* portion of carbs is also a good place to start. Your protein to carbohydrate ratio will (of course) depend on your goals. If you are looking to gain muscle (aren’t we all?), look to eat higher glycemic carbohydrates with lower fructose content (like bananas, apricots, prunes, kiwis and cherries) and starchy veggies (like sweet potatoes, squash, pumpkin and beets).

And of course – drink lots of water. What’s lots? I’m not going to tell you “8 glasses a day!” or “# of ounces”. I really think that’s silly because we are all grown-ups. Drink water. Pee often. It shouldn’t be too yellow.

*What the heck is a “meal-size”?! Good question: my meal-size is different from yours and yours is different from mine. How much would you eat at a meal to feel full? Eat about half of that after a workout. REMEMBER: your post-workout is not replacing a meal*

Post-Workout Nutrition Part 2

I want to touch on protein powder and protein shakes really quickly. I haven’t used protein powder in awhile as I don’t really consider it to be “food” (and you know how I feel about eating real food) but I do think it could be a beneficial option (for some). Edited: I have since found success with a post-workout smoothie. Click here for the recipe. 

The idea behind protein shakes is that it skips a digestive step because the nutrition is already in liquid form. Without giving you even more nerdy-science-confusing-speak… because our bodies do not have to work as hard to break the shake down some believe we absorb the nutrients better. Better absorption, better performance? Maybe.

Now there are plenty of junk protein powders out there – heavily processed, filled with sugar and other chemicals. I have tried quite a few protein powders (like these and these). I really like North Coast Naturals’ brown rice protein powder because it is virtually tasteless and plant-based. However, it is also not a complete source of protein and therefore not as high in leucine. In order to obtain all of the amino acids, taking a BCAA supplement (like in capsule form) is an option. If you are looking for a complete protein source for your shakes, 100% New Zealand whey is ideal.

Protein Shake

There is no “one size fits all approach” to anything. The moral of the story is this: your body needs to recover from the losses you undertook during the exercise. You need to repair your muscles, refuel your tank, and rehydrate. Depending on you, your body, your activity and your goals this varies from person to person.

I have tried a variety of post-workout snacks and meals over the years. From stuffing my face with pasta, to a few different protein oatmeal creations (like this one and this one), to protein pancakes (like these and these), to experimenting with a bunch of protein powders (like these and these), to a hard boiled egg and banana. I am getting stronger but could I perform even better? (Now, I’m not trying to get greedy or anything…) Maybe. There’s always room to improve and try new things.

Do you feel like you are getting the best results and making the most out of your workouts? If not, then maybe it is time to change things up.


Disclaimer:  I am studying to become a Registered Nutritional Consulting Practitioner but I am not a doctor or personal trainer. My blog posts are based upon my coursework, additional research, personal views and experiences. For specific questions regarding your diet and exercise plan, please consult a professional.


Questions of the day…

What do you eat after a workout?

What are your thoughts about protein shakes?

Are the above “infographics” helpful?! 



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41 thoughts on “Post-Workout Nutrition: What do we need and why?!

  1. Great info Amy, thank you!! I normally go with a protein shake and then have eggy oats or an omelette with greens and quinoa – it depends. I also take glutamin and bcaa’s and I take them daily even if I don’t workout. I found that good food make good workouts :-) I used to wait up to 2 hours after a workout with my next meal in order to lengthen the afterburn. Eeek! I can not even imagine how I managed to do that.

  2. Great informative post Amy – loved the infographics!
    I tend to have a smoothie after if it is a morning workout, then a “proper” breakfast at work. Sometimes I will put some protein powder in the smoothie but other times I just whack some nuts in. If I workout after work then I just eat my dinner straight after :)

  3. Super helpful information, Amy! So yes, in answer to your question :) I’m getting ready to head out to my gym and I will be having a protein shake afterwards, albeit with a healthy protein powder. I don’t drink shakes often but when I’m crunched for time in the morning (and all of my HB eggs are gone…), they get the job done!

  4. Look at you and your infographics!!!! I’m seriously so impressed. It’s so funny you wrote this post because the other day I was going to text you after a short run because I realized my net calories for the day (it was 4pm) were really low. Like really. And I still didn’t want to eat until dinner even though I knew I needed to and I knew you would give me important info like this and convince me. In the end I decided not to bother you because I knew what you would say – knock it off and EAT! I have a very (VERY) hard time shaking the old “undoing it” mentality. I’m really am getting better though, but I honestly still don’t eat a specific post-workout snack unless I feel like I worked very hard doing something like spinning, running over 5 miles, or an intense lifting session. Most of the time, I just time my workouts right before a meal and then eat that meal immediately after. And yes, I did notice that you bold and all caps-ed the note that you should not do that. Baby steps?

  5. Yes!!! Amy, I love reading posts like this! It is so critically important, yet so many people neglect it, and wonder why they do not recover correctly. It is so important to consume protein and carbohydrates within that window, but so many people do not. I am constantly yelling at my athletes about this.

    I am very obsessive about it, will get a protein bar and banana if I cannot consume a meal right away, but I always try to have a meal within that magic window. My favorite is my hearty greek yogurt pancakes. I find it helps me recover fast, so I can be ready for tomorrows run!

  6. Very informative! In college I was totally guilty of not eating after a workout because I didn’t want to ‘ruin’ my workout.. Oh how I was young and dumb.. Now, I still find it hard sometimes to get in a post- workout snack. I don’t know if it’s because I went so long with thinking I didn’t need to eat after or what, but I am definitely better about it. I think I need to start bringing it to the gym with me, then I won’t forget by the time I get home.

  7. Ok I am obsessed with your info graphics! So stinking cute. And obviously I love all the information about nourishing your body post workout. It’s so important to prevent injuries and keep getting stronger!! Plus, I find if I eat right away it helps to keep the late night snacking monster away. (Ok, for the most part. sometimes I just need something sweet to end the day ha).

  8. I totally agree with everything you said! Giving your body the proper nutrients after working out your body is so important! If I don’t eat enough after a workout, I am usually starving all day! I am not sure how I have felt about protein powders lately because like you said, it’s not real food. But I would like to find some that is good for my body and not full of a bunch of crap. I will check out your suggestions!

  9. Your infographics are so cute! What a great post, girl! I often struggle with eating 10-45 mins after working out, because most of the time I have to get home THEN cook. I like the idea of packing some kind of snack for a quick bite before I can actually get to dinner.

  10. For me, it’s easier to just down a protein shake even though I know it’s better to have real food! (I usually use half the recommended amount) Then I’ll go home and shower, and then make a real meal of oats and egg whites. I love adding protein powder to smoothies though for extra protein since I probably don’t eat enough of it throughout my day

    1. I think I might try a protein shake this weekend. Not necessarily “better” or “worse” just different :) what protein powder do you use?

  11. I’m doing pretty well with the post workout eats, but when I have started in the morning, I usually add nut butter to my oatmeal. I heard fats wasn’t the best to have, but it works good for me. All bodies are different. You just have to learn what’s best for you. :)

  12. LOOOOOVE the infographics. Seriously.
    This was an awesome post!
    I do use a recovery shake after my runs, mainly because 1) I have a cranky tummy and food isn’t always an option and 2) I’m looking to get something in me quickly before hitting the shower.
    I use Vega Recovery Accelerator with NCN L-Glutamine added. It’s good to know about the leucine, as I’m sure the Vega will likely be low in it as it is vegan. I like Vega and NCN because they aren’t filled with crap, which I try to avoid.

  13. Love the infographics! I’m never that hungry after workouts, but I’ll try to get in a smoothie with a little protein + carbs. With the athletes I work with, I always focus on the whole diet first, then work on optimizing sports nutrition with these great guidelines.

  14. Thank you so much for sharing this, it’s really great information. I think so many people are confused as to what to eat post-workout because they don’t know the reasoning behind each thing and this explains it all so well.

  15. I understand the post workout and if I workout during the day it actually is usually before a meal or a snack time so it works out well. But usually I have to work out at night. I have had 3 large meals and one very substantial snack and work out till around 9 then I go to bed without a snack because I’ve already eaten plenty and it is getting close to wind things down when I get home and go to sleep. I wonder if that affects things, but if I ate after it would really be more than I need in a day and If I cut things out to have a post work out snack later I think I would be hungry beforehand?

    1. I completely understand as I used to have evening basketball practices that would often go until 10pm. Saying this, it is still so important to eat something after your workout in order to provide your body with ample nutrition. You may not feel hungry but your body is hungry with additional fuel and not eating until the next morning might be affecting things. I would not change how you are eating throughout the day but simply add a small snack right after your workout: a bit of protein and carbs as I mentioned. If you have leftovers from dinner have a bit of that or even a protein shake if you like them. I am not a nutritionist (yet) but that’s what I think :)

  16. This is very helpful because it’s in useful terms, haha, not confusing! I think it’s always hard to figure out what to eat after a workout. Most of my workouts occur right before meals, though. It’s either in the morning when I eat right after, or after work with dinner just 20 minutes later or so.

  17. Thanks for the helpful tips! I typically work out in the evenings after work so my post workout meal is usually my dinner. On Saturday mornings when I run early in the day I typically have a post run smoothie and then follow it up with a bigger appetite once my appetite returns.

  18. Your posts are always a wealth of knowledge, and I LOVE IT. Saved this one to come back to…so much great stuff jammed in. My nutrition needs a little bit of a makeover in regards to eating around WODs, so this is great.

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