Learn what works and doesn't work to eat after a fitness event.

Best Foods to Eat After a Workout

The last thing you probably want to do just after a run or other workout is eat something, right? Most of us feel thirsty after we exercise, but hunger usually doesn’t kick in for as much as an hour. But if you’re training for an event that requires you to exercise daily, when to eat matters just as much as what to eat. And when to eat is right away.

Why You Need to Eat Right After a Workout

Think of your muscles as your storage tank for energy. Have you heard the term glycogen? This is the storage form of energy that you burn through during your workout. Following a workout lasting 45 minutes or greater, your muscles are depleted of this energy and they are “hungry” to replace the glycogen that was lost. The potential for storing more glycogen in your muscles and liver is greatest within a 15 to 30 minutes post-workout.

The longer you delay eating, the less excited your muscles are to grab that energy and store it for you for later. If you delay eating on a consistent, daily basis, then your muscles won’t be as responsive to running faster, harder, and longer, and you’ll have delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). We all know how sore muscles feel, and how it can affect your next exercise session or even prevent you from running altogether—so don’t delay your eating.

What to Eat: Carbohydrates and Protein

Because glycogen is made up of long strands of glucose (in other word, carbohydrates), you need to replenish those carbs after you work out. Protein is also important, but less so – it plays a minor role in replenishing the amino acids that were utilized for energy. There’s a rule that sports nutritionists use to calculate the quantities of carbs and protein you need:

  • 0.5 grams carbohydrate per pound of body weight. Example: 150 pounds x 0.5 grams  = 75 grams of carbs. For best results, eat a snack of this size every hour until your next meal.
  • 1 gram protein for every 3–4 grams of carbohydrate. Many whole foods will naturally contain this ratio of carbs to protein.

Post-Workout Snack Ideas

Examples of post-workout snacks that provide 75 g carbs/20 g protein include:

  • 2 ounces of whole-grain crackers + one-quarter cup hummus + 1 large apple + 1 cup milk
  • 1 ½ cups whole-grain cereal + 1 small banana + 1 cup milk or yogurt

You can also put your own snacks together by reading food labels or using this handy table. The website calorieking.com has a calculator you can use you to look up the nutrition profiles of your favorite foods.

Foods that contain 15 g of simple carbohydrates:

  •  1 small apple, banana, peach, or orange
  •  1 cup fresh raspberries, ¾ cup blueberries/blackberries
  •  1¼ cup strawberries
  • 1 cup melon cubes (1/8 melon)
  •  ½ grapefruit
  • 17 grapes
  •  ¼ cup dried fruit,  2 tbsp raisins, cranberries, currants
  •  1 Tbsp honey, syrup, sugar, jam or 2 Tbsp all-fruit spread

Foods that contain complex carbohydrates: (15 g carbs + 3 g protein + 1 g fat)

  •  1 slice of fiber-rich (> 3 grams/slice) whole grain bread
  •  ½ English muffin (whole wheat preferable)
  •  ¼ large bagel (whole grain – rye, wheat, sprouted wheat)
  •  6” corn or flour tortilla (whole wheat, flax added)
  •  1/3 cup cooked pasta (best choice: whole grain variety)
  •  ½ cup potato w/skin, sweet potato w/skin
  •  ¾ cup butternut/acorn, 1 cup pumpkin, 2 cups spaghetti sq.
  •  1/3 cup cooked rice (brown, red, black), quinoa, barley, etc.
  •  ½ cup cooked beans, lentils, peas or corn
  •  ½ cup cooked cereal (oatmeal, quinoa, shredded wheat)
  •  ¾ cup unsweetened ready to eat cereal (> 5 grams fiber)
  •  ¾ oz  pretzels (whole wheat), crackers, etc.
  •  3 cups plain popcorn
  • ¼ cup low fat granola

If you’re a Kaiser Permanente member and would like a more customized program to help you reach your goals, call the Personal Health Coach Program today: 415.833.7836.

Heather D'Eliso Gordon is a Nutrition Health Coach and Sports Dietitian in the Health Education department of Kaiser Permanente San Francisco. A certified specialist in sports dietetics, Heather works with both recreational and competitive athletes to create optimal nutrition plans that support their fitness goals. She also provides nutrition coaching to Kaiser Permanente patients pursuing weight loss goals or coping with diabetes, high cholesterol, celiac disease, and other conditions.