Health tip: Bring a snack to eat right after a workout when your energy stores are depleted.

Eating After a Workout: What and When

When should you eat after a workout? The answer to this common question might surprise you, says Heather D’Eliso Gordon, sports dietician and nutrition health coach at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco.

“You want to eat as fast as you can make yourself, even before showering if possible,” she says. “Eating is the first thing you should do after a run. It’s important because it will affect your performance the next day as well as help you recover right afterwards.”

The reason? You need to replace glycogen, a form of energy stored in your muscles, which is burned to fuel exercise. Glycogen is the term for long strands of glucose (i.e., carbohydrates) that your body stores in the muscles so it’s easily available when you’re active. Any vigorous workout depletes your muscles of this energy. And it needs to be replaced as soon as possible because the potential for storing more glycogen is greater within the first 15 minutes to half an hour.

When you don’t eat right after exercise, you’re more likely to feel sore the next day. This is because glycogen depletion can lead to delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). And of course if you’re sore, you’re less likely to run the next day, or won’t be able to match your workout level of the day before.

The problem is, of course, that you probably find your appetite doesn’t kick in for an hour or so after a workout. “We’re usually thirsty, not hungry,” says Gordon. You’re also probably focused on getting home, showering, and getting dinner (or breakfast) on the table. And then there’s the fact that you probably don’t have anything on hand to eat.

So what to do? “Bring something with you in your gym bag, such as a piece of fruit or half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” Gordon says. “Otherwise, if you’re like me, it’s probably going to be two hours before you sit down for a full meal, and that’s too long to wait.”

When you plan your post-workout snack, think carbohydrates, either simple carbs, such as those found in fruit, or complex carbs, which are found in whole wheat bread or crackers and other whole grains. Protein also helps replenish energy, so a snack that includes both carbs and protein is the best choice of all.

A Few Ideas

  • A bowl of cereal with skim milk or nut milk and fruit
  • Yogurt or cottage cheese with fruit
  • A sandwich of whole grain bread and cheese or hummus
  • Trail mix of nuts and dried fruit
  • A corn tortilla and cheese
  • Whole wheat bagel and cream cheese

One more incentive: Your metabolism is slightly faster after a run or workout, so the calories you eat are less likely to stick.

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.