What you eat after a workout can help to optimize your recovery, maximize performance in your next workout, and help you reach your goals. Depending on the time of day you workout, you may be able to consume a complete meal post-workout but for the days you’re in between meals or in a pinch here are some quick, easy, and healthy post-workout snack ideas.
Why Post-Workout Snacks Are So Important
During an intense workout, the body utilizes stored energy from our muscles, muscle is broken down and damaged, and fluid is lost through perspiration. By providing the body with the appropriate macronutrients in a post-workout snack or post-workout meal, it can replenish glycogen stores, support muscle recovery, support muscle growth, and optimize performance for the next exercise session.
What to Eat After a Workout
After a workout, it is best to consume include carbohydrates, protein, and fluids. The objective of a post-workout snack is to refuel, repair, and rehydrate, also known as the 3 Rs of workout recovery.
Carbohydrates to Refuel
Carbohydrates are the body’s natural form of energy and are stored in our muscles as glycogen. During exercise, glycogen is utilized as fuel and our stores are depleted; the more intense the activity the more glycogen is utilized (1). By consuming carbohydrates post-workout we are able to more easily replenish stored glycogen and initiate the recovery process. Consuming carbohydrates post-workout is especially important for endurance athletes or athletes who are training for several hours or multiple times per day.
Examples of carbohydrates: Fruit, oats, bread, crackers, rice, granola, and potatoes
Protein to Repair
Consuming protein post-workout helps to repair and rebuild muscle. Exercise triggers the breakdown of muscle, although the exact level will vary from one form of exercise to another, consuming protein post-workout helps to prevent the breakdown of protein and stimulates muscle protein synthesis, which supports the increase and maintenance of muscle tissue (2, 3). An individual’s exact protein requirements will vary depending on the form of exercise and type of athlete, however, consuming 15 to 25 grams of protein post-work is a good guideline to follow. Consuming adequate amino acids from protein post-workout is especially important for strength athletes or individuals who partake in strength and resistance training.
Examples of protein: Eggs, yogurt, cottage cheese, nuts, poultry, seafood, meat, and protein powder
Fluids to Rehydrate
Consuming water or hydration drinks post-workout helps to replenish the body with fluids lost through perspiration during exercise. Calculating the exact amount of fluid necessary is especially important for endurance athletes or individuals training in high-temperature climates. For the average gymgoer, it is best to focus on consuming water post-workout, as well as before and during. Fluids can be obtained through beverages, as well as hydrating fruits and vegetables.
Examples of fluids: Water, electrolyte drinks, sports drinks, fresh fruits, and fresh vegetables
What about fat?
Dietary fat has not been shown to promote or inhibit recovery. Eating fat after a workout will not directly stimulate insulin or contribute to glycogen repletion for muscle recovery, and research shows that it neither blunts insulin, nor slows glycogen repletion (4).
When Should You Eat Your Post-Workout Snack
While your post-workout snack can impact your recovery, the timing of it is less crucial than once thought. In fact, nutrient timing isn’t particularly important for the average exerciser trying to look and feel better.
The post-exercise “anabolic window” concept was brought to the general public in the early 2000s due to a popular research paper with the premise being that the timing of specific nutrients immediately post-workout could make or break recovery, however, further research now shows that this is no longer the case (5).
It is now understood that the anabolic effect of a protein-rich meal is roughly 3 to 5 hours, potentially longer depending on the size and composition of the meal. For individuals looking to build muscle, protein dosing in pre-workout and post-work snacks and meals will maximize anabolic response, as long as optimal daily protein intake is reached, which is 1.6 to 2.2 g/kg (0.7 to 1.0 g/lb) of body weight per day for maximizing muscle growth.
Moreover, while there are practical implications for endurance athletes, as these types of individuals will experience the most drastic decrease in nutrient availability during their activity, carbohydrate timing in post-workout snacks is of lesser importance for the average exerciser or individual looking to build muscle.
Overall, the total amount of protein and carbohydrates consumed throughout the day is more important for general health and body composition goals than specific nutrient timing strategies.
The Best Post-Workout Snack Ideas
Here are 10 nutritious post-workout snack combinations you can pull together in a pinch.
1. Eggs + Toast
Whether you workout morning, noon, or night, eggs and toast is a quick and easy combo that you can whip up in minutes. Not only are eggs a good source of protein but they are also a natural source of cholesterol, which has been shown to have a beneficial effect on muscle building and recovery (6, 7)
2. Greek Yogurt + Granola
Although any type of yogurt makes a good post-workout snack, Greek yogurt is particularly high in protein making it a great option. Given yogurt is a natural source of sugar it can actually provide both protein and carbohydrate post-workout, however, pairing it with some granola helps to add a little extra boost of fiber-rich carbohydrates. If you are buying store-bought granola, be sure to read the ingredients and opt for versions with limited added sugar and oil, especially if you are trying to create a calorie deficit.
3. Cottage Cheese + Fruit
Cottage cheese is an excellent source of dairy protein in the form of both whey and casein protein: whey is a high-quality well-absorbed protein, while casein is a slow-digesting protein that has been shown to boost muscle growth and aid recovery (12, 13). Much like yogurt, cottage cheese is available in 0%, 1%, 2%, and full-fat versions so, depending on your health goal, you can pick the option that works best for you as they are an equally good source of protein. Pairing cottage cheese with some fresh fruit helps to provide some additional carbohydrates and fiber at the same time.
4. Tuna + Crackers
Canned tuna is a quick and convenient source of protein that is relatively inexpensive. Not only is tuna a dense source of protein but it’s a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce inflammation (16). Depending on your hunger level, tuna can be paired with vegetables, and crackers, or made into a sandwich to provide some much-needed carbohydrates.
5. Hummus + Pita
Hummus is made from chickpeas, which are a legume and a source of vegetarian protein. Although chickpeas do contain protein, they are primarily a source of carbohydrates, as well as insoluble fiber, and can therefore help to refuel as well as repair. A serving of hummus alone does not contain a significant amount of protein, only 2.4 grams per 2 tablespoons, however, when paired with a whole-wheat pita the protein content can be increased.
6. Milk + Oatmeal
Milk is an often overlooked but great source of protein, especially post-workout. The proteins and nutrients found in milk are high quality and easily absorbable, especially compared to alternative dairy beverages (21). Although you may think of oats as a breakfast item, a small bowl of oatmeal made with milk creates a well-balanced post-workout snack with protein and carbohydrates in minutes.
7. Peanut Butter + Apple
Peanut butter is a moderate source of protein and, when paired with a piece of fruit, works well as a light, quick, and easy post-workout snack. Given a 2-tablespoon serving of peanut butter only contains 8 grams of protein, it is a moderate source of protein compared to other sources, however, it works well in a pinch or can tide you over until mealtime. Not a fan of peanut butter or allergic to peanuts? No problem, almond butter works too, although it does contain less protein than peanut butter.
8. Deli Meat + Wrap
Deli meat is a great post-workout protein source when you don’t have time to cook or need something quick. Be it sliced turkey, chicken, ham, or roast beef; deli meat can provide up to 33 grams of protein per 100-gram serving (26). If you’re concerned about calories or fat content, you can opt for leaner options such as turkey or ham, and you can pair any form of deli meat with a whole grain wrap and a dollop of mustard of a savory post-workout snack with protein and carbohydrates.
9. Protein Powder + Banana
Protein powder is a great option when you are on the go or looking to boost your overall protein intake without overly increasing calories. Protein powders are available in both animal and plant-based options, made from everything from whey to pea to rice, and can be mixed into smoothies, mixed with milk, or added to water, and provide between 20 to 30 grams of protein per serving. When choosing a protein powder, be sure to read the ingredients and, whenever possible, opt for versions that are third-party tested to ensure quality.
10. Protein Bar
Protein bars are a great option if you are not a fan of protein powder or are looking for something you can leave in your gym bag. Often made with protein powder but combined with dried fruits, nuts, seeds, or whole grains, they can be a well-balanced source of both protein and carbohydrates, however, not all protein bars are created equal. When choosing a protein bar, be sure to read the ingredients and avoid options with excessive added sugar and preservatives.
A post-workout snack of 1 protein bar provides an average of 10 to 20 grams of protein and 25 to 35 grams of carbohydrates, on average (31).
Post Workout Nutrition FAQs
You do not need to eat immediately after a workout. Research shows that post-workout snacks and meals, with adequate protein and carbohydrates, consumed within 2-3 hours of a workout will support recovery.
Assuming that total daily calories, carbohydrates, and protein intake is met, there is no negative recovery side effect to not eating after a workout. Apart from endurance athletes, average exercisers can support recovery, replenish energy stores, and support muscle growth without specific nutrient timing strategies.
Eggs, cottage cheese, and lean protein sources such as turkey, chicken, and fish are great for savory post-workout snacks.
It is best to limit ultra-processed foods and prioritize nutrient-dense whole foods after a workout to optimize recovery. Antioxidant-rich foods like berries, leafy greens, and colorful vegetables combat inflammation and promote recovery, while polyphenols have been shown to help minimize post-exercise pain, improve strength recovery, and reduce fatigue (32).
If you’re unsure of what to eat to support your personal goals and optimize your athletic performance, it is best to work with a registered dietician who specializes in sports nutrition or a sports medicine specialist.
The Bottom Line
After a workout, it is best to consume a post-workout snack with protein and carbohydrates, along with water and/or electrolytes, for optimal recovery. Protein will help to stimulate muscle synthesis and improve recovery, while carbohydrates will help to restore muscle glycogen and replenish energy. Examples of good post-workout snacks include eggs and toast, yogurt and granola, cottage cheese and fruit, tuna and crackers, hummus and pita, or a protein shake with a banana.