Post-workout foods

Personal trainer and nutritionist Sarah O’Neill tells you everything you need to know about eating for recovery post-workout

Eating the right foods after your workout can help you refuel, rehydrate and recover. The best post-workout foods will also help to repair your muscles and enable you to fully reap the benefits of your session – and get you ready for the next one.

Personal trainer and nutritionist Sarah O’Neill tells us which food and drink can help you look after your body post-exercise – and gives suggestions for how best to refuel.

When should I eat after my workout?

I recommend eating a meal two hours after your workout. If you’ve trained hard, it’s a good idea to eat something small like a piece of fruit within 30 minutes, followed by a meal within a couple of hours. This is because our glycogen (the carbohydrate we store in our muscles for energy) supplies are depleted during exercise. Replenishing your levels of glycogen means you will recover more quickly and perform better in your next workout.

You also break down muscle fibres when you exercise, and leaving it too long before taking on protein means you keep on breaking down fibres rather than building and strengthening. Our metabolism is highest post-exercise, and remains high for 24 to 48 hours (sometimes called the ‘afterburn’), but leaving long periods between eating slows the metabolic rate back down. This is why it’s always best to eat something post-workout, otherwise you’re actually negating a lot of your hard work, in terms of strength, weight loss and future training ability.

Which are the best post-workout foods?

Carbohydrates should form the basis of your post-workout meal, whether you’ve been running or you’ve been in the weights room. The ideal meal should contain 20 to 40g protein with 60 to 120g carbohydrate (approximately 1:3/4 ratio).

Does eating high or low GI foods matter?

A study by Loughborough University looked at the benefits of low GI foods after exercise. The glycaemic index (GI) shows how quickly certain foods affect your blood sugar levels. Low or medium GI foods are broken down more slowly and cause a gradual rise in blood sugar (or glucose) levels – they include vegetables, pulses and wholegrain foods, such as porridge oats. High GI foods are carbohydrate foods that are quickly broken down by the body and cause a spike in blood sugar levels – they include sugary foods, white bread, white rice and potatoes.

The study found that a recovery meal with low GI foods helped to increase exercise endurance the following day, with participants also burning more fat for fuel – ideal for most exercisers, as this helps with performance and weight loss goals. However, if you’re training twice a day, high GI foods can help to replenish glycogen more rapidly, according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

What should I eat after a morning workout?

To avoid the mid-morning munchies, refuel with foods not drinks, which are more satiating. Porridge with milk provides low-GI carbs in the oats and protein from the milk, and you can add berries that contain antioxidants to protect muscle fibres from injury after intense exercise. Eggs are an excellent protein source – try them on wholegrain toast with smashed avocado for your carb and healthy fats fix.

You could also whizz up a frittata in advance and take it to work in handy portions. Load it up with peppers to deliver immune-boosting vitamin C, plus sliced new potatoes for low GI carbs, and grated cheese for protein and calcium.

What do I eat after a lunchtime workout?

Sweet potatoes are lower GI than white spuds, so try a jacket sweet potato topped with protein-rich tuna, baked beans or cottage cheese and add a side-salad for veggies.

A wholemeal pitta filled with roast vegetables and houmous, sushi with brown rice, or a chicken pasta salad all make a great balance of carbs and proteins.

What should I eat after an evening workout?

An easy chicken or tofu and vegetable stir-fry with brown rice is ideal – grated ginger has anti-inflammatory properties to help relieve sore muscles. Salmon plus quinoa and green veggies such as asparagus, broccoli or kale will give you a boost of phytochemicals, which have antioxidant properties and can even help to prevent cardiovascular disease.

Steak or venison is the perfect reward for a tough workout to boost your iron levels, which are depleted with vigorous exercise. Eat with roasted squash and a watercress salad, containing vitamin K for bone health.

What should I drink after I workout?

After exercise, it’s vital to replace fluids and minerals that you may have lost through sweating to prevent dehydration.

Drink plenty of water – if you want to mix it up, you could also try coconut water, containing electrolytes, which help to balance hydration levels in the body and help with muscle function. Cherry juice is another good option as it has been shown to help reduce muscle soreness post-exercise. It’s important to check the sugar levels in both cases.

Protein shakes can be a good way for heavy lifters to ensure they’re packing in enough protein, and fast. However, if you’re more of a runner or cardio lover, you’ll easily be able to consume enough protein through your chosen meals, and protein shakes can be calorific.

A study by the School of Psychology and Sports Sciences at Northumbria University showed chocolate milk can be significantly more effective than regular sports drinks as a recovery aid. It’s a great option if you’re on the go and contains much-needed calcium, but it’s only beneficial if your workout has warranted the calories!

Want to know the best foods to eat pre-workout? Check our Sarah’s guide here.

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