Whether your goal is to lose fat, build speed, get healthy, or gain performance, the post-workout foods you consume can play a big part in helping you reach your potential. While everyone has their opinions, there is one solid, unchanging truth about post-workout food that applies to everyone:
The perfect post-workout foods are different for everyone.
Profound, I know. But, the truth is – we’re all cocktails of varying genetic and ethnic backgrounds. This means, we’re all incredibly different due to our hereditary, and the diet, lifestyle, and stress load we were exposed to growing up. So, just as people respond differently to specific workouts or programming, everyone responds differently to specific foods and macronutrient ratios when it comes to pre and post-workout foods.
Post-Workout Foods: Where to Start
To figure out what works best for you, it’s best to follow general solid, guidelines while leaving room for experimentation.
With post-workout foods, you should prioritize protein, and include carbohydrates based on the volume and intensity of your workout and your goals. In general, the higher the volume and intensity of the workout, the greater the need for carbohydrate, and the more important post-workout foods become to muscle glycogen and protein synthesis. Consuming whole food sources of fat post-workout is OK and can absolutely be helpful, however – it should generally be consumed in smaller ratios when it comes to post-workout foods.
For workouts that involve more muscle building and strength training, focus mainly on protein when it comes to post-workout foods. If you’re doing high-intensity training, or training that involves endurance activity, you’ll still want to include protein, but you’ll also want to include a good dose of carbohydrates. The amount of carbohydrates you should include post-workout will depend on how long and how intense your training was, and how your body responds to specific doses.
As a general guideline, for workouts over an hour, I recommend athletes consume a carbohydrate to protein ratio of 2:1 – 3:1. So, if you consume 20-30 grams of protein, you’ll want to consume 40-90 grams of carbohydrates depending on the workout, and your personal energy requirements.
If your goal is to lose body fat, you’ll want to include less carbohydrate post-workout. If your goal is performance, you’ll want to include a higher ratio of carbohydrate.
Also, if you have performance goals and workout regularly, consuming a post-workout meal within 30 minutes of completing a workout is ideal. This is because after working out, muscle cells are very sensitive to a hormone called insulin, which allows nutrients to quickly be synthesized and utilized for growth and repair.
I am a big fan of consuming real post-workout foods over supplemental protein shakes or bars. Most protein shakes and bars are made of isolated fractions of horrendously low quality protein and synthetic vitamins and minerals. They also usually contain added preservatives, stabilizers, and artificial sweeteners.
However, I do understand the convenience of protein shakes, especially for athletes doing multiple workouts in a day or for those who have a hard time putting on weight. So, if protein powder concoctions work for you and your goals, I recommend going with a high-quality grass-fed whey protein powder or protein bar that doesn’t contain any synthetic sweeteners or additives labeled as “natural flavors.” Try out whole food sources first and see how well they work for you in comparison to powdered processed supplements.
Also, while some people recommend avoiding fruit post-workout because it contains fructose, the very limited number of studies that have compared glucose/fructose solutions and pure glucose solutions have actually found that a combination of fructose and glucose is actually superior for reducing muscle pain during workouts, and is equally effective at replenishing muscle glycogen stores post-workout as pure glucose solutions. For more in-depth explanation about fructose and consuming fruit post-workout, I explain it in podcast #009: Fructose, Eating Fruit Post-Workout, Copper IUD vs Vasectomy, & Breakfast.
In short, whole food sources of carbohydrate, including foods that contain a combination of glucose and fructose like fruit, work incredibly well as post-workout foods.
If you don’t replace the water lost during your activity, you’re ultimately hindering the overall operation and recovery of your body. In fact, exercise performance is impaired when an individual is dehydrated by as little as 2% of body weight. Without proper rehydration post-workout, your body can’t synthesize the post-workout foods your consume. As a result, the repair of muscle and tissue damage is stunted. As a general guideline, try to drink around 20-30 oz of water per hour of activity depending on the temperature and your sweat rate.
Also, while consuming caffeine pre-workout can improve performance, motivation, and reduce muscle soreness during workouts, it’s best to avoid consuming caffeine post-workout due to its ability to stimulate catabolic hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. For further guidance on this, check out Why You Should Skip Caffeine Post-Workout.
Now, let’s get on with eating all the post-workout foods.
20 (Real) Post-Workout Foods
1. Sweet Potato or Squash: Pre-cook baked sweet potatoes in large batches in the oven, slow cooker or pressure cooker, or dice up squashes like pumpkin or butternut squash and roast in the oven. Both taste great when eaten chilled and topped with a little cinnamon.
2. Vegetables: Toss raw vegetables like carrots, broccoli, or pepper slices in olive oil, salt and pepper, or sauté a variety of vegetables like kale, spinach, and mushrooms ahead of time to serve on top a protein source.
5. Smoothies: Make a smoothie using coconut milk, fruit, berries and/or nut butter (Try this Coconut Milk Smoothie or this Strawberry Kombucha Smoothie) for a post-workout source of both carbohydrate and fat.
6. Applesauce: Make your own apple sauce “mash” in large batches and separate into travel-friendly jars so they’re easy to grab when you need them.
7. Fruit: Easy go-to fruits include pre-washed fresh strawberries or raspberries, watermelon, apples, peaches, and bananas depending on the season. Fruits pair well with nut butters.
8. Homemade Bars: Make your own homemade bars with ingredients like sweet potatoes and eggs for a post-workout source of both carbohydrates, protein and fats.
9. Meat: Pre-cook a variety of meats like chicken or steak and cut into strips, or make meatballs, patties, or sausages from ground beef or pork so they’re easy to grab when you need them.
10. Hard Boiled Eggs: Cook large batches of hard-boiled eggs and section throughout the week accordingly. If you pack your post-workout meal the night before, peel the eggs ahead of time so they’re ready to eat and “less messy” when you’re at work or the gym.
11. Canned Tuna or Salmon: Get wild-caught tuna or salmon packed in water (without added soy or preservatives) for an easy protein that doesn’t need refrigeration. Mix with guacamole or avocado to give it extra flavor.
12. Shrimp or Fish: Pre-cook large batches of shrimp or fish like cod and salmon. Remove the tails (shrimp) or skin (fish) so they are easy to take with you and eat post-workout.
13. Coconut Oil: Add coconut oil to sweet potato or squashes, or add into smoothies.
14. Nut Butters: Nut butters like almond butter can be added to smoothies or sweet potatoes, or used as a dip for raw vegetables like carrots.
15. Coconut Milk: Drink strait, add into smoothies, or top on top of berries or fruit.
16. Avocado: Cut open and eat solo with a spoon, or add slices on top of meat.
17. Guacamole: Use guacamole as a dip for meats, raw vegetables or mix with canned tuna or salmon.
18. Homemade Nut Mix: Make your own nut mixes using raw nuts, dried unsweetened fruits, and coconut flakes. Note: Nuts should be utilized second to other fast burning fats like coconut.
19. Coconut Water: Coconut water is the liquid extracted from young, green coconuts that contains vitamins, electrolytes, amino acids, enzymes, antioxidants, and the obvious – water. Coconut water is the richest source of naturally occurring electrolytes like sodium and potassium that help our cells (nerve, heart and muscles) maintain impulses that are responsible for important things like muscle contractions. For this reason, coconut water is great during longer workouts (diluted with water) or post-workout after you’ve lost a significant amount of sweat. Known as nature’s gatorade, coconut water is superior to conventional sports drinks that contain synthetic vitamins, minerals and processed sugar. Make sure to purchase coconut water without added sugars or preservatives.
20. Homemade Sports Drink: You can easily make your own homemade sports drink with lemon and/or lime juice, honey, unprocessed sea salt, and filtered water. In similar fashion to coconut water, homemade sports drinks will help you replace the water and electrolytes lost without additives or processed sugars.
Post-Workout Foods on the Go
While not ideal, there’s always the need to have post-workout foods ready to go when you’re short on prep time. Below are pre-packaged foods I personally utilize when necessary. (Note: The items below may not be the highest quality possible due to the fact that they are pre-packed. Make sure to check labels if you have any allergies to nuts, soy, etc.)
What are your favorite post-workout foods? Share your experiences below!
Keepin’ it human,