January 09 2022
BASICS TO BUILDING A RECOVERY MEAL
A step-by-step guide.
When you train hard, your body undergoes stress that is similar to a minor injury. Your muscle fibers accumulate micro-tears, your body is dehydrated, and your tissues are depleted of nutrients. While pre-workout meals help to power you through your workout, post-workout meals have a different job entirely.
The harder you train, the more important your post-workout meal is. How you replenish your body and muscles affects muscle soreness, recovery time, rehydration, muscle growth, and even your immune system!
For the average Jane, maintaining a healthy diet is enough to help your body recover effectively and replenish lost nutrients and water. However, athletes often push their bodies to physical limits and are tasked with both recovering and improving their fitness quickly.
Here are a few tips on how to build a recovery meal designed specifically to give your body the best environment to progress quickly and stay energized.
For your pre-workout meal, you’re going to want to focus on consuming complex carbohydrates. These carbohydrates take longer to digest, and the energy is released at a slower pace. This helps to sustain energy during long-races without getting fatigued.
A meal heavy in complex carbohydrates (3-5g per pound of body weight) the night before an endurance event is beneficial, and should include foods such as whole-grain pasta, rice, sweet potatoes, lentils, or quinoa with lean proteins and veggies.
This will raise the glycogen stores within your body and prepare you for endurance work. You’re then going to want to top off these glycogen stores 2-4 before your workout with whole-grain bread, pasta, sweet potatoes, broccoli, oatmeal, or beans (aim for 0.2-0.4g of carbs per pound of body weight).
BEFORE WE BEGIN: WHEN SHOULD POST-WORKOUT MEALS BE EATEN?
Why timing of your post-workout meal is important.
If you’ve ever tried to research this yourself, you know there is quite a bit of debate in the fitness community. This is often referred to as the “anabolic window of opportunity,” which is a period of time directly after your workout where your muscles are especially sensitive to the nutrients you provide them.
This window of opportunity is created by an increased blood flow to your muscles directly after a workout, which means that nutrients are delivered even more efficiently than normal. You essentially have a direct passageway to the muscles, so giving them good building blocks to heal and grow stronger is important.
While this is a great theory, and there is supporting evidence, there is not enough evidence to make a “set in stone” recommendation. Some studies say the first 30 minutes are the most important, while others say the window is open for up to 2 hours.
With this in mind, we recommend aiming to eat your recovery meal within the first hour. This is usually not a problem, as athletes tend to come out of long and intense practice sessions pretty hungry.
For more detailed information about post-workout meal timing, check out our in-depth article here.
STEP 1: CARBOHYDRATES
50% of your meal to kickstart rapid recovery
The first thing you are going to want to focus on when building your recovery meal is carbohydrates. Your muscles are likely going to be depleted of energy stores (which are made from glycogen, a glucose derivative that comes from carbohydrates), so replenishing these stores is going to provide your muscles with the energy they need to start recovering.
When you go into a workout, complex carbs are useful because they digest slowly and provide long-lasting energy. However, for post-workout meals, simple carbohydrates are best because the energy can be broken down quickly and provided to your muscles.
Some of our favorite simple carbs that provide good nutrients include:
- Chocolate Milk
- Higher carb fruit (specifically bananas, pineapples, grapes, mangoes, apples, and figs)
- White rice, pasta, or bread
How many carbohydrates you should aim for depends on the time of day and your overall goals. For example, whether you are trying to lose or gain weight, and whether this is a snack or a main meal, will affect how many calories you aim for. In general, try to have carbohydrates make up about 50% of your post-recovery meal. This is often between 50-150 grams of carbohydrates.
STEP 2: PROTEIN
30% of your recovery meal for muscle health and recovery
Next you are going to want to find a lean protein source. The best proteins for post-workout are complete proteins, which means they supply all of the essential amino acids to the body.
In addition to looking for complete proteins, you are going to want to consume both slow-release proteins and quick-release proteins in your post-recovery meal. Casein is an example of a slow-release protein, while whey is a quick-release protein. Including both will help your muscles immediately start repairing themselves, as well as provide nutrients over a longer period to help support this recovery process.
Some studies have found dairy to be especially beneficial for post-workout recovery because it provides complete proteins as well as simple carbohydrates.
Our top protein choices include:
- Greek yogurt (slow release)
- Cottage cheese (slow release)
- Tofu (fast/medium release)
- Lean chicken breast (slow release)
- Whitefish (fast release)
- Eggs (fast release)
- Whey protein (fast release)
- Casein protein (slow release)
- Pea protein (fast release)
Protein is essential for muscle health and recovery, so we recommend aiming for 20-40grams of protein after your workout. 1 egg contains about 6 grams of protein, 1 container of Greek yogurt contains about 17-20 grams, and 100 grams of lean chicken breast contains about 30 grams of protein. When building your workout meal, protein should account for about 30% of your calories.
STEP 3: HEALTHY FATS
20% of your recovery meal to reduce inflammation
Last but not least come your healthy fats. Healthy fats, such as omega-3s can help to reduce inflammation in the body. When muscles are sore, they develop low level inflammation from the microtears, so healthy fats can be especially beneficial in recovery.
Our top healthy fat choices include:
- Chia seeds
- Dark chocolate
Too much fat can slow down the absorption of protein and carbs, so moderation is key. Healthy fats should only account for about 20% of your post-workout calories.
STEP 4: NUTRIENT-DENSE FOODS
Get a dose of the good stuff.
Last but not least, try topping off your post-workout meal with some nutrient-dense foods. Foods that are high in antioxidants, magnesium, potassium, and zinc have all been shown to aid in recovery and muscle growth.
Some great nutrient-dense foods to throw into your recovery meal include:
- Dark chocolate
- Dark, leafy greens
FINALLY, PUT IT ALL TOGETHER!
A few ideas to get you going!
Mixing and matching is a great way to fuel your body with healthy nutrients while not getting bored. We love to diversify our post-workout meals and make smoothies, grain bowls, omelets, stir-fries, and even ceviche! Here are a few of our favorite combinations:
- Post-workout chocolate peanut butter smoothie: Banana, Greek yogurt, oats, chocolate milk, peanut butter, a scoop of whey protein, and dark chocolate.
- Post-workout tropical smoothie: Mango, Greek yogurt, berries, and a handful of spinach or kale!
- Post-workout yogurt bowl: Greek yogurt, sliced banana, chia seeds, walnuts, and a drizzle of honey. Mix in protein powder for an extra boost.
- Post-workout grain bowl: Rice, sauteed chicken breast, avocado, and some steamed kale. Add in some black beans and salsa to give it a Tex-Mex feel.
- Post-workout Omelet: Eggs, spinach, and some feta. Serve with a side of avocado and some white potato hash browns!
- Post-workout ceviche: Shrimp or white fish, avocado, red onion, and mango! Drizzle with lime and serve with tortilla chips.
The good news is, there are endless possibilities! Tacos, dips, soups, barbecues, and so much more can be made with these great post-workout ingredients. Eating after a workout shouldn’t be a chore, have fun with it!
Josie has always had a passion for food and cooking. From a young age, she was always in the kitchen mixing up new recipes and making her family try her way-too-elaborate meals. She was a competitive gymnast for 12 years, which inspired her to pursue her bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering, emphasizing her studies on biochemistry and biomechanics. She is currently a graduate student studying nutritional epidemiology and loves combining her knowledge of science with her love of food to provide athletes with high-quality, up-to-date nutritional information and research.