NO MATTER HOW hard you’re working in the gym, if you’re not recovering properly afterwards, you’re not training effectively.
Proper recovery means everything from getting on a healthy sleep schedule to regularly stretching. While your trusty foam roller can help you massage out those stubborn knots, and your fancy cooling pillow comforts you into some deeper z’s—gadgets won’t always provide a quick fix. When it comes to eating for muscle recovery, the answer means eating simple, whole foods.
Fueling the correct way after training makes a difference in how your body responds to exercise. There’s plenty of talk around the best sports drinks and protein powders you should be putting in your grocery cart—but these products shouldn’t make up the bulk of your post-workout diet. Real foods deserve a place on your plate after an intense workout.
Your chosen fuel may also determine how you’re feeling the next day. Several nutrients, including different amino acids and vitamins play a role in how your muscles recover. Eating foods with the proper nutrients can relieve muscle soreness the days following your workout—meaning you may feel better in your subsequent workouts, too.
“Nailing your post-workout nutrition promotes quicker recovery, reduces muscle soreness, builds muscle, improves immune system functioning, and replenishes glycogen—all key building blocks in priming you for future workouts,” says sports dietitian and Ironman athlete Marni Sumbal, M.S., R.D.
What’s Important to Eat After a Workout?
The perfect post-exercise meal depends on what you’re doing for your workouts. A marathon runner is going to need different foods to refuel than an Olympic lifter. Generally, longer-endurance-based workouts require more carbohydrates to replenish those lost during exercise.
Leslie Bonci, R.D.N., M.P.H., sports dietician for the Kansas City Chiefs recommends a 1:1 or 1:2 protein-to-carb ratio for your post-workout snack or meal after a traditional strength training session. If you’re coming off an endurance workout, up the ratio to about 1:3 to get more carbs in to replenish glycogen stores. If you’re getting in an entire meal after your workout, Bonci recommends getting at least 20 to 30 grams of protein, and structuring the carbs as such.
When Should I Eat After a Workout?
You don’t need to run and cook a whole meal directly after getting off the treadmill, but you do want your food to follow relatively soon after you’re done. Bonci recommends getting some kind of nutrition, be it a snack or a meal, at least 30 to 60 minutes after completing your workout.
So what exactly should you reach for? The following science-backed options optimize your recovery so you can head back to the gym faster and stronger. Plus, they all taste better than your average chalky protein shake.
The 11 Best Post-Workout Foods
1. Tart Cherry Juice
Tart cherry juice is loaded with antioxidants and various anti-inflammatory compounds and has been shown to help athletes recover from intense training.
Many studies have demonstrated that tart cherry juice can help with recovery after an intense exercise sesh, but it’s not just limited to weight training.
They’re one of nature’s most perfect proteins.
One large whole egg has seven grams of protein, plus a whole host of other vital nutrients, including vitamins and minerals.
You don’t have to eat the yolks to build muscle, but just know that those yolks contain many of those essential good-for-you nutrients.
Yogurt and cottage cheese get a lot of attention, but don’t forget this dairy product either.
A 1/2-cup serving of ricotta offers about 14 grams of protein. It’s also a good source of whey protein, meaning it’s high in the essential amino acid leucine, which is especially effective for muscle growth, says Sumbal.
Stir together 1/2 cup park-skim ricotta cheese and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract in a bowl. Top with 1/3 cup granola and 1/2 cup berries.
The fish does it all. Credit its high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which research shows can help your heart, but may also pull double duty when it comes to exercise recovery.
It’s possible that omega-3s work can also work their way into muscle cells, where they help reduce the exercise-induced damage that causes painful inflammation, according to new research.
5. Cottage Cheese
Over the past several years, Greek yogurt has gained all the attention while poor cottage cheese has fallen by the wayside.
While both are great, cottage cheese actually has more protein gram for gram, as well as just under 3 grams of leucine per 1 cup. This amount has been shown to help with building and/or maintaining muscle.
6. Sweet potatoes
Sorry, keto fans. When it comes to post-workout recovery, carbs are indeed your friend.
Don’t worry, the carbs you eat after training are more likely to be used as energy than stored as fat, Sumbal says.
7. Whole-Grain Bread
For the same reasons as above, carbs help fuel working muscles. Quality carbs like those found in whole-grain bread go a long way in helping to replenish your muscles.
Don’t overthink it. A basic PB&J sandwich can go a long way.
This powerful little grain is a great addition to any diet, but it’s especially ideal for those following a gluten-free, vegan or vegetarian diet who are looking to increase their protein and fiber intake—it’s loaded with both.
Beef, bison, turkey, salmon—whichever form you chose to consume it, jerky is dehydrated protein. So unless the jerky manufacturer decides to coat their product in a sugary glaze, it’s often a high-protein, little-to-no carb snack.
10. Chocolate Milk
The post workout chocolate milk craze is not a myth.
According to a 2019 study published in the European Journal of Sport Science, chocolate milk has everything you need to properly recover from an intense workout: carbs, proteins, fats, water, and electrolytes. It’s like the ultimate sports drink, but tastes so much better.
I-Citrulline is a non-essential amino acid that has been found to relieve post-exercise muscle soreness and improve exercise performance, according to a study published in 2020 in the Journal of Sport and Health Science.
Watermelon and watermelon juice is very high in this amino acid, and has been shown to improve recovery when studied as part of post-workout nutrition in athletes.
Paul is the Food & Nutrition Editor of Men’s Health. He’s also the author of two cookbooks: Guy Gourmet and A Man, A Pan, A Plan.
Cori Ritchey, NASM-CPT is an Associate Health & Fitness Editor at Men’s Health and a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor. You can find more of her work in HealthCentral, Livestrong, Self, and others.