Post Workout Nutrition Basics

The topic of post workout nutrition seems to be somewhat of an enigma, leaving people confused about the “why,” the “what,” and the “when.” Furthermore, the evolving phobia of carbohydrates that has permeated the health arena in tandem with the popular “paleo” diet seems to complicate the topic even further.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s start with the following statement: Post workout nutrition is critical in the scope of recovery and performance – particularly when strength training makes a regular appearance in your routine.

Post Workout Nutrition at a Glance

I often see clients become frustrated with plateaus or declines in pursuit of three core fitness-related goals: performance, body composition, and/or recovery. While these areas are not mutually exclusive with post workout nutrition, there is an impactful correlation.

Post workout nutrition serves a handful of purposes, but primarily, it:

  • Replenishes glycogen reserves
  • Decreases protein breakdown and deficits
  • Revs up protein synthesis

In less nutri-nerdy terms, you can count on a solid, well-composed post workout meal to:

  • Replenish your energy storage (enhance performance)
  • Repair tissue damage (aid recovery and reduce soreness)
  • Maximize muscle growth (support body composition goals)

The “WHY”

When we subject ourselves to intense bouts of weight-intensive training, we create tiny tears in our muscle tissue (“protein breakdown”), which require immediate attention to repair and construct new proteins (“protein synthesis”). Essentially, we want nurture and feed our muscles after an intense training session to enable growth, as this compounding tissue damage is what makes us stronger, provided we properly nourish ourselves post workout.

Note that protein is not the only character in play. Your body also taps into its glucose (available energy) and glycogen (stored energy) tank to provide sustained energy throughout your endurance or strength-biased workout…cue carbohydrates. Unless you downed a significant amount of pre-workout carbs or had a carb-rich meal the night before, your body is generally depleted once you’ve completed your workout’s last press, swing, squat, or clean (you get the point). When you neglect to replenish your energy source immediately after your workout, you run the risk of triggering an excess release of cortisol. Cortisol is the stress hormone responsible for your body’s “fight or flight” response. When it’s released following an intense workout in absence of proper post workout nutrients, your body resorts to eating up muscle tissue to convert into glucose (resulting in an even greater net loss of muscle tissue). So long, lean muscle gains!

The “WHAT”

Though some crave the science behind nutritional practices, the basic information surrounding what a post-workout meal should consist of is what likely interests most of you. Again, I’ll start with simplicity: protein and carbohydrates.

I’m sure most of you can get behind protein. But, *GASP*, carbs?! Aren’t they the worst thing ever? Aren’t we supposed to avoid them at all costs? Short answer: no. Carbohydrates are a fickle little macronutrient, but they certainly have a place in a healthy diet (particularly for the athlete and strength-training exerciser), and making eye contact with a serving of white rice after a heavy lift isn’t going to make you melt.

At some point, during the rise of trending caveman diet, words like “paleo” and “Whole 30” became synonymous with “high fat/low carb.” While these elimination diets can be effective in achieving a number of health goals, assigning a dogmatic low carb approach to them is unnecessary in many cases (emphasis on the word “many”…there are always exceptions to the rule). Healthy fats are important in a balanced diet, yes; however, they should be limited in a post workout meal, as fat slows the digestion of nutrients (and we want to absorb our post workout protein and carbs as quickly as possible after we train).

The good news is you can tailor your post workout meal to accommodate any dietary lifestyle. If you are strict paleo or participating in the Whole 30, a piece of fruit and lean source of animal protein fits the bill. If you fall under a more flexible category of the “clean eating” umbrella, a whey-based protein smoothie is an excellent choice, as whey is among the most rapidly absorbed sources of protein.

Here are some #MADlifestyle approved post workout protein and carb choices:



  • SFH Whey Protein (Pure or Recovery)
  • Coconut water
  • Rx bar
  • Fresh or frozen fruit
  • Lean cuts of poultry
  • Potatoes (white or sweet)
  • Seafood
  • Starchy vegetables
  • Organic deli meat
  • Quinoa
  • Jerky
  • White rice
  • Eggs or egg whites
  • Oats

For muscle retention or growth, I typically recommend sticking with 1 serving of protein matched with 1 serving of carbs (keep in mind your “1 serving” will probably look different than your neighbor’s). For example, 3-4 ounces of lean protein with 1 cup of starch (I’m a sucker for white rice) would be a very effective post workout portion for an active, 150-pound woman whose goal is to maintain lean muscle mass. For an active, 200-pound man with similar goals, I would recommend doubling that. If fat loss is your primary target, start with your 1 serving of protein and 1/2 of a serving of carbs. Once your fat loss progresses and lean muscle mass becomes more prevalent, you can play around with gradually adding more carbs into the meal.

The “WHEN”

You’ve probably been exposed to the “golden window” analogy, which demands your post workout meal be consumed within a 30-minute window of your workout. Yes, if you can get those nutrients in ASAP, that is optimal. However, unless you are a serious competitor or elite athlete, one hour is a reasonable amount of time to get in a good post workout meal and still yield the benefits.

In Closing

I’m not here to tell you to eat one way or disregard any kind of dietary regimen, as everyone is unique and responds to different nutritional habits. However, the practice of post-workout nutrition is one that can adhere to the large majority of lifestyles. In particular, if you find yourself struggling with performance and recovery, I would strongly recommend taking a look at your post workout nutrition habits. While putting in the work is certainly commendable, you won’t reap the benefits of your efforts if you don’t refuel properly.

Finley Amato | Certified Sports Nutritionist

MADabolic Charlotte