If you want to build muscle and achieve your fitness goals, downing the right fuel after a workout is nearly as important as exercise itself, say experts within the nutrition field.
“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.
It’s true that new science shows that you don’t have to consume the nutrients you need immediately after a workout to reap muscle-building, strength-priming benefits. But most people find that eating a protein bar or chugging a protein shake before (or even during) a workout can lead to digestive issues—up to an including a mid-workout case of the trots.
And it’s also true that you shouldn’t exclusively be turning to protein bars or shakes in order best help your body recover from a hard workout. Just like good overall nutrition, you should strive for a variety of foods—each of which carries their own unique lineup of good-for-you-nutrients.
So if you give a little extra thought to your post-training nutrition, your time at the gym (or on the road, or in the water, or wherever you workout) might produce even better results.
So what exactly should you reach for? The following science-backed options will speed up your recovery so you can head back to the gym faster and stronger. Plus, they all taste better than your average chalky protein shake.
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: one recent study in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports found that tart cherry juice improved various aspects of exercise performance in cyclists. As an added bonus, tart cherry juice also lowered their systolic blood pressure 90 minutes after exercise compared to the placebo. And heck, there’s even data suggesting it may help with sleep.
Post-workout boost: You can find Montmorency tart cherries in dried, juice, canned, concentrate and frozen forms at your local retailer.
2) Whole eggs.
Eating whole eggs can help you get ripped. In a recent study from the University of Illinois, researchers asked men who regularly lifted to eat either three whole eggs, or a mixture of egg whites containing 18 grams of protein, after exercise. Then they measured their rates of protein synthesis, or the driving force behind your muscle gains.
Even though they contained the same amounts of protein, the muscle-building response from whole eggs was about 40 percent greater compared to egg whites alone. The study authors theorize the nutrients found in the yolk — like healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals like phosphorus and iron — allow your worn muscles to use the high-quality protein in the whites more efficiently.
Post-workout boost: Mash a few hard-boiled eggs with 1/4 cup plain Greek yogurt, 1/2 teaspoon yellow curry powder and a couple pinches salt. Spread on rye crackers.
3) Ricotta Cheese
As little as 9 grams of dairy may be enough to kick-start the muscle-building process, according to research in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
For the study, men chugged either a milk-based drink with 9 grams of protein, or a carbohydrate-only beverage equal in calories after a lower body strength training session. While the carb-only placebo did little to bolster the muscle-building process post-workout, the 9 grams of dairy protein sufficiently ramped things up.
“In response to loading muscles with training stress, the mTOR protein in our muscles is activated, which is a key to stimulating protein synthesis,” says Sumbal. “And mTOR is highly sensitive to the amino acids found in dairy.”
Go for a 1/2-cup serving of ricotta, which offers about 14 grams of milk protein. It’s also a good source of whey protein, meaning it’s high in the essential amino acid leucine, which is especially effective at signaling mTOR to spark new muscle growth, says Sumbal. As an added bonus, British researchers found that pairing whey protein with carbs after a workout can help make your bones stronger, too.
Post-workout boost: 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.
4) Smoked Salmon
Research shows that higher intakes of the omega-3 fatty acids found in certain fish — like salmon, sardines and mackerel — may translate into lower levels of delayed onset muscle soreness after resistance exercise.
It’s possible that omega-3s work their way into your muscle cells, where they help reduce the exercise-induced damage that causes painful inflammation. More reason to go fish for your post-workout fuel: Research out of the Washington University School of Medicine shows that omega-3 fats can fire up pathways in your body that increases muscle protein synthesis.
Post-workout boost: Spread 2 tablespoons cream cheese on a small whole grain wrap and top with 3 ounces sliced smoked salmon, 1/4 cup sliced pickled beets and a handful of arugula.
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 post-workout.
Post-workout boost: Make it simple – Good Culture single serve Cottage Cheese (plain or flavored, available in stores at Target) is a great on-the-go option.
6) Sweet potato.
Sorry, keto fans — when it comes to post-workout recovery, carbs are indeed your friend. A report in the Journal of Applied Physiology shows that consuming carb-rich foods like potatoes, grains, and fruit can help lessen the drop in your immune system that may occur after intense exercise.
But don’t worry — your six-pack won’t take too much of a hit. The carbs you eat after training are more likely to be used as energy than stored as fat, Sumbal says.
Post-workout boost: Place 1 medium peeled and cubed sweet potato and 1 tablespoon water in a microwave-safe bowl. Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap and poke a few holes. Nuke on high for 6 minutes, or until potato is very tender. Remove plastic wrap and mash potato with 1/3 cup applesauce and 1/2 teaspoon ginger powder. Scatter on dried cranberries and pumpkin seeds.
7) Herbal tea.
A study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that men who drank yerba mate tea (200 mL three times daily) were able to recover from eccentric exercise much faster than when they sipped only water.
It might come down to compounds like phenol antioxidants, which are naturally found in the leaves of the Ilex paraguariensis shrub where mate comes from. Since yerba mate also contains some naturally occurring stimulants, drinking it before a workout may help boost your energy, too.
Post-workout boost: Heat a liter of water to just under a boil. Place in a jug along with 4 yerba mate tea bags or 1 tablespoon loose leaf mate. Let steep in the fridge for at least 4 hours and then stir in the juice of 1 lemon. Chug back a cupful after hitting the weight room.
8) Whole-grain bread.
Bread certainly gets a bad rap these days, but carbs help fuel working muscles (not to mention your brain). Quality carbs like those found in whole-grain bread go a long way in helping to replenish your muscles.
Post-workout boost: Don’t overthink it. A basic sandwich can go a long way. Try an egg salad sandwich using Dave’s Killer Bread ($26 for 2 loaves, buy it here). It’s rich in whole grains, fiber, and protein, and contains no artificial ingredients, artificial preservatives, or fillers.
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.
Post-workout boost: Try Bob’s Red Mill Quinoa ($39.16 for a pack of 4, buy it here). Enjoy as a side dish or as part of your main course.
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