Is Eating the Wrong Thing After Your Workouts Sabotaging Your Progress?

Last Update: March 29, 2022

Cardio-kickboxing on Mondays, CrossFit on Tuesdays, spinning on Wednesdays, aerial yoga on Thursdays, and booty boot camp on Friday—in a time when boutique fitness studios reign supreme, it’s easy to get fit without getting bored. But the one thing running through exercisers brains regardless of the type of workout?

“What am I going to eat after this?”

The truth is, different workouts call for different types of post-exercise fuel. Best-case scenario, eating the right thing after a workout can help you lose weight, build muscle, and feel awesome. Worst-case, you’re sabotage your progress by eating the wrong things. Here’s what you need to know about eating after every kind of sweat session to best recover and recharge.

Timing is (kinda) important

When to eat and what to eat are the two main factors when it comes to post-workout nutrition. Eating at the right time—and getting the proper balance of macronutrients—can aid weight-loss, muscle-building, recovery, and fighting inflammation.

First, take stock of when you typically work out. Do you like to get your sessions over with at dawn, or prefer to get moving once the sun goes down? If you’re sweating in the morning on an empty stomach, you should always eat afterwards—even if that means making a portable breakfast to bring to work.

If you’re working out in the evening and haven’t had dinner, you definitely need to eat when you’re done exercising—try to eat at least three hours before bed so you don’t mess with your sleep cycle.

But if you chow down before you head to the gym, no need to refuel when you get back home. The idea of a “fuel window”—that you need to eat within 30 minutes of finishing a sweat sesh—is pure myth. And unless you’re absolutely starving, you can count your breakfast the next morning as your refueling meal.

Consider the type of exercise

How you’ve used (and abused) your body during your workouts informs what you should eat to help repair it.

Low-intensity activity

Like: Yoga, Pilates, barre classes
What to eat: Protein

For classes that are a little more slow-paced, you may not need a full meal or snack directly after your workout. Yoga, Pilates, and the like are often called “mind-body” exercises—because sure, getting into pigeon pose is challenging physically, but it’s just as difficult to mentally stay in it as you inhale-exhale through the discomfort. Usually these classes don’t torch a ton of calories, but they’re great for maintaining flexibility and range of motion as well as building overall strength.

We tend to overestimate our caloric burn during workouts and underestimate how many calories we eat. And while counting calories isn’t everything, if you think you’ve burned a ton in your weekly Pilates class and always “refuel” with a calorie-dense meal after, that’s a pretty easy way to gain weight. In general, these workouts don’t tax your body so much that you require an extra meal after in order to recover and compensate for what you’ve burned.

It’s best to hydrate during this type of exercise with water, and to try and wait until your next regular meal to eat. If you’re feeling really hungry, grab a protein-heavy snack like a nutrition bar or shake that’s around 200 calories—the protein should help you stay full until you can sit down to eat.

High-intensity activity

Like: Spinning, boxing, sprints, boot camp, CrossFit
What to eat: Protein and carbs

High-intensity workouts are those that require short, challenging bursts of energy. Usually they don’t take longer than 45 minutes or an hour, but leave you feeling wiped. Because muscles are used for quick, explosive power (e.g. repeating 30-second sprints, followed by a minute of jogging, on the treadmill), the glycogen that’s stored in them doesn’t get completely used up like it would in an endurance workout that takes longer, but is less intense. So there’s no need to hit the carbohydrates hard to replenish glycogen stores—focus instead on eating an equal amount of protein and carbs instead to help muscle fibers rebuild and prevent damage.

This type of vigorous exercise also burns a lot of calories, so you’ll probably be hungry after! Pair about 30 to 50 grams of protein with an equal amount of complex carbs for optimal recovery—that’s about the equivalent of a three-egg omelette with a couple pieces of toast.

Endurance activity

Like: Long-distance runs or bike rides, basketball, soccer
What to eat: Carbs

Anything that lasts longer than 60 minutes can be considered endurance activity. Of course, a 90-minute restorative yoga class isn’t the same as running a 90-minute half marathon! Use your best judgement based on how hard you feel you’ve exerted yourself during a workout.

The opposite of high-intensity workouts, endurance exercise uses up all our muscles’ glycogen stores. That means you’ll want to focus more on recharging muscles with carbs after this type of workout—30 to 60 grams is a good target, and ends up being about what you’ll get in a cooked sweet potato, plus a serving of quinoa or rice.

Remember that at the end of day, the primary role of nutrition is to nourish your body. Food should help you recover from exercise and improve your athletic performance. It might take a little tweaking to find a post-workout meal routine that works for you, but with these guidelines you should feel stronger, healthier, and less sore!

Photo credit: Alicia Cho

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Michelle Pellizzon

Certified health coach and endorphin enthusiast, Michelle is an expert in healthy living and eating. When she's not writing you can find her running trails, reading about nutrition, and eating lots of guacamole.

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