If you want to build muscle and reach lofty new fitness goals, downing the right fuel after a workout is nearly as important as exercise itself.
“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. So if you give little thought to your post-training nutrition, your time at the gym might produce lackluster results, rather than peak performance.
It’s usually a good idea to eat and drink something within an hour or so of your workout to maximize those benefits — but 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.
Eating whole eggs can help you get ripped: In a recent study from the University of Illinois, researchers provided 10 healthy, young men who regularly lift with either three whole eggs or a mixture of egg whites containing 18 grams of protein following a bout of resistance 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 couple 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.
Forget the ‘roids, this sweet-tart drink is a safer way to get juiced. A recent study published in the journal Nutrients discovered that elite weightlifters who took pomegranate juice supplements before and after intensive training sessions experienced less muscle damage immediately after their workout and up to 48 hours later.
Pomegranate juice is loaded with antioxidants called polyphenols that appear to dampen some of the stress your muscles take while lifting and, in turn, speed up recovery. The amount of pomegranate juice used in the study was fairly high – 3 cups daily – but downing a cup after a hard workout could bring about similar benefits. Just make sure to use a drink like POM Wonderful, since it’s made with 100% pomegranate juice.
Post-workout boost: Blend together 1 cup 100% pomegranate juice, 3/4 cup plain Greek or Skyr yogurt, 1 tablespoon almond butter, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon and a couple cup ice cubes.
As little as 9 grams of dairy protein 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, a group of healthy 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. 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.
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 likely 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.
Sorry keto fans, eating carbs during your recovery time could help keep the sniffles at bay. A report in the Journal of Applied Physiology shows that consuming carb-rich foods like potatoes, grains, and fruit can work to lessen the drop in immunity that may occur after intense exercise.
“Exercising intensely in a carb-depleted state can increase levels of circulating stress hormones, which can further stress the immune system,” Sumbal explains, and that opens the door for your body to be invaded by certain viruses.
Worry not, 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, rather 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.
Argentinian athletes are onto something by drinking the herbal tea known as yerba mate. A study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that men who drank yerba mate tea (200 mL three times daily) experienced almost a 9 percent greater rate of muscle strength recovery following eccentric exercise compared to 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. 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.