Postworkout Fueling for Athletes

While there’s some debate as to what the ideal window of opportunity is for refueling after a strenuous workout, it’s undeniably crucial to replenish muscles. Exercise, while great for the body in many ways, also creates stress within the body, breaking down muscle and depleting energy reserves. Refueling after long and intense workouts can be a protective mechanism to prevent further breakdown in the body. RDs should note, however, that the average client performing short and less intense workouts, such as running on a treadmill, generally won’t require refueling outside of usual meals and snacks.

The following are steps RDs can take to educate active clients about refueling’s benefits.

Explain how food helps recovery. The proper combination of foods after a workout can restore energy reserves, help maintain blood sugar, rebuild protein stores, and decrease inflammation. Dietitians working with athletes and highly active clients should become comfortable explaining the body’s mechanisms after exercise. The body is more receptive to taking in fuel after a workout because cells are more sensitive to the anabolic hormone insulin, and glycogen production and storage is more efficient.

To repair muscle tissue, promote muscle growth, and store glycogen (as energy reserves), RDs can recommend clients consume a mixture of carbohydrate and protein. The size of the recovery meal or snack will vary based on weather conditions and intensity, but general postworkout macronutrient recommendation is a 3:1 to 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein, including 15 to 30 g high-quality protein. This can be accomplished through a balanced meal or a combination of snacks such as smoothies or yogurt with fruit.

Help them come up with a fueling plan. Depending on a client’s food preferences, dietitians can help them devise a fueling plan based on their goals. Incorporating animal-derived proteins (eg, dairy, eggs, meat, and fish) and/or some plant-based proteins, such as soy, is optimal because these higher-quality protein sources contain all of the essential amino acids to help rebuild muscle.

Experts once recommended refueling within 30 to 60 minutes after activity, but some recent research indicates that the window may be longer than originally thought. That said, patients and clients shouldn’t wait hours to eat after a workout. If refueling is consistently delayed, it may contribute to increased fatigue, a higher rate of injury, and a less optimal recovery, which may affect future performance and goals. RDs still can encourage clients to refuel as soon as realistically possible but not to stress if it’s not within 30 to 60 minutes of finishing exercise.

It’s common for active clients to load up on protein directly after a workout and then eat inadequate amounts the rest of the day. RDs should educate consumers that a consistent and balanced intake of protein throughout the day is better for our muscles (and health).

Provide meal and snack suggestions. Clients can become overwhelmed with the ratios, numbers, and timing of postworkout refueling. By breaking refueling down into concrete meal ideas based on clients’ preferences, lifestyle, and eating habits, RDs can greatly simplify sports nutrition strategies. For example, Greek yogurt with fruit or cereal, a peanut butter or turkey sandwich, or low-fat chocolate milk with a banana are all balanced, portable snack ideas for highly active clients.

Depending on the time of day clients exercise, practical postworkout meal options include eggs with toast and fruit; grilled chicken with potatoes and vegetables; fish tacos with cheese, avocado, and vegetables; and stir-fried tofu with rice and vegetables. RDs providing doable meal and snack options and emphasizing the importance of food in a recovery plan can go a long way for clients’ fitness and athletic goals.

— Sarah Schlichter, MPH, RDN, LDN, is a freelance writer, nutrition consultant, recipe developer, and private practice owner in Charlotte, North Carolina. She specializes in intuitive eating and sports nutrition. You can find more of her writing on her blog,

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