Nutrition

Research Backs These 5 Post-Workout Snacks

Resist the urge to grab the first thing you find in the pantry and opt for one of these science-backed snacks.

Breakfast is often touted as being the most important meal of the day, but if you manage to regularly work up a sweat, what you nosh and sip on post-workout is just as vital. When you exercise intensely, your energy stores in the form of muscle glycogen become depleted and your muscle fibers suffer some degree of damage, both of which places you in a vulnerable position. The good news is that reaching for the right foods and drinks can help you bounce back quicker by replenishing glycogen, repairing and building muscle, reducing muscle soreness, and even improving immune system functioning—all key building blocks in priming you for future workouts and better fitness gains. Thankfully, research is showing that there are several go-to options from the supermarket that will do the trick. And be sure to plan ahead: A study lead by researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln found that the simple act of deciding your post-workout snack before your session can lead to healthier choices. We’ve all been in the situation of returning from a training session so famished that the bag of greasy potato chips is the first thing we grab.

Toweling off and then reaching for any of these eats and sips will up your recovery game, even if your workouts are confined to the great indoors. 

Cottage Cheese

Chunky curds and smooth whey might be the secret sauce to soothing tired muscles after you’ve beaten them up. An investigation in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that as little as 9 grams of milk-based protein—the amount found in a mere 1/3 cup of 2% cottage cheese—can be enough to kickstart muscle repair and synthesis following a bout of resistance training. In response to training stress, the mTOR protein in our muscles is activated—which is key to stimulating the protein synthesis that is required to bring about stronger, less injury-prone muscles. And it appears that mTOR is highly sensitive to the amino acids found in dairy. Specifically in endurance athletes, taking in enough protein in the hours following a bout of aerobic-focused exercise can limit muscle membrane disruption and lead to greater gains in VO2max to improve performance in subsequent exercise sessions. 

The Post-Workout Snack

Spoon some cottage cheese into a bowl and then pile on berries and muesli for the necessary carbs to restock your spent energy stores. 

Potato

In general, endurance style exercise modalities like swimming and cycling bring on metabolic fatigue where there is the depletion of available glycogen energy stores in muscle cells. That necessitates the need to restock these stores to prepare for the next training session. And you can do so by showing a little spud love. A 2020 study in European Journal of Applied Physiology found that male and female subjects who consumed potato-based products immediately after and then again two hours later on following a 90-minute bout of cycling designed to deplete glycogen stores experienced just as much glycogen recovery as when they consumed a more expensive commercially marketed sports nutrition product. For both trials, 1.6 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight was delivered. What’s more, a report in the Journal of Applied Physiology shows that consuming carb-rich foods like potatoes can work to lessen the disturbance in the immune system that may occur during the recovery period caused by higher circulating levels of stress hormones brought on by a bout of intense exercise.

The Post-Workout Snack

Bake up a few potatoes in advance and then microwave them to reheat once you get home from your workout.

Tomato Juice

Not just for Bloody Mary’s, this veg juice can help your muscles revive better after a workout. In a study published in the Journal of Nutritional Science and Dietetics, researchers found that subjects who consumed tomato juice experienced less inflammation as indicated by a drop in the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein following a treadmill run to exhaustion than those who drank just water. This could make the savory drink an aid in expediting recovery. The study authors surmise that the payload of antioxidants, including tomatoes signature antioxidant called lycopene, are behind this benefit. And the added salt works to replenish the sodium you have sweated out while pushing the pace.

The Post-Workout Snack

You can chug back store-bought versions, but making your own power-packed tomato juice is surprising easily. Simply blend together 1 cup water, 1 pound quartered tomatoes (about 3 medium-sized), 1 chopped celery stalk, 1 chopped medium-sized carrot, 1 chopped green bell pepper, 2 sliced scallions, 1/3 cup flat-leaf parsley, 1 chopped garlic clove, juice of 1/2 lemon, 1 1/2 teaspoons prepared horseradish, and 1/2 teaspoon sea salt. Chill and shake well before using.

Sardines

A recent study by researchers in Japan found that higher intakes of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—two omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish like sardines, salmon and mackerel—can lessen some of the muscle soreness and stiffness that can accompany a hard run or weight-lifting session at the gym. Omega-3s likely work their way into our muscle cells where they help reduce the exercise-induced damage that causes painful inflammation. Some plant foods like hemp seeds and walnuts contain a different form of omega-3 fat, but we don’t yet know if this has the same impact on the muscular response to training. 

The Post-Workout Snack

For an ultra-quick post-workout snack try mashing some tinned sardines on crackers. You can get a quick omega-3 fix with smoked salmon, mackerel, or trout. 

Pomegranate Juice

There is an argument to be made that pomegranate juice should be considered a useful sports drink. A report in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition discovered that male rowers who drank 50 mL of pomegranate juice daily had a significantly higher total antioxidant capacity following strenuous exercise than athletes who did not gulp back the sweet-tart juice. Past research has linked higher antioxidant capacity with lower levels of muscular oxidative stress and inflammation produced by high volume and intense endurance training. The uptick in recovery-boosting antioxidant potential can be attributed to the lofty levels of antioxidants including polyphenols that pomegranate juice contains. As a bonus, the quick digesting natural sugars in the ruby juice can aid in glycogen replenishment. The ability of athletes to train day after day depends in large part on the adequate restoration of muscle glycogen stores—the main energy source for vigorous exercise. 

The Post-Workout Snack

Drink 100% pomegranate juice straight up after working up a sweat or work it into your post-training smoothie. 

Whole Eggs

Perhaps the Italian Stallion was onto something when he choked backed raw eggs after hitting the bag. In a mano-a-mano comparison, researchers from the University of Illinois provided male subjects with either three whole eggs or a mixture of egg whites containing a total of 18 grams of protein following a bout of resistance exercise and then measured rates of muscle protein synthesis (i.e. muscle growth). Despite containing the same amount of protein, rates of muscle-building from whole eggs was about 40 percent greater than that obtained from eating egg whites alone. The study authors surmise the nutrients found in the yolk allow weary muscles to more efficiently use the high-quality protein in the whites for building purposes. Another win for whole foods. And remember that impact activities like running will induce a certain degree of muscular damage requiring protein for proper repair. You also need enough protein to maintain immune functioning which is a key part of the recovery equation.

The Post-Workout Snack

We don’t recommend consuming raw eggs like Rocky (hello, Salmonella risk), so instead reach for the hard-boiled variety after hitting the weights or pounding the pavement. Or fry up an egg and plop it on a slice of toast for a protein-carb one-two-punch. 

Chocolate Milk

The drink you loved as a kid might be a great ally in recovering better. Several studies (exhibits A, B, C, D, and E) have shown that drinking chocolate milk as part of a nutrition recovery plan can improve several measures including muscle protein synthesis, signs of muscle soreness, subsequent endurance performance and how quickly muscular strength returns after a workout. It’s thought that the combination of protein and carbs in the dark moo juice act together to help your body come around quicker. And when you return home from a run and you’re ultra-thirsty it’s good to know that chocolate milk can also contribute to your rehydration efforts.

The Post-Workout Snack

Reach for a glass of cold chocolate milk following a workout or go-ahead use it as a base for post-training smoothies or something to float your granola in.