What should you eat immediately after a workout? Ask five different people and you’ll get five different answers — and it’s hard to know who’s giving good advice and who really doesn’t have a clue.
With so much conflicting information out there about post-workout nutrition, it’s no wonder nutrition experts see people making the same mistakes, over and over. Here are a few of the most common post-workout nutrition mistakes — and how you can fix them for better recovery and results.
Mistake #1: You’re Immediately Pounding a Post-Workout Nutrition Shake
Don’t worry — you won’t threaten your hard-earned gains if you don’t drink a post-workout shake right after you finish your last set.
“One misconception is that the average recreational exerciser needs to consume protein and carbs directly after working out,” says registered dietitian and Openfit nutrition manager Krista Maguire. While that may be true for elite and endurance athletes who need to time their post-workout nutrition for performance, the rest of us have a little more wiggle room.
“As long as you eat a balanced meal that consists of quality protein and carbs — and maybe even some healthy fats — within a couple hours of working out, then your body will be able to refuel glycogen stores and build and repair muscles,” Maguire says.
Mistake #2: You Think Post-Workout Nutrition Shakes Are the Only Option
Are there alternatives to drinking a shake after a workout? You bet.
“You can consume any type of whole-food protein source — ideally a high-quality, complete protein that contains all nine essential amino acids,” says Maguire.
So while a protein shake is a healthy option, you won’t undo all your hard work if you opt for an egg white omelet instead. Sports nutrition coach Joanna K. Chodorowska says she often tells her clients it’s okay to go for a full meal after a workout.
“If it’s breakfast, they can have an omelet with spinach and feta with a slice of bread or some home fries,” she says. Oatmeal with nuts and plain yogurt is another great option, or steamed broccoli with chicken and rice.
Even if you’d rather stick with the post-workout shake, you still have plenty of options. “Consider which type of protein is most appropriate for your needs, whether it’s a whey-based protein or a vegan source like pea, hemp, rice, or organic soy protein powder,” advises Maguire.
Mistake #3: You’re Overdoing Your Protein Intake
Protein might be the building block of muscle, but downing an oversized post-workout nutrition shake won’t help your muscles grow faster (unfortunately).
“People tend to think the more protein they consume post-workout, the more muscle they’ll build,” says Maguire. “There’s only so much protein the body will utilize at once, and anything beyond that gets used for other purposes.” Bad news: That typically means getting converted into glucose or fat.
And according to the International Society for Sports Nutrition (ISSN), you should stick to a post-workout carb-to-protein ratio of 3:1 or 4:1 — which means you should actually eat more carbs than protein post-workout. Maguire recommends aiming for about 1 gram of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight, along with 20–25 grams of protein, within 30 minutes after a workout.
Mistake #4: You Reach for High-Sugar and High-Calorie Post-Workout Snacks
Finishing an intense workout session is an accomplishment worthy of celebration, but don’t reward your hard work with a high-calorie treat like a donut or triple-scoop ice cream cone. Aside from the inevitable sugar crash, those sweets don’t have the right nutrients to help you recover, leaving your muscles and body starving for something better.
Even a post-workout shake can be a culprit if you choose one that’s loaded with added sugars or artificial sweeteners, Chodorowska cautions. If you’re craving something sweet after your workout, choose a shake that’s naturally sweet, or just grab a piece of fruit — these sweet snacks can trick your brain into thinking you’re eating something more decadent.
Mistake #5: You Aren’t Drinking Enough Water
While protein, carbs, and fat are vital for recovery, you also need to replenish the fluids you lost during your workout. “Hydration is another important consideration — not in place of the macronutrients, but in addition to,” Maguire says.
And you don’t need a sugary sports drink — regular water is the best option to help you rehydrate after a workout. It not only helps your body flush out toxins, but it also helps transport nutrients throughout the body.
So how much water do you need after a workout? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer — the exact amount depends on workout intensity, duration, body size, how much you sweat, and how well you hydrated before and during your workout. Follow your thirst cues: If you feel thirsty after your workout, don’t be afraid to hydrate a bit more.
Mistake #6: You’re Making It Too Complicated
Unless you’re training to be a competitive bodybuilder, don’t stress too much about eating exactly the right type of protein at exactly the right time. To avoid feeling completely overwhelmed, Maguire suggests following a simple mantra: “Consume some protein of some form within the hour after you’ve completed a workout,” she says. Keep it simple, and you’ll be more likely to stick to your post-workout nutrition plan — and less likely to slip up.