You know the feeling after a tough endurance session: you are hot, very sweaty, out of breath, flushed, and exhausted. Importantly, a nutritious post-workout meal will help your body not only recover, but be stronger than it was beforehand. This handout describes exactly what you should eat after a great endurance workout and provides some example foods. While these recommendations are fairly well established and very accessible, this article proceeds to describe the psychological and biological mechanisms that lead to exhaustion and muscle soreness. This information will allow you to optimize your own personal post-workout meals and allow you to take your game to the next level.

What to eat and drink to recover from endurance exercise
Here is a quick-reference guide for the four major nutrients that ought to be in mind when planning your post-workout meal:

1) Water

To make up the amount of weight you lost.

2) Electrolytes

About 500 mg sodium/L water and 125 mg potassium/L water

3) Carbohydrates

0.6-1.0 g/kg body weight

4) Protein

at least 10-15 g

  • Why. Dehydration due to sweating is very common among endurance athletes. Sweat rates vary greatly depending on the intensity of the workout, the temperature of the environment, and the person [1].
  • How much. Drinking to quench your thirst may not be enough to completely replenish your fluids [2]. Therefore, it is advised to weigh yourself before and after your workout; your weight loss should be replaced with fluids (1 kg = 1 L of water; 1 lb. = 15.3 fl. oz., or about 2 cups).
  • What. In regard to what fluids to consume, water is the best when consumed with food (see below). In the absence of food, sports drinks and diluted juice are excellent for replenishing both fluids and electrolytes. In addition to being great sources of protein, protein shakes, milk, chocolate milk, and smoothies can also be important sources of fluids.

  • Why. Be sure to consume electrolytes (especially sodium, chloride, and potassium) in addition to water. Electrolytes increase the rate of fluid absorption in the gastrointestinal tract [2]. In addition, they are necessary components of many biochemical pathways and what was lost in urine and sweat must be replaced. If you replenish your fluids with water without replenishing your electrolytes, you are at risk for hyponatremia, or low sodium concentrations in the blood [3].
  • How much. There is no strict recommendation for the amount of sodium and other electrolytes that one should consume during or after a workout [4]. However, sports drinks have demonstrated anecdotal effectiveness; they contain approximately 465 mg sodium/L (i.e., 110 mg/8 fl.oz.) and about 125 mg potassium/L (i.e., 30 mg/8 fl. oz.). In some cases of heavy sweat losses, higher sodium beverages can be beneficial.
  • What. Sports drinks are great sources of water, sodium, chloride, and potassium. In addition, these elements are present naturally in many foods. For example, sodium and chloride are present in eggs, meat, seafood, dairy products, and (often excessively) in many processed foods. Excellent sources of potassium include bananas, salmon, yogurt, spinach, and dried fruit (e.g., apricots, raisins, dates).

  • Why. Glycogen, the carbohydrate chain in the liver and muscle that is readily accessible to fuel working muscle, is the main energy source for endurance workouts. Therefore, after the workout, it is important to restore it. Also, in addition to protein, carbohydrates stimulate an insulin response, which sets the stage for an anabolic environment. The type of carbohydrate is not particularly important, unless you need to quickly restore glycogen for a second bout of exercise later that day. (In that case, a high glycemic index meal is recommended; see the glycemic index article for more information.)
  • How much. The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) recommends that athletes consume 0.6-1.0 g carbohydrate/kg body weight (i.e., about 45 g for a 130 lb. person or 65 g for a 187 lb. person) within 30 min of the workout [5]. Because insulin levels peak within this window, rates of glycogen synthesis will be at their peak. Following that window, the ISSN recommends to frequently consume carbohydrates at a rate of 1.2 g carbohydrate/kg/hr over the next 4-6 hrs to completely replenish glycogen stores. With that said, glycogen stores will easily be replenished within 24 hrs if adequate carbohydrates are consumed throughout the day from normal meals (i.e., about 8-10 g carbohydrates/kg/day). Carbohydrates ingested during the workout attenuate rises in cortisol, cytokines, and other hormones [6], and it is likely that post-workout carbohydrates also lessen exercise-induced stress.
  • What. Carbohydrates are present in sports drinks, fruit, potatoes, wheat, rice, and oats. Because there are about 4 kcal/g carbohydrate, check the nutrition label to consume approximately 200 kcal of energy from carbohydrates.

  • Why. Protein will reduce muscle protein breakdown [5], stimulate muscle protein synthesis [5], stimulate glycogen synthesis [7], reduce cortisol concentrations [6], and overall accelerate the recovery process [8]. High quality protein with a large proportion of essential amino acids (e.g., whey protein) will facilitate tissue repair and hypertrophic processes [9]. In addition, BCAAs prevent tryptophan accumulation in the brain. So, central fatigue may be able to be mitigated with BCAA supplements [10]. Inadequate caloric and protein intake will decrease immunity [6]; athletes on restrictive diets such as a low-calorie or vegetarian diet should take extra caution to consume adequate protein both post-workout and throughout the day [6].
  • How much. The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) recommends consuming about 1 g of protein for every 3-4 g of carbohydrate consumed in that initial post-workout meal (i.e., 10-15 g protein, though at least 20-25 g is often recommended) [5], [11].
  • What. Good sources of protein include: dairy products (especially milk, cottage cheese, and yogurt), meat, soy (e.g., soy milk, tofu), protein bars and shakes, and nuts.