Rose Mattson, RD

What to eat after activity, according to a Registered Dietitian

What to eat after activity - registered dietitian

Let’s chat physical activity – exercise – workouts – movement, whatever you like to call it! We know that performing physical activity may help increase your muscle mass, improve energy levels, decrease chronic disease risk, and may help improve mental health and memory! Getting some movement in can be a great way to connect with your body, and finding something you love doing is the best motivator for long-term sustainability. Your activity routine doesn’t need to be a way to “earn” your food, should never be used as a punishment, and it doesn’t need to be boring!

Nutrition and movement go hand-in-hand. You need to eat if you are not doing physical activity, and you probably need to eat more if you are performing physical activity! I routinely get questions about proper fueling after exercise, so I thought we could break it down today.

These are the most common questions that come my way!


Q: How soon after my workout should I eat?  

A: If you are training or competing in an event within the next 8 hours, it is recommended to consume carbohydrates (think bread, pasta, oatmeal, fruit), in frequent intervals starting immediately after exercise, to increase the amount of carbohydrate (glycogen) stored in your muscles. You may also consider having some protein to aid in the recovery process. If you are not competing in the next 8 hours, try to get a meal or snack in in the next couple hours!


Q: What if my workouts are not very long or strenuous? Do I need to refuel?

A: You tell me! Are you hungry after your activity? Has it been several hours since you ate? Do you have time for a meal or snack in the next few hours? Do you notice a difference in energy levels or mood if you eat? Take the time to check in with your hunger cues after your activity, and eat accordingly.

That being said, some activities require more intensive post-workout nutrition than others. During more intense exercise (think lifting weights, group fitness classes, prolonged cardiovascular exercise etc.), your muscles use carbohydrates as their main source of fuel. Therefore, it’s important to replace carbohydrate stores after these types of activities. Additionally, during these types of exercises, your muscles are damaged. So, after a more intense workout, you can pair these carbohydrate foods with a source of protein to help repair and rebuild your muscles.


Q: What about the “anabolic window”? I thought I had to eat protein within 30 minutes of exercising?

A: That window of time is actually roughly 3-4 hours. Muscle protein synthesis, or muscle growth, can be active for up to 24 hours after activity. Choose several protein-containing meals and snacks within that time frame!


Q: Do I need to be supplementing with protein powder?

A: Nope – protein supplements are just one option. You can get all the protein you need from real food! Dairy foods (milk, cottage cheese, yogurt), meat, fish, legumes, nuts and seeds are all excellent sources of protein. Side note: the FDA does not regulate the quality of supplements to the same level that it does for food items, meaning they may be contaminated with potentially hazardous substances. If you want to better ensure the quality of a supplement, look for a supplement that has been tested and certified by a 3rd party organization (NSF, USP, Informed Choice).


Q: What if I have a poor appetite after exercise? What should I eat then?

A: Start with something small when you can stomach it! Perhaps you can’t handle a meal, but can you try a smoothie, milk, or a sports drink? Find a flavor that sits well with you – for me, that’s something sweet!


Q: Are sports drinks necessary?

A: Sports drinks, such as Gatorade and Powerade, serve the purpose of replenishing electrolytes and carbohydrate stores during and after prolonged intense exercise. Water is probably just fine for the majority of people. Bonus – it’s free!


Q: How much protein do I need?!

A: It depends! At the minimum, aim to include a protein-rich food at each meal throughout the day. If you want specifics, it’s best to develop a plan with a dietitian, like me!


Q: What are the “best” foods to eat after exercise?

A: The ones you like to eat! Along with some knowledge of how to choose combinations of carbs and protein that make you feel your best. This may take some practice. Remember there are no magic foods!

I usually recommend including a protein food, a carbohydrate food and a fruit and/or veggie in the majority of your meals – regardless if you are eating after a workout or not. Here are some of my favorites – you could try any of these!


Q: How much fluid should I be drinking post-activity?

A: A good way to check your hydration status is by color of your urine. Ideally, you want your urine to be a light yellow-to-clear color. Keep in mind that it’s best to sip fluids continuously throughout the day, rather than chugging a whole water bottle in 2 minutes, as your body is able to retain more fluid when you do so.


FINALLY: Remember that these are guidelines, not hard and fast rules. Everyone’s body will be different, and what works for others may not work for you. Focus on choosing options that make YOU feel your best so that you can do your favorite activity for years to come.

More questions? Feel free to reach out!

And if you are interested in working one-on-one, check out my services here to see if we are a good fit!




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