Wiped Out After a Workout? Food Can Help You Recover

Understand what happens to your body during exercise, how food can help your body recover, and what exactly you should eat to replenish energy after a workout.

Perrin Braun
By Perrin Braun
Jovan Mijailovic
Edited by Jovan Mijailovic

Published March 6, 2024.

a woman in a black sports bra top stretching to recover after workout

Exercise certainly plays an important role in improving your health, but you definitely can’t live well without good food! Healthful eating after a tough workout helps your body maximize the benefits that are gained from exercise, which means that you can get even stronger and faster just by eating right!

If you’re an athlete, you’ve probably noticed that there is a lot of information out there about the best post-workout recovery foods. The food, beverage, and sports industries have been bombarding consumers with lots of nutrition recovery products that supposedly help your body to refuel. Understanding the answers to the following questions will help you to choose recovery foods:

  1. What happens to your body during exercise?
  2. How does food help your body to recover?
  3. What should you be eating?

What happens to your body during exercise?

When you exercise, the muscle fibers in your body start to break down. Damaged muscle cells release an enzyme called creatine kinase (CK) into the blood. The level of CK in your blood shows how much your muscles and skeletal system have worked during exercise.

If your blood levels of CK turn out to be high, you definitely need to pay close attention to what you’re eating after a workout.

a screen shot of a web page with a line graph of creatine kinase (CK) 

» Sign up for InsideTracker to have CK measured in your blood analysis.

Lactic acid, which is attributed to post-workout muscle soreness, is another indicator of muscle damage. As a product of the breakdown of your body’s glycogen stores, it accumulates during short and intense periods of exercise.

Lactic acid can be used as an energy source for endurance athletes when their glycogen stores are depleted. You can find lactic acid in dairy, meat, and pickled vegetables.

» Having these symptoms means you should skip your workout today

How to replenish energy after a workout

1. Decrease your CK levels

Athletes who are training and would like to decrease the levels of CK in their blood should take 300 mg of CoQ10 in the morning after breakfast. Fish, beef, and eggs are other good sources of CoQ10, which provides energy for your muscles. To decrease your CK levels, take a multi-nutrient supplement containing branched-chain amino acids, taurine, anti-inflammatory plant extracts, and B vitamins for 4 weeks.

2. Make sure you get enough protein

To repair muscle damage, your body needs protein, which is made up of amino acids, the building blocks for your muscles. An adequate supply of protein will help your muscles recover from all the stress that’s placed on them, especially after doing weight-bearing exercises, such as weight training and jogging.

3. Replenish energy with carbs

The other thing your body needs to do after a workout is to replenish energy stores. Carbohydrates are responsible for providing your body with an ample supply of glycogen, which is your body’s primary fuel source. Muscles rely on carbohydrates for fuel, so you may want to re-think any low-carb diets, especially if you’re an avid exerciser.

For people who perform a moderate amount of exercise, carbohydrates provide about 40-50% of the energy requirement. If you’re an endurance athlete, you should be getting 55-70% of your energy from carbs.

For marathon runners and triathlons in particular, it’s important to keep in mind that carbs provide more energy per unit of oxygen consumed than fats do. Because a lack of oxygen could cost you a race or an event, or make you feel overly fatigued after a workout, using carbohydrates as one of your primary sources of energy is a good nutritional bet. 

Why do you need carbohydrates after a workout?

Hard exercise causes the glycogen stores in your body to be depleted, so your body won’t have enough energy to begin the recovery/muscle growth process unless you refuel those stores.

A post-workout meal or snack that is high in carbohydrates provides this essential fuel and gives your muscles time to build. Without that carbohydrate boost, your body will convert fat, followed by protein from the muscle tissues, to usable energy, which means that your recovery will take even longer.

4. Fuel the body with essential fatty acids

Some athletes (and many people) are afraid of fat, but cutting it out of your diet completely can actually hinder athletic performance.

Fat helps provide fuel for the body. If your workouts typically last more than an hour, the body uses fats for energy after your glucose supply has been depleted. However, you should keep in mind that some fats are more beneficial to recovery than others.

Saturated and trans fats can be detrimental to your overall health, but essential fatty acids (found in fish and certain types of oils) play a critical role in muscle recovery by helping to regulate oxygen, hormone restoration, cardiovascular health, and immune system integrity.

5. Consume enough calories

In addition to carbohydrates, protein, and fat, it’s also important to consume enough calories throughout the day. Without an adequate amount of calories, your body won’t have enough energy to spend on exercising.

When should you be eating for recovery?

How soon you eat after a workout definitely matters! No matter what time of the day you exercise, it’s important to eat a nutritious snack or meal that contains a combination of protein and carbohydrates.

For the fastest recovery, eat within an hour of finishing your workout.  If you can’t grab a snack right away, eat within two hours.

» Learn more about meal and recovery drink timing

What should you be eating for recovery?

So, are there any specific foods that are the best for recovery? It really depends on your taste preferences! Here are some ideas for healthy protein-carbohydrate, and fat, combinations to munch on after a workout:

  • Peanut butter and banana on whole-grain bread
  • Lean chicken with whole-wheat pasta
  • Hummus and pita bread
  • Dried fruit and nuts
  • Tuna and wheat crackers
  • Egg and cheese sandwich
  • Greek yogurt with mixed berries

The truth about post-workout nutrition

  • Many athletes rely on protein and nutrition bars for their post-workout fuel. Companies are avidly marketing various gels, powders, and recovery drinks, but the truth is that these products aren’t really necessary. While their various health claims sound impressive, make sure to read the label before you buy.
  • Supplements can contribute to an excessive intake of certain nutrients, which can sometimes result in intestinal discomfort.
  • Many nutritional shakes and bars are also high in calories and sugar, which can subvert any weight-loss goals that you might have.

It’s important to assess your nutrient needs based on your level of exercise to decide whether these recovery products would benefit you, but whole foods are ultimately the best source of nutrition. By consuming whole foods, you will be avoiding the processing and additives that are commonly found in post-workout supplements.

Wiped Out After a Workout? Food Can Help You Recover

Don't forget to rehydrate!

It’s crucial to hydrate your body correctly in order to recover from a workout. Exercise causes your body to lose fluids and important vitamins and minerals, especially if you sweat a lot.

According to the Mayo Clinic, you should be drinking about two or three cups of water for every pound lost during exercise. For example, if you weigh 151 pounds before a workout and 150 pounds after exercising, you should be drinking about 2-3 cups of water when you’re done.

Water is a great rehydrating option, and research also shows that chocolate milk is one of the best “natural” recovery drinks. Chocolate milk contains both carbohydrates and protein, so it helps to repair muscles while quenching your thirst!

If you’re a long-distance or endurance athlete, you may need more than just water to replenish your body’s fluids. Failing to replace sodium lost during extended exercise or on very hot days can have serious health consequences, so endurance athletes should make sure they replenish their bodies with 80 - 100 mg sodium per quart of liquid and 100-300 mg sodium per hour from other sources.

Recover from any workout with personalized InsideTracker analysis

InsideTracker can help you find the best recovery foods for your body. After you complete your blood analysis, you’ll be provided with a food basket that you can customize to fit your dietary and exercise needs. Have a great workout, and don’t forget to enjoy your meals!

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