Although what you eat before and during your workout is important, I don’t think of those as “meals” — for most workouts they should instead be liquid, or quick-digesting foods like dates, fruits, smoothies, etc.
When it comes to what to eat after your workout, I do still eat the high-carbohydrate, fast-assimilating food, but only immediately following the activity. An hour or two later — and for a lot of people who work out after work, this means dinnertime — it’s a meal. A big meal, a higher-protein meal. A “meal” meal.
What to Eat After Your Workout: Simplifying Workout Nutrition
You can get as specific as you want with before, during, and post-workout nutrition, and I’ve written about these plenty: check out our Workout Nutrition page if you’re interested in the details.
But recently I’ve been more interested in practical nutrition — an approach that’s easy to remember, one that represents 80 or 90 percent of the benefits of the perfect-but-cumbersome approach, only with 10 or 20 percent of the stress.
And for that, I just remember 3-4-5. What this means is:
- Before your workout, aim for a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein.
- During your workout, aim for a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein.
- After your workout, aim for a 5:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein (4:1 is okay too).
Even this may sound overly specific to some, and truthfully, I never actually look at exact numbers nowadays. But they’re guidelines, and if you’ve never done this before, it’s a useful exercise to put together a few “perfect” meals, just to get a sense for what they look like. For example, you might want to figure out exactly how many scoops of protein powder or how many nuts and seeds to put in a pre-workout smoothie to hit 3:1 carbohydrate-to-protein.
Post-workout is a little different than the others, for one big reason: it’s better known as “dinner.” And that’s for the family, not just me, so hitting exactly 5:1 isn’t as important to me as making something that my kids will actually eat. But given that the typical macronutrient mix I aim for throughout the day is 65-15-20 (65 percent carbohydrate, 15 percent protein, 20 percent fat), this meal ends up being between 4:1 and 5:1 most nights even without much conscious effort to make it that way.
And don’t forget — even though dinner will be a meal with a lot of complex carbohydrate, you don’t want to skip that simpler-carbohydrate snack immediately after your workout to jump-start recovery. Right after you finish your workout is the best time of day to take in sugar or even “white” carbohydrates that you otherwise avoid. I usually let this immediate snack be very high in carbohydrate (a glass of tart cherry juice, for example) to balance out a higher-protein dinner, so that between the two meals, you end up near 4:1 or 5:1.
3 Simple Weeknight Post-Workout Meals
Since most post-workout feasting happens on weeknight evenings, it comes with the added condition of having to be quick to prepare. Here are a few of my favorite go-to meals when I’m looking to refuel without spending more than 30 minutes in the kitchen:
- Just about any pasta dish. There’s nothing I crave more after a tough run than a big plate of pasta, and usually, pasta meals are fast. As for nutrition, I wrote in a recent post about my seven favorite weeknight pasta recipes that whole wheat pasta is about 15 percent protein. That’s more than most people expect, but not enough to hit 4:1 or 5:1 since the almost all of the other 85 percent is carbohydrate. Luckily, a lot of great pasta dishes incorporate beans, and these help to boost the protein content of the meal. Sprinkle some ground walnuts on top to get even more.
- Maggie’s Conscious Vegan Cuisine frozen meals. I wrote about these in my post on cheap vegan meals, and I’ve since realized that they’re not just vegan and whole-food based, they’re also gluten-free, low in sodium, and free of added oils. Most are too high in protein to hit 4:1 or 5:1 on their own, but you can add the necessary amount of rice to get right in that range. I wouldn’t quite call these meals delicious, but they’re decent, and considering they’re cheap and quick too, they’re my favorite new Whole Foods find.
- Giant salad with beans and a smoothie. Not exactly a crowd-pleaser (except for the smoothie, which my kids will drink any time of day or night), and not something I’m usually in the mood for on a cold winter evening either. But in the summer, a meal like this hits the spot after a run, and combines the the two healthiest meals you can eat into one perfectly clean, high-nutrient dinner. Plus, you can adjust the proportions of beans on the salad and protein in the smoothie (powder or nuts) to hit exactly within 4:1 to 5:1 if you wish.