What to Eat After Cardio to Rebuild Muscle

You just finished a run, elliptical session, or aerobics class. You’re hungry and wonder: What’s the best way to refuel?

To maximize muscle growth, it’s usually important to consume a protein-filled snack immediately after a strength training workout. But what you should eat after a cardio session depends on what type of cardio you completed, how long and intense your session was, and what you ate before exercising.

While cardio can build a small amount of muscle, you’ll need to incorporate strength training to really see muscle gain. The real benefit of cardio exercise is that it burns calories, which can help you to maintain or lose weight, when combined with the right diet. There are some nutrition guidelines you can follow to make sure you’re getting the most out of your post-workout meal.

How soon should you eat after a cardio workout?

If you did less than an hour of cardio at a low or moderate intensity, you probably did not deplete all of your muscle’s energy stores. Energy is stored in the muscle as glycogen, a chain of sugar molecules. Your body uses fat and sugar to fuel aerobic exercise. If you haven’t eaten or have done a longer and/or more intense cardio workout, be sure to eat within 45 to 60 minutes to restore muscle glycogen. This is primarily important for those who will be exercising again soon.

Here are the current recommendations from a study published in the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition:

  • If you fasted before you trained, you should consume a combination of protein and carbohydrates shortly after your workout to promote muscle growth. If you haven’t eaten for four to six hours before a workout, you may also benefit from a protein- and carbohydrate-rich meal immediately after a workout.
  • If you ate one to two hours preworkout, that meal may be sufficient to promote muscle building even after exercise. This is because the muscle-building amino acids broken down from your food remain in the bloodstream for up to two hours after eating.

With this in mind, here’s what you should eat after different cardio workouts.

What to eat after moderate cardio

If you’re supplementing your strength training routine with a standard 30- to 45-minute moderate intensity cardio session (like a 5K run or Zumba class), you should focus on replenishing lost fluids afterward. Although your heart rate is elevated and you’re sweating, your caloric expenditure was still relatively low.

After this type of cardio workout, drink at least 8 ounces of water. Drink more if you weren’t properly hydrated before exercising.

You can substitute coconut water, but stay away from sports drinks like Gatorade that provide an unnecessary amount of sugar for a shorter workout.

What should you eat after a HIIT cardio workout?

HIIT workouts, like sprints or a cycling class, combine short bursts of all-out activity with short periods of rest. This type of cardio, called anaerobic exercise, is an intense workout. You’ll burn more calories for a given amount of time, and you’ll experience the afterburn effect, or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC).

EPOC is the amount of oxygen required to return the body to its resting state. HIIT sessions stimulate a higher EPOC because you consume more oxygen during them. This creates a larger deficit to replace post-workout. It means you’ll continue to burn calories even after your HIIT session is over.

The amount of effort your body exerts during and even after an HIIT workout is greater. So what you refuel with is more important than it is a steady state cardio session of the same length. On top of at least 8 ounces of water or coconut water, choose a small meal with a combination of protein and carbohydrates.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a carbohydrate/protein ratio of 3:1 in a post-workout meal is appropriate for most people.

Protein will help rebuild muscles, while carbohydrates will replace muscle glycogen stores. This will replenish your energy.

Examples of these types of meals include:

  • a protein shake with one scoop of protein and a banana
  • a glass of chocolate milk
  • Greek yogurt with berries
  • tuna on whole-wheat bread

What should you eat after a longer cardio session?

If you’re training for a race and putting in some serious cardio miles, those hours of exercise require thoughtful refueling, too.

After your workout, drink plenty of water or choose a sports drink with electrolytes, like Gatorade. These drinks help replace fluids and sodium lost through sweat.

Next, choose a small meal with a carbohydrate/protein ratio of 3:1. Some examples include cereal and milk, a bagel with eggs, or a protein shake with added fruit.

Next steps

What you should eat after cardio depends on several factors, including the intensity and duration of your session. The most important factor is to listen to your body. The above recommendations are not steadfast rules, but guidelines to follow.

If you’re hungry after any workout, choose a nutritious, well-balanced small meal to refuel and replenish your body.

Should I Eat Before a Cardio Workout?

Navigating the maze of nutrition advice about when and what to eat for a cardio workout—whether you’re doing a treadmill cardio workout to build endurance or an elliptical workout to lose weight—can make your head spin.

When it comes to eating before cardio, for every person who swears by exercising on an empty stomach, there’s another who says to always eat a small snack first.

Experts may sing the praises of protein shakes while a blogger might opt for “real” food.

We consulted registered dietitian Sara Monk to help you decipher what’s true, what’s false, and what’s best for you when it comes to fueling up for cardio fitness.

FALSE: Carbs, carbs, carbs before exercise.

Always eat a balance of real food carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats before a cardio workout. If you’ve heard from your favorite fitness gurus that all you need before your workouts are carbs—a piece of fruit, oatmeal, or a granola bar—it’s time to throw that idea out the window.

Evidenced-based studies indicate this information is outdated. In fact, it has scientifically proven wrong. Instead, make sure what you eat is a balance of good carbs, protein, and healthy fats.

The protein and healthy fats are crucial because they slow down the absorption of carbohydrates. Even the best carbs turn directly into sugar in your body.

Avoiding eating solely carbs means you won’t have a sugar crash that’ll leave you feeling exhausted 15 minutes into your workout. You’ll need that energy for all the heart pumping Aaptiv workouts in the app.

FALSE: Working out on an empty stomach burns more calories.

First, you have to understand what is occurring in your body when you do a cardio workout on an empty stomach (known as fasted cardio).

Carbohydrates turn into glucose, more commonly known as sugar, in the bloodstream. Glycogen, which is a stored form of glucose, “runs out” when you sleep.

When you wake up, skip breakfast, and hit the gym, your body is low in carbohydrates so instead it burns fat for energy.

A benefit of fasted cardio is that you burn more body fat during a workout. Your body gets used to being in a fat-burning mode, especially if you limit your carb intake throughout the rest of the day.

If you don’t have carbs in your body, it has no choice but to burn fat for energy. So, if you’re hoping for fat loss, it may be beneficial to incorporate a few fasted cardio sessions into your routine.

If you won’t try to make up for the calories you didn’t eat for breakfast later on in the day and can successfully get through your workout—then this option may be for you!

Be sure to check with your doctor first, because some health conditions (such as diabetes) are not a good fit for this type of approach. Start with a light Aaptiv cardio workout before going all out. Always remember to listen to your body and do what works for you.

FALSE: You have to eat two hours before or after a workout.

Aim to fit in your pre-cardio workout meal about 30-60 minutes before you exercise. Timing is just as important as food choice in keeping you energized throughout your workout.

You should eat 30-60 minutes prior to your workout to allow the food to digest, and wait about 30-45 minutes to continue the fat-burning wave after. Note that waiting too long to eat after can slow down your metabolism and drop your blood sugar levels.

When it comes to eating after cardio, a great post-cardio workout choice is a protein with a veggie carb, like a spinach salad with grilled chicken or a piece of salmon with mixed veggies.

If you’re lifting weights, it’s important to eat shortly after in order to replenish your glycogen levels, raise your blood sugar levels and bring in amino acids and other nutrients to aid in repairing the muscle fibers you just broke down. (Tip: save your protein shakes for these days.)

FALSE: If food is healthy, then you should eat as much as you want.

Portion sizes matter most when it comes to boosting energy for a workout. In order to prevent energy loss during your workouts, you must consume energy-boosting, nutrient-dense foods.

Don’t get caught up in the ratio of protein, fat, and carbs. Instead, understand portion sizes.

Protein portion sizes should be 3-5 oz. That would be 2-3 eggs and ½ cup cheese.

Fat portion sizes should be at least 10g per servings; for example, as 1 tablespoon of butter or oil, 2 tablespoons nut butter, 16 nuts, and 2 tablespoons of seeds. Carbs have two forms: non-starchy and starchy.

For non-starchy veggies, such as spinach, tomatoes, kale, mushrooms, and onions, you should have 1-3 cups per serving (more if you’d like, they’re full of nutrients and low in calories). For starchy carbs, such as potatoes, oats, quinoa, chickpeas, and most fruit, stick to ½ cup per serving.

FALSE: Count all the calories.

Focus on whole foods. Don’t get too nit-picky with counting calories and paying attention to macronutrient ratios. Be sure to eat from whole, high-quality food sources to keep your blood sugar stable and burn fat during a workout.

Tweaking recommendations to your liking, and to your benefit, is encouraged. Find what works best for you.

Still wondering “what should I eat?” Here are some examples of pre-workout or pre-cardio snacks that will not only keep you energized throughout your workout but aid in muscle recovery and lean muscle growth:

  • Sliced avocado on toast with cottage cheese + tomatoes (or any other vegetable).
  • Roast walnuts or almonds in the oven or on a pan in coconut oil for a heart-healthy, high protein snack. Add any spices for extra flavors, such as cinnamon or curry!
  • Combine 1 cup of kefir or full-fat Greek yogurt, ½ avocado, a handful of kale, ½-1 tablespoon maple syrup to taste, and a few ice cubes. This creamy green smoothie is loaded with healthy fats, protein, fiber, and vitamins.
  • Add almond butter (or good quality peanut butter) to a brown rice cake or two. Finish it off with sliced bananas and cinnamon. Super portable, this snack is simple and energy-boosting.
  • Mash one banana in a bowl. Add two eggs, whisk together. Cook in coconut oil or grass-fed butter. Top the finished product with a handful of nuts. Here you have banana pancakes—a delicious, balanced quick snack.
  • 1 hard-boiled egg, ½ an avocado, and a handful of berries.
  • Eat a granola bar made from real foods. This is really the only “granola” bar I approve of. It has a nice balance of protein, fat, and carbs.

Now that we’ve broken down these popular myths, eat up for your best cardio workout with Aaptiv yet!

When you are working out for weight loss and feel like you’re on a roll as far as staying committed, it’s common to think you deserve to reward yourself with something delicious. And you do! However, balance is still important, and it’s key to focus on what you’re putting into your body to ensure you’re not sabotaging your hard work and allowing yourself to continue to feel great.

If your goal is weight loss, you should avoid post-workout foods that are high in fat and sugar and low in protein, such as fast-food meals, pizza, or high-sugar breakfast items like pancakes and doughnuts, said Starla Garcia, M.Ed, RDN, LD, a registered dietitian in Houston. “These foods tend to be very calorically dense foods, and we also want foods to have protein-rich sources to help us rebuild, repair, and improve the strength of our muscles after working out so we don’t have prolonged fatigue or soreness.”

Do I even need to eat post-workout?

Whether or not you need to eat at all can depend on the duration and intensity of your workout, said Lauren Ross, a registered dietitian and director of wellness and sustainability at the University of Houston. If you do get hungry and feel like you need a boost yet don’t enjoy things like protein shakes and bars, try Greek yogurt, a sandwich made with low-sodium deli meat, or anything that contains protein like meat, beans, dairy, eggs, nuts, seeds, and soy products, she said.


“After a workout, especially one lasting an hour or less, you shouldn’t eat anything just because someone told you to. It’s true that after particularly strenuous activity that breaks down muscles and depletes the body, there are certain nutrients that can help with recovery. But just because they can help doesn’t mean that you need to eat if you’re not hungry,” Ross said. “The main goal is to listen to your body, and when it’s telling you to eat, choose foods with plenty of nutrients to provide the things it needs to function.”

What if I’m starving?

According to Garcia, if you are hungry after a workout, it’s important to focus on macronutrients, which include carbohydrates, protein, and fat. “Carbohydrates are necessary because they give us energy by breaking down into glucose or sugar, and these sugars are the sources of fuel that we want to use up first, rather than muscle and fat stores,” she said. “Proteins are necessary because they help with satiety and rebuilding of our muscles when we do strenuous exercise. Fat is also essential to help us store some away in times when we may need it, and it also helps us stay full.”

Examples of a good post-workout breakfast include waffles with peanut butter and a boiled or scrambled egg on the side, an egg sandwich with avocado and tomato slices, an egg with an English muffin, oatmeal with nuts and berries, or even just peanut butter toast with banana slices and Greek yogurt with nuts. If you’re eating after working out in the evening, some good options include fish with vegetables and potatoes; chicken with green beans, a side of quinoa, and avocado slices; pork loin with peach slices, green beans, and mashed potatoes; or a grilled chicken burger or sandwich with a side salad and fruit.

What post-workout snacks should I skip?

  • Granola bars that are high in sugar and low in protein and fat — these won’t leave you feeling satisfied without these key nutrients.
  • Muffins or other sugary breakfast pastries — not only are these usually calorie bombs, but they are also often high in refined carbohydrates and sugar, which will surely lead to an energy crash later.
  • Dessert coffees — it’s never a good idea to drink your post-workout fuel, unless it’s a protein-packed smoothie.
  • Chips — processed foods are never the way to go to get in key nutrients like protein and good fats.

What are good snack options?

  • Smoothie with a good-quality protein powder, almond milk, or water.
  • Banana with nut butter.
  • Turkey and cheese sandwich.
  • Peanut butter sandwich.
  • Protein bar with a banana.
  • Glass of milk with peanut butter toast.

How about what I drink?

Lastly, what you drink also matters. Garcia advises against smoothies that are high in added sugars, sugary coffee drinks, and sodas. “Sugary drinks should be avoided because they are full of empty calories with no real nutritional value,” she said. “If you are drinking three sweetened beverages per day, you are easily drinking 400-500 calories from just your beverage, and that’s equal to a whole meal.” Sparkling water or club soda is also another good swap from sugary drinks to start cutting back on unnecessary calories. But ultimately, water is always best for anyone, she said.

Image Source: Stocksnap / Jeffrey Deng

What to Eat Before and After Every Kind of Workout

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Whether you’re eating for endurance or snacking for strength training, it’s not always clear what is best to put into your body. Moreover, “what’s healthy on a regular basis is not necessarily a good choice for the race course, or even for a workout,” explains Barbara Lewin, RD, a sports nutritionist who works with professional athletes. No need to worry: Follow these expert guidelines on how to build and time snacks and you’ll power through with high-octane energy.


If you’re tackling aerobic exercise (hiking, biking, HIIT), when you eat is just as key as what you eat.

Fuel up: Choose a pre-workout meal that’s low in fat and sugar, moderate in protein and high in carbs, like a smoothie made with almond milk, banana and berries. Have it 60 to 90 minutes before your workout: “The meal should be digested to provide fuel to the working muscles,” says Lewin. “The last thing you want is to step onto the treadmill with a full stomach.” If your cardio session is less than an hour long, you don’t need to snack again during, notes Abby Langer, RD, a dietitian in Toronto and owner of Abby Langer Nutrition.

Recover from it: After your workout, your body has a 20- to 30-minute “metabolic window,” when your muscles absorb nutrients most efficiently. It’s important to replenish during this time frame so your body maintains its energy supply. Prioritize carbs and protein, advises New York City nutritionist Leah Kaufman, RD: “A snack with this combination will help aid muscle recovery and reduce soreness.” Opt for something small, like a cup of chocolate milk; one study found that cyclists shaved an average of six minutes off their ride time when they drank low-fat chocolate milk after training, as opposed to sports drinks and zero-calorie beverages. Within an hour, you want protein and electrolytes; try a protein smoothie made with coconut water, suggests Kaufman. We like Zico Natural Coconut Water ($23 for a 12-pack of 11.2-oz. cartons; amazon.com).

RELATED: A Quick Cardio Move You Can Do Anywhere

Strength training

Eat a balanced meal with carbs and protein an hour or two before you hit the weights—and have plenty of liquids on hand for the workout. Carbs help prevent muscle breakdown and fatigue, while protein helps regulate growth and repair, says Marie Spano, RD, sports nutritionist for the Atlanta Hawks.

Fuel up: Stick to water for sessions under an hour; choose a sports drink if you’re lifting for longer. “The carbs in the sports drink will give you extra energy,” explains Spano. For a quick drink that replenishes electrolytes, try the fruity, dissolvable Nuun All Day drink tabs ($23 for four tubes of 15; amazon.com). Pop them right into your water bottle.

Recover from it: Protein holds the healing power your body needs now, says Kaufman: “Our muscles undergo tears and stress that can be repaired only by the amino acids in protein.” Sip a water- or almond-milk-based whey protein shake containing 20 to 25 grams of protein within an hour. If you prefer a solid source of fuel, have a bar. Clif Builder’s Protein Bar ($18 for a box of 12; amazon.com) packs 20 grams of protein. (At 270 cals, it’s best for after high-intensity sessions.)

RELATED: 25 Exercises You Can Do Anywhere

Prepping for a race

Training for a 5K, 10K, or marathon? Practice your race menu. “Eating exactly what you plan to have on the day of the race will be beneficial in seeing how it affects your energy and stomach,” says Kaufman.

Fuel up: The night before race day or a hard run, Langer suggests grabbing a meal that’s lower in fiber and fat but high in carbs—so, yes, pasta works, but you don’t have to carbo-load with a vat of spaghetti. The morning of, have a small, carb-filled breakfast, like a white bagel (you read that right!) with almond butter and a banana. If your race time is under an hour, you shouldn’t need to worry about drinking while you’re running. For longer events, Langer recommends downing 3 to 6 ounces of fluid every 20 minutes and 30 to 60 grams of carbs every hour; energy gels are convenient on the go.

Recover from it: A general rule is to drink 16 ounces of fluid for every pound you sweat off during your run (you can tell by weighing yourself right before and after). For more intense weeks of training, Lewin advises drinking 4 ounces of tart cherry juice twice a day to help with recovery and reduce muscle damage and inflammation. Research confirms that cherry juice is a smart move: In a small study published by the American College of Sports Medicine, trained athletes who drank it twice daily for a week before and two days after intense strength training returned to 90 percent of their normal muscle force in 24 hours, compared with only 85 percent when they didn’t drink it.

RELATED: 11 Fitness Foods to Help You Get in Shape Faster

Ingredients, translated

Energy gels: TryGU Energy Gels, $1.50 each; rei.com (0 grams protein, 5 to 10 grams sugar, 20 to 30 grams carbs). Reserve these for midway through a high-mileage run or bike ride, when glycogen replenishment is needed.

Protein powders: Try Jay Robb Whey Protein, $38 for a 24-oz. bag; amazon.com (20 to 25 grams protein, less than 5 grams sugar, less than 5 grams carbs). Add 1 scoop to unsweetened coconut milk along with ½ cup of frozen berries.

Protein bars: Try Quest Protein Bar, $24 for a pack of 12; amazon.com (20 to 25 grams protein for strength training, 10 to 15 grams for cardio or HIIT workouts, less than 5 grams sugar, 20 to 30 grams carbs).

Easy Nutrition Guide >> What to Eat on Cardio, Strength, and Rest Day

If you take in all the macronutrients – fats, carbohydrates, and protein – then you shouldn’t have to worry about your workout performance and recovery, right? It’s not quite that simple. There are ways to fuel your body for specific types of workouts to help you get the maximum benefit from your training. Here’s a breakdown in the guide below.


What to eat on a cardio, strength, and rest day

Cardio Day

  • Before:
    If you eat 3 hours before training: include carbs from whole foods, protein, and fats in your meal. Try out this sweet potato skins recipe. If you eat less than 1 hour before training: opt for a shake or smoothie that includes carbs and protein, but is low in fiber so that it’s easy to digest.
  • During:
    Hydrate with water and/or an electrolyte drink, especially in warm weather. If you are exercising for more 90 minutes, have a sports drink that contains carbs. Most people burn between 30 to 60 g of carbs per hour, depending on body size and metabolism.
  • After:
    Plan to wait 45-60 minutes after exercising to eat; this will help you maximize your time in the fat burning zone.(1) Your post exercise meal should contain carbs and protein from whole foods in a ratio of 3:1. There is no need for fast-digesting refined carbs, since the carbs from whole foods will replenish your glycogen stores by the next day. However, if you do plan to work out twice a day, you will need to consume some fast carbs after the first workout. You might just love this chickpea avocado salad.

If you need help determining the amount of carbs that you need to take in for the day, check out the Runtastic Carb Calculator here:

Strength Training Day

  • Before:
    If you eat 2-3 hours before training: include carbs from whole foods, protein, and fats in your meal. You can try our easy recipe for a spicy shakshuka. If you eat less than 1 hour before training, opt for a shake or smoothie that includes carbs and protein.

  • During:
    Take in some BCAAs (Branch Chain Amino Acids). BCAAs are a group of three amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. They are considered the building blocks of muscle protein. Also, since BCAA supplements require no digestion, they bypass the liver and go right into the bloodstream for instant use by the muscles. Consuming BCAAs during exercise has been shown to increase the rate of muscle protein synthesis and reduce the extent of muscle damage and soreness post workout.(2)
  • After:
    Plan to eat within 15-30 minutes after a strength session.(3, 4) You want to get the nutrients in quickly so that you can replenish your muscles and allow them to grow stronger. Eating protein after exercise prevents protein breakdown and stimulates synthesis, encouraging faster recovery and adaptation.

Rest Day

This is the perfect time to try out some low carb recipes. You don’t need to top up your carb stores or add extra protein to your meals since you’re not exercising. Make sure that you’re consuming enough healthy fats such as coconut oil, olive oil, avocado, and grass fed butter. Fats can slow digestion, but this is something you don’t have to worry about on a non-workout day. On rest days there’s no need to stick to a schedule of when to eat. Wait until hunger strikes to consume your meals. Here’s a recipe suggestion for you: low carb pizza.

While it’s important to take in quality carbs, fats, and protein every day, here are the key differences for fueling for cardio vs strength training:

  • On a cardio day make sure to top up your carb stores, because having carbs beforehand fuels long endurance training and it also enhances shorter intensity training.
  • After cardio exercise wait 45-60 minutes before eating to maximize your fat burning window.
  • On a strength day top up on protein before training.(5) This can reduce markers of muscle damage, and the less damage that is done to your muscles, the faster you will recover. It also supplies your body with amino acids, which can boost your muscle building capabilities.
  • After strength training consume your food within 15-30 minutes so that your muscles can recover and rebuild right away.


Do I Need to Eat After Cardio Workouts?

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Whenever I finish a dance or yoga class, my friends begin talking about what they’re going to eat as soon as they leave the studio. For years, this was certainly part of my post-workout ritual, and I thought this was what was supposed to happen to help the body recover from the hard work it just went through. You sweat it out during a cardio session, you eat something right after, and you see big results, right? Not necessarily.

In comparison to a strength-training workout where the muscles are broken down and depleted of the carbohydrate glycogen, cardio burns calories by raising the heart rate. You might feel strong and energized after your indoor-cycling class or treadmill run, but if you only completed a 30- or 45-minute workout, there’s no rush to eat, since relatively speaking, the fuel you burned is low. According to LA-based dietician Shira Lenchewski, R.D., “There’s no hard-and-fast rule that says you need to refuel after a short cardio session with anything other than water.”

Keep in mind that the above rule doesn’t apply when it comes to a longer or more intense cardio session-the more intensely you move, the more energy you use, and, as a result, it becomes more important to refuel. When you’re training for a race and logging a lot of miles, do your best to eat 200 to 300 calories within 30 minutes of your workout. If you’re into kicking your butt with HIIT, intense sprints at the track, or kickboxing, nutritionists agree: you need to refuel and recover with a combination of protein and carbs. Clinical and holistic dietitian Esther Blum recommends a protein smoothie that includes a highly absorbable carb like banana or mango because it “shuts down your cortisol levels and stress hormones and raises your growth hormone levels to help you build muscle mass.”

Of course, if you’re hungry after your workout, listen to your body, but be smart about what you eat: a protein smoothie is very different from face-planting into a pizza. To help combat post-workout hunger after moderate workouts, women’s strength-training expert and author of Lift to Get Lean Holly Perkins recommends making sure you have a nutritious meal two to three hours prior to your workout, or enjoy a light pre-workout snack 30 to 60 minutes beforehand. When you fuel your body appropriately, you’ll be less tempted to grab the first thing staring you in the face when you walk out of the studio door!

  • By Lizzie Fuhr for POPSUGAR Fitness

Working out means working up an appetite. After a muscle-busting gym sesh or a fiery fitness class, you’re tired, you’re hungry, and you need some grub. But it’s not just your stomach that you’re feeding—your muscles need the right combo of nutrients from a healthy snack to really start recovering.

Most nutritionists recommend trying to eat as soon as 30 minutes after you finish sweating, and the balance of nutrients you need will vary with each different type of workout you do. With all workouts, carbohydrates and protein are essential, but when it comes to what you should eat after a cardio workout, you’ll typically need more carbs to help restore the energy you’ve lost. To figure out just how many carbs you should be eating, there’s one major question you’ll want to ask yourself: How intense was the workout? Edwina Clark, M.S., R.D., certified sports dietitian, and head of nutrition and wellness at Yummly, says this will help you figure out exactly what you need.

After a light cardio session:

“If you’re just doing light cross training, only a small snack and water are necessary,” says Clark. She explains that a light cardio session is typically one that is under 30 minutes. And you’ll need about 1 gram of protein for every 1 to 2 grams of carbs you eat. The carbs will get you some much needed energy, and the protein will help your muscles recover. Aim to get 10 to 15 grams of protein, 30 grams of carbohydrates, and 150 to 250 calories. And Nora Minno, R.D. and certified personal trainer, says to keep in mind that these guidelines will vary depending on both your body composition and fitness goals. The following snack options pack in just those nutrients.

  • Peanut butter toast
  • 5 ounces Greek yogurt
  • Apple and 2 tablespoons peanut butter
  • 5 to 10 crackers and string cheese
  • 1 ounce nuts and 1/4 cup dried fruit

After an intense cardio session:

Clark explains that “after longer, harder session, the ratio of carbohydrate to protein bumps up to 3-to-1, and sometimes even 4-to-1.” That means it’s time to beef up your snacks. The foods you choose should border on full meals, especially if you’re training for a race. She stresses that after a particularly intense session is not the time to dramatically cut calories. “Not getting enough carbohydrates post-workout can be a contributing factor to poor recovery, and subsequent poor performance,” she says. You’ll need about 15 to 30 grams of protein, 30 to 90 grams of carbohydrates, and 250 to 350 calories. And, again, Minno says this will vary depending on your bodyweight. Here are some larger snack options to get you that fuel.

  • 1/2 turkey wrap with veggies
  • Fruit smoothie made with Greek yogurt and milk
  • Hummus and tomato on pita bread
  • Reduced fat cheese and crackers with fresh fruit
  • Peanut butter and banana sandwich

Many of these snack options are easy to make ahead of time and store in your workout bag. Or, if you prefer to eat them fresh, they take mere moments to throw together.

Photo Credit: Kkolosov / Getty

Four years ago, Kara Goucher says, when hard workouts would leave her feeling trashed, she’d often feel spent for the rest of the day and often still fatigued a day later.

Then, her new coach, Alberto Salazar, recommended a post-workout tweak that revolutionized Goucher’s training: a recovery shake with protein.

The results were immediate. While she still felt some of the effects of hard 16-milers, she didn’t feel crushed after she had a post-workout shake.

“I just feel like when I get protein right away after a workout, recovery happens so much quicker,” says Goucher, the bronze medalist in the 10,000m at the 2007 world championships. “My body doesn’t feel as beat up. I really notice it the day after a training session. I still feel tired, but I don’t have that huge tightness in my body anymore.”

Science backs Goucher’s experience: Sports dietitians say protein helps speed muscle repair after hard workouts, leading to faster recovery. The key is taking the right amount at the right time, and not skimping on fluids and carbohydrates in the process.

“Of all the things I’ve done in 25 years of racing, eating something with carbs and protein within 30 minutes of training has been the most critical,” says registered dietitian Lisa Dorfman, director of sports nutrition and performance at the University of Miami and a former professional triathlete. “After a competition, I always have something with protein waiting for me.”

Protein repairs exercise-induced muscle damage, reduces the response from the stress hormone cortisol and even helps speed glycogen replacement, the goal of taking in carbohydrates, says Jackie Dikos, a registered dietitian and competitive runner who competed in the 2008 U. S. Olympic marathon trials.

Most dairy and meat products have high levels of protein. An egg has about seven grams. A small chicken breast has about 25 grams. There are also many drinks, mixes and bars chock full of protein. Odwalla’s Protein Monster drinks have 33 grams of soy protein per serving, while Pure Sport Recovery Drink has 18 grams per serving.

Dorfman recommends consuming between 10 to 20 grams of protein post-workout, but warns against overdoing it.

“Some shakes have 40 to 50 grams of protein, and I’m, like, ‘Whoa,'” Dorfman says. “You don’t need 50 grams of protein after a workout.”

Dietitians are careful to note that hydration is still king, followed closely by replenishing carbohydrates, with most studies suggesting a 3:1 or 4:1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio.

While most research suggests refueling within 30 minutes is optimal, many experts say sooner is even better.

“I really encourage athletes to do something within 15 minutes,” says registered dietitian Leslie Bonci, a runner and director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “The longer you wait, the longer it takes to recover. Plus, if you make it the first thing you do at the end of a workout, it guarantees it gets done.”

Some runners, including Goucher, find prepackaged drinks easiest to cart to a finish line or stash in a workout bag. Goucher says she sips Endurox R4 while driving home from workouts. But, Dikos says, you probably have plenty of protein sources in your own kitchen.

“This can absolutely be done with foods you have in your cabinet,” says Dikos, who recommends a bagel with peanut butter, a baked potato with cheese or pancakes with yogurt.

And what about the headlines chocolate milk has gotten about being an ideal recovery food?

“Milk is 90 percent water, so you’re rehydrating, and it’s got the so-called perfect ratio of carbs to protein,” says Suzanne Girard Eberle, a sports dietitian, former elite runner and the author of Endurance Sports Nutrition, who notes that planning to eat a full meal after a workout can help weight-conscious runners avoid blowing their calorie budgets on sports drinks.

Goucher was a skeptic at first, but now protein drinks are a staple of her post-workout diet.

“I didn’t really buy into it right away,” Goucher says. “But after about a year of living out here and training under Alberto, I realized how much it helped my body recover.”

How much postworkout protein?
Dietitian Jackie Dikos offers this rough formula: Divide your weight by two, and eat that many grams of carbohydrates, plus 10 to 20 grams of protein after a hard workout.

125 pounds 63 grams carbohydrates 15 grams protein
170 pounds 85 grams carbohydrates 21 grams protein


Nutritional information per serving size

While you don’t need a ton of protein for a cardio workout, it’s still important to get a small amount in. “Eating protein after your cardio workout is more helpful than eating it beforehand,” said Lori Zanini, RD, CDE. The registered dietitian behind the Tone It Up nutrition plan told POPSUGAR that her suggestion for pre-workout protein is to keep it minimal, but that a little bit will “give your muscles amino acids: substrate to build your muscles up.”

Before a cardio workout, it’s important to keep your intake pretty low (according to Lori, only one to two ounces, totaling about 7-14 grams protein) because protein takes longer to digest than carbs, which can lead to digestive distress during a workout.

She emphasized that post-workout protein is important, though — even if you’re not weight lifting or doing strength training. Ensuring you get enough protein “can reduce muscle damage during your workout, which means you recover faster,” and also “can help maintain and increase your muscle size,” thus boosting your metabolism.


“There’s a recovery window of 30-45 minutes after exercise where your body metabolizes nutrients more efficiently, due to elevated heart rate and blood pressure,” said Lori. “So your muscles can use protein more efficiently for repair and rebuilding.”

Lori suggested some of her favorite, protein-packed, post-cardio snacks:

  • Six ounces of Greek yogurt with one cup of raspberries: “The carbs in the raspberries will help replenish your muscle glycogen stores and enhance the transport of protein into cells, while the antioxidants can help repair your muscles post-workout. The Greek yogurt will provide 15-20 grams of protein to help stimulate muscle repair and growth.”
  • Two hard-boiled eggs and a whole wheat pita with 1 tablespoon hummus: “Eggs provide a source of high-quality protein for your muscles to use to start the healing and rebuilding process post-workout. A pita and hummus will give you easily digestible carbohydrates to refill the muscle fuel that you used during your workout. The carbs also stimulate insulin release, a growth hormone that helps your body better utilize protein to rebuild your muscles.”
  • One ounce of pistachios and one small apple: “Pistachios are a good source of plant protein and fiber, which can help promote a feeling of fullness. A one ounce serving (that’s about 49 nuts!) offers six grams of plant protein and 3 grams of fiber. This is one of the easiest post-workout snacks because it doesn’t require refrigeration, so you can keep in your gym bag or car.
  • Protein smoothie: “Eight ounces unsweetened almond milk, one banana, one tablespoon almond butter, and one scoop protein powder! This can be ready in minutes and is easy to take on the run. I love Tone It Up protein powder because it is organic, non-GMO, and plant based.”

Image Source: POPSUGAR Photography / Lexi Lambros

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Whenever I finish a dance or yoga class, my friends begin talking about what they’re going to eat as soon as they leave the studio. For years, this was certainly part of my post-workout ritual, and I thought this was what was supposed to happen to help the body recover from the hard work it just went through. You sweat it out during a cardio session, you eat something right after, and you see big results, right? Not necessarily.

In comparison to a strength-training workout where the muscles are broken down and depleted of the carbohydrate glycogen, cardio burns calories by raising the heart rate. You might feel strong and energized after your indoor-cycling class or treadmill run, but if you only completed a 30- or 45-minute workout, there’s no rush to eat, since, relatively speaking, the fuel you burned is low. According to LA-based dietician Shira Lenchewski, MS, RD, “There’s no hard-and-fast rule that says you need to refuel after a short cardio session with anything other than water.”

Keep in mind that the above rule doesn’t apply when it comes to a longer or more intense cardio session — the more intensely you move, the more energy you use, and as a result, it becomes more important to refuel. When you’re training for a race and logging a lot of miles, do your best to eat 200 to 300 calories within 30 minutes of your workout. If you’re into kicking your butt with HIIT, intense sprints at the track, or kickboxing, nutritionists agree: you need to refuel and recover with a combination of protein and carbs. Clinical and holistic dietitian Esther Blum recommends a protein smoothie that includes a highly absorbable carb like banana or mango because it “shuts down your cortisol levels and stress hormones and raises your growth hormone levels to help you build muscle mass.”


Of course, if you’re hungry after your workout, listen to your body, but be smart about what you eat: a protein smoothie is very different from face-planting into a pizza. To help combat post-workout hunger after moderate workouts, women’s strength-training expert and author of Lift to Get Lean Holly Perkins recommends making sure you have a nutritious meal two to three hours prior to your workout or enjoy a light pre-workout snack 30 to 60 minutes beforehand. When you fuel your body appropriately, you’ll be less tempted to grab the first thing staring you in the face when you walk out of the studio door!

Image Source: POPSUGAR Photography / THEM TOO

The Best and Worst Foods to Eat After Your Cardio Class

The Best and Worst Foods to Eat After Your Cardio ClasYou had a great workout and now you’re starving, time for a treat? Not so fast. If your treat has more sugar and fat than protein and carbs you may want to want to skip it. After exercise your muscles need fuel for recovery. The best kind of fuel helps your body build muscle, boosts metabolism and energy. Sadly, a double dip of your favorite ice cream or a chocolate bar won’t fill the bill.

Eat this

Choosing a good mix of protein and carbs after cardio helps your body make the most of your exercise. Think of the right post-workout fuel as a benefit extender. Working out is like earning an A and the best foods are like the extra credits that give you an A+.

For best results eat within 30 to 60 minutes after exercise. Easy take along snacks include:

  • Hummus with pita bread
  • Peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat bread
  • Greek yogurt with berries
  • Low fat chocolate milk
  • Protein shake with a banana

If you can get to it within an hour, dinner ideas include

  • Grilled chicken with sautéed vegetables
  • Whole Wheat pasta with lean meatballs
  • Whole wheat wrap with hummus and turkey
  • Grilled salmon with veggies and sweet potatoes
  • Black beans and brown rice

Don’t eat this

The danger of a good workout is the pass we sometimes think it gives us to overeat. Working up a sweat may make you feel you’ve earned that pasta alfredo or steak and loaded baked potato. Sure you can indulge your favorite cravings but do it in moderation so you don’t undo everything you did during your workout. Even some marathon runners fall into this trap while training. They run dozens of miles each week and are surprised to find that the scale is still creeping up. Exercise doesn’t necessarily mean you should eat more. It does mean you should try to eat better so your body is prepared for the demands of your activity.

Not so good choices include:

  • Standing at the sink scarfing cookie dough or a pan of brownies.
  • Most anything that is crunchy and comes in a bag – carrot sticks excepted
  • Super-sized anything
  • Foods with high fat and sugar content
  • Foods that are fried and sauced
  • Simple carbs, opt for brown rice or bulgur over white rice

The best food choices add to our health and promote feelings of well-being. They give us the energy and nutrients we need to perform at a higher level. Choose the worst foods only on occasion. After all, you wouldn’t put substandard gas or oil in a Lamborghini, would you? Your body deserves no less care.

Protein powder after cardio

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