If you are training for performance or want to change body composition, recovery nutrition can be as important as your training. Recovery nutrition is the concept of eating certain foods within a specific time frame after exercise. This nutrient timing interacts with your body’s post-exercise hormonal response and cellular signaling to help you recover faster. This article will guide you through recovery nutrition, including what to eat after a run to support different goals.
An Overview of Recovery Nutrition
Why does recovery nutrition matter? Recovery nutrition times certain macronutrient consumption after exercise to enhance recovery and improve exercise performance. Carbohydrates replenish glycogen stores that were used during the training session. Replenishing your glycogen stores helps you feel ready for your next training session and will aid in reducing the risk of overtraining or injury from low energy availability. Protein will aid in muscle repair since endurance training breaks down muscle fibers, and it will prevent further catabolism (breaking down of muscles for energy).
Exercise alters hormonal levels, including that of insulin (a storage hormone), growth hormone, and IG-F. Due to this hormonal response, your body is primed to store glycogen in the muscles and repair damaged muscle protein in the 30-60 minutes post-exercise. That is why you want to eat carbohydrates and protein after a run.
The higher and harder your overall training load, the more this recovery window matters. However, this window isn’t the only one; you will also want to eat enough carbs and protein to support your training load throughout the rest of the day.
The advice in this article focuses on recovery nutrition when performance, muscle building, or body composition changes are the goal. If you are running casually (30-45 min a few times per week), you may not need to worry about recovery nutrition so long as you are eating enough.
Your recovery nutrition goals are to eat, within 30-60 min:
- 1-1.2 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight
- 20-30 grams of protein (some athletes may need up to 40 grams)
- 12-24 oz of fluid
The Best Food to Eat After a Run
What is the best food to eat after a run? Whatever sounds appetizing, so long as it allows you to consume adequate amounts of carbohydrates and protein.
Many runners experience post-exercise appetite suppression. This lack of hunger – or even aversion to food – after long or intense runs presents an obstacle to recovery nutrition. However, even if you do not want to eat, you still should try to eat to encourage glycogen resynthesis and muscle protein synthesis.
You would think that hard exercise makes you ravenous – so why sometimes do you have no appetite after a long run or hard workouts? At >70% of your VO2max – moderate and harder intensities and longer durations (>60 minutes), exercise alters the secretion of certain hormones and gut peptides that regulate appetite. The hormonal effects include suppressed ghrelin (appetite-stimulating hormone) and increased peptide YY (hunger-suppressing hormone). A 2022 study published in Nature concluded that N-lactoyl-phenlalanine (Lac-Phe), which is a metabolite produced from lactate and the amino acid alanine, also suppresses appetite after exercise.
Since your appetite may be suppressed, the best thing to eat after a run is whatever sounds good. Some runners prefer to drink protein shakes or make a fruit and yogurt smoothie, since it’s easier to drink than eat solids. You may find a go-to meal that always sits well after a run, such as a bagel and egg sandwich. In this scenario, it’s better to eat whatever sounds good than to wait hours to eat because you think you should only eat certain foods.
Additional Post Run Food Tips
The carbohydrate and protein recommendations above are based on performance goals. Recovery nutrition for performance prioritizes being recovered enough for the next workout. When you want to be ready to run the next day, carbohydrates are the priority for glycogen replenishment. However, the best thing to eat after a run may be different if your goals are different.
What to Eat After a Run to Build Muscle
Many runners will shift their focus to muscle-building during certain times of year. Winter (or summer in climates like the American South) is a common time for running less and spending more time lifting weights indoors. While most runners do not want to bulk like a bodybuilder, a season devoted to building muscle can be protective against age-related fitness declines and injury.
Running itself does not build muscle – if you want to build muscle, you need to strength train. If you are spending more time lifting weights, you will want to adjust your post-exercise meal – whether that meal comes post-run or post-lift. Protein becomes a greater priority when you want to build muscle mass. Ideally, you want to eat 20-40 grams of protein within an hour of completing your workout.
The mechanical tension and calcium ion release during a lifting workout stimulate certain cellular signaling pathways. These pathways, such as the mTOR pathway, govern muscle protein synthesis. Your body is primed to use protein to build muscle. By eating protein after a workout, you then give your body the building blocks it needs during this primed state.
You still do need carbohydrates for building muscle also. However, if you are not eating a meal immediately, it’s best to reach for a protein shake or protein-rich snack first.
Related: Do Runners Need Protein Powder?
What to Eat After a Run to Lose Weight
If you have a weight loss or body recomposition goal, you still need to priortize recovery nutrition. Skipping a post-run meal won’t save calories. Instead, it will leave you ravenous and more likely to over-indulge later.
The Athlete’s Plate from the University of Colorado – Colorado Springs provides a helpful framework for thinking about meals when aiming for weight loss as an athlete. The plate includes carbohydrates, but less than in intense training, and a large amount of fruits and vegetables. Protein intake is higher to support weight loss. While fat is present, it is lower than when an athlete wants to increase their calorie intake.
If your goal is weight loss, then you want to prioritize 20 to 40 grams of protein after your run. The exact amount within this range is based on age, weight, and overall caloric intake. Protein is favorable for weight loss, as it maintains muscle mass, supports a higher metabolic rate, keeps you fuller for longer, and has a higher thermic effect. A higher thermic effect means that you burn more energy during digestion.
You still do need carbohydrates if your goal is weight loss. The exact carbohydrate intake will be scaled on your activity level. If you are training to lose weight with a higher training load, your carb intake will be different than if you have a lower training load.
What to Eat for Recovery and Adaptation
The best post-run meal for you should support your training goals. When deciding what to eat after a run, consider carbohydrates, protein, and the overall calorie intake. Fats can be scaled up to help meet total energy needs, after carbs are accounted for.
If your goal is performance, you want to ensure you eat enough total calories, as well as getting your carbohydrates and protein. As noted above, carbohydrates should be 1.0-1.2 grams per kilogram of bodyweight – 60 to 100 grams of carbs for most runners. Low carbohydrate and low energy intake contribute to the risk of overtraining. You may have poor sleep, frequent soreness, or increased risk of injury due to the endocrine system pertubations that come from low energy availability.
Post-run meals can include oatmeal with nuts and fruit, a sandwich with egg or turkey and avocado, or a grain bowl with veggies and a healthy fat. Read here for more ideas on what to eat after a run.
Other Ways to Fuel Smart and Improve Run Times
Recovery nutrition is not just about your post run meal. If you want to optimize recovery and adaptation, think of recovery nutrition as an ongoing process. How you fuel your runs, what you eat all day long, and how you hydrate will impact your recovery.
Recovery Nutrition Starts Mid-Run
A 2023 study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise demonstrated that intra-run fueling contributes to recovery. In this study, athletes who consumed carbohydrates during a higher intensity workout had better next-day performances. Additionally, their biomarkers indicated less protein degradation, which means less breakdown of the muscles. Less muscle breakdown leads to quicker recovery after runs.
Related: How to Fuel During Long Runs
Recovery Nutrition is a Day-Long Process
Your recovery nutrition does not end after your first post-run meal. What you eat after running all day long will impact your glycogen storage and muscle protein synthesis. If you skip meals or undereat, you will not recover well – and will increase your risk of low energy availability.
A realistic goal is to eat every 3-4 hours, with a combination of carbs, protein, and fat to match your nutrition goals. During high training loads, if you want to build muscle, or if you are in a caloric deficit for weight loss, you want to proiritze 20-40 grams of protein every 3-4 hours. Runners with high training loads, such as in marathon training, will need ample carbohydrates throughout the day to ensure they fully replenish glycogen.
During a run, you lose fluid through sweat. If you do not replace this lost fluid, you are at risk for dehydration. A fluid deficit from one run can accumulate into the next exercise session, which will then impair performance. Some runners may experience fatigue or headaches if they do not rehydrate after runs.
If you need to rapidly replace fluids (if you finished dehydrated), you want to aim for 125-150% of what you lost. For example, if you lost 1 liter of sweat, you want to drink 1.25-1.5 L of fluid. Sodium is important in this scenario, as it encourages rapid rehydration.
Even if you did not finish your run dehydration, rehydration is still a priority. Electrolytes such as sodium will aid in restoring fluid balance. Aim to have 12-24 oz (based on sweat loss and exercise duration) after a run.
A dose of caffeine (such as a cup of coffee) can enhance glycogen resynthesis after exercise. Caffeine aids in enzymatic activity for glycogen synthase, which promotes glycogen storage. Caffeine will not replace carbohydrates, since it cannot be stored as glycogen. However, adding caffeine will help if you need to quickly replenish glycogen. This approach may be most helpful if you are doing two workouts per day. Do not use caffeine in your recovery nutrition if it’s within 5-6 hours of bedtime, as it may interfere with sleep.
Have a Snack First, Then a Meal
If it is difficult to eat within 60 minutes of exercise, start with a small snack. For example, if you drove to run, you may need something portable to eat in the car. You may opt for a simple protein shake and piece of fruit, or a protein bar. If you take this approach, you still want to eat a full meal within the next 1-2 hours.