Nutrient timing is a concept in sports nutrition that focuses on supporting training adaptations by timing certain macronutrients around exercise. The deliberate timing of certain foods – carbohydrates and protein – after a run can promote better recovery. As a result of better recovery, you can continue to stack consistent, productive training sessions. This article examines what to eat after a run to recover well and support your training.
What are the Goals of Post-Run Recovery Nutrition?
The decision of what to eat after a run is based on two nutritional goals: glycogen resynthesis and muscle protein synthesis. These two processes allow your muscles to recover from a run. To support those goals, you want to eat carbohydrates and protein after a run.
Beyond those primary recovery goals, a post-run meal offers practical benefits. You will have more energy and feel less sore based on what you eat after a run.
A simple approach for most runners: aim for 50-90 grams of carbohydrates, 20-30 grams of protein, and 16-24 ounces of fluid within 30 minutes to 2 hours after a run.
The Importance of Carbohydrates After a Run
The most important thing to eat after a run? Carbohydrates. During a run, your body uses carbohydrates to produce energy. Even easy runs, which rely also on fatty acid oxidation, will use carbohydrates. Runs lasting longer than one hour and hard workouts will have even higher carbohydrate demands. Muscle glycogen is used to supply carbohydrates, particularly on long runs and hard workouts. Thus, the goal of post-run nutrition becomes glycogen resynthesis.
After a run, your body is primed to store more muscle glycogen. Your insulin and glycogen synthase (an enzyme for glycogen storage) increase in response to decreased muscle glycogen stores. Your body is more sensitive to insulin and thus has increased glucose uptake in the muscles for one to two hours after a run. Beyond two hours after the run, you are still synthesizing glycogen – just at a slower rate.
During intense training, such as training for a marathon, ultra, or half marathon, you want to take advantage of the rapid glycogen resynthesis window. This one- to two-hour window after exercise will allow you to replenish glycogen. As a result, you will recover faster and be prepared for your next training session. (As a bonus, many runners experience less daily fatigue after runs as a result of post-run recovery nutrition!)
How Many Carbohydrates Should I Eat After a Run?
The consensus across the scientific literature is 1.0-1.2 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per hour, repeated every two hours for up to four to six hours after exercise (if a long run or high-intensity session). For a 145-lb (65 kg) runner, that is 65 to 78 grams of carbohydrate as a goal (in your post-run meal, then repeated every couple hours) after a demanding training session. (This carbohydrate intake is part of the total daily goal, which is approximately 5-7 g carb/kg bodyweight for a moderate-volume runner and 8-10 grams/kg for a high-volume runner). Even 0.8 g carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight (per hour) can aid in glycogen resynthesis, especially if coupled with protein. For the 65-kg runner, that is 52 grams of carbohydrates per hour.
To apply all that practically: aim for 0.8-1.2 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight in your post-run meal, within one hour after the run. The longer and more intense the run, the higher within this range you should aim.
If you work out twice per day (such as double runs or a run plus strength), glycogen resynthesis is a high priority. You want to ensure you eat within an hour after your run so that you can begin to replenish glycogen before the next run. High-glycemic carbohydrates (low in fiber) are resynthesized more rapidly; reach for simple carbohydrates to support resynthesis when the recovery window is short.
Do I Need Protein After a Run?
Protein alone will not support glycogen resynthesis. However, the addition of protein to carbohydrates promotes both muscle protein synthesis and glycogen resynthesis.
Running involves a series of eccentric muscle contractions. Eccentric contractions break down the muscles. In order to fully recover from a run, you need to repair those microtears in the muscles. The only effective nutritional intervention for muscle repair (muscle protein synthesis) is to ingest protein – and enough of it. Endurance athletes have higher protein needs than recreationally active people, as discussed in a 2016 PLoS One clinical trial.
Muscle protein synthesis is not just about recovery on a cellular level – it will actually help you feel better after hard training sessions. Protein intake after a run can reduce muscle soreness, as outlined in an ISSN position stand on protein.
While anabolic windows for muscle protein synthesis occur over 24-hour spans, adding protein to a post-run meal is beneficial. The combination of carbohydrates and protein improves glycogen synthesis compared to carbohydrates alone. This approach is particularly effective if you struggle to eat a large portion of carbohydrates after a run. A combination of 0.8 g carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight and 0.2-.0.4 grams of protein per kilogram is well supported by a large body of scientific evidence. A 65-kg runner would aim for a minimum of 52 grams of carbohydrates plus 13 to 26 grams of protein. You can add more protein and carbohydrates! Athletes over 40 or plant-based athletes may have higher protein needs after exercise, up to 30-40 grams.
What Else Can I Add to a Recovery Meal?
Hydration is equally important as carbohydrates and protein after a run! You lose fluid to sweat during a run; rehydration afterward aids in recovery by replenishing those fluid losses. Your fluid needs will vary based on sweat loss that occurs. As a baseline, aim for 16-24 ounces of fluid after a run. If sweat loss was high, you will want to drink more. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends 125% to 150% fluid intake compared to sweat loss; if you lost 16 ounces (one pound) in sweat, you will want to rehydrate with 20-24 ounces of fluids. Unless medically contraindicated, sodium (whether through sports drinks or in addition to food) is part of a post-run rehydration strategy.
Caffeine may aid in glycogen resynthesis via an increase in glycogen synthase activity, particularly if overall carbohydrate intake is inadequate. The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends 3-8 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight in conjunction with carbohydrates, particularly if you are training again later in the day. However, you cannot use coffee to substitute for adequate carbohydrate intake. The strategy of supplementation with caffeine is not recommended if caffeine’s effects could interfere with sleep.
Fats and vegetables are vital nutritional components for runners – and thus can be included in what to eat after a run. However, these should not be the majority of the meal. Large portions of vegetables can be very filling and could lead an athlete to eating fewer carbohydrates or even overall calories than needed.
Skip the alcohol until you have had your full recovery meal! Despite the popularity of beer after a run, alcohol can inhibit glycogen resynthesis and rehydration. Wait until you have consumed some carbohydrates and fluids before indulging.
Do I Need to Eat After a Run If I’m Not Hungry?
Yes! Appetite suppression is common after prolonged and/or intense endurance training. Aerobic exercise suppresses ghrelin, which is a hormone that stimulates hunger, while also increasing peptide YY levels, which suppress hunger. Dehydration and sodium loss can compound these effects. A lack of hunger does not negate your recovery needs.
If you completed a short run (<45 min) and are eating a meal within 1-2 hours, you do not need to worry about eating if appetite is poor. However, for runs over 60 minutes and any higher-intensity runs, you want to eat even if appetite cues are not present.
For runners who really struggle with post-run eating, liquid calories can be beneficial. A sports drink, smoothie, or recovery shake all offer the nutrients needed – and help meet your rehydration needs. If you go this route, just be mindful to then consume a well-rounded meal within another couple of hours.
Sample Meals to Eat After a Run
Any combination of carbohydrates and protein (plus a bit of fat and vegetables) will create an effective and satiating post-run meal. There is no perfect post-run meal. Pick combinations that you enjoy eating!
- Egg sandwich on bagel or bread
- Greek yogurt with cereal and fruit
- Oatmeal and fruit, with a side of protein (yogurt, egg, or protein powder)
- A rice bowl with protein such as chicken or beans
- A smoothie with fruit and protein powder
- Pasta with ground meat and tomato sauce
- Sports drink and a protein bar (works well if on-the-go)
- Protein shake with milk (followed by a meal later)
Importantly, remember that glycogen resynthesis and muscle protein synthesis are processes that occur over 24-hours. Think beyond your post-run meal and focus on nutrition throughout the day that supports recovery and performance.
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Disclaimer: I have completed my coursework for a Master of Science in Applied Exercise Science – Sport Nutrition and am graduating soon. However, this is generalized advice; please consult a registered dietitian or other qualified professional for individualized advice.