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Supporting your activity with nutritious foods is essential for performance, recovery, and results. Protein, fats, and carbohydrates are the three macronutrients that play crucial roles. But carbohydrates are especially important; they’re your body’s primary fuel source, providing the energy to power through your training, replenishing lost energy stores and boosting muscle repair.
Why carbohydrates matter when you’re working out
Your carbohydrate needs depend on the type, intensity, and duration of your training, body size and composition, and personal goals. Some carbs are high in fiber and nutrients that support long-term energy and balance blood sugar. Others are faster absorbing and give your body a quick boost of glycogen, which supports muscle growth and repair.
What’s glycogen? It’s made from glucose molecules bound together in long chains, and it’s the stored form of glucose in the body, reserved in your muscles and liver. When you exercise, your body uses up your glycogen stores to provide quick fuel to power your activity. Muscle glycogen is used chiefly by your muscles to produce force while you lift weights, run, bike, or perform other actions. Liver glycogen is used throughout your body as needed and powers your brain and spinal cord.
Replenishing your glycogen stores with carbohydrates boosts muscle protein synthesis, vital for muscle growth. When you eat carbs, your insulin levels will spike, which is a good thing after a strenuous workout. Insulin acts like a delivery worker, transporting nutrients into your cells—that means your carbs will reduce muscle soreness and inflammation from training, allowing you to get back in the gym and perform again.
The best carbs to eat after a workout
Once you’ve hit the gym or worked up a sweat, your body is especially primed to accept nutrients that will go to work repairing tissues. While this “window” may be open for up to 48 hours, the first 2 hours after your training are particularly optimal for packing in your post-workout carbs for the best results.
Here are the best carbs to choose for all of your post-workout needs.
Both whole and refined grain bread products are smart post-workout carb options. Breads are high on the glycemic index, which measures how quickly your blood glucose levels will spike after eating certain foods. Foods with a GI score under 55 are low GI, while foods higher than 70 are considered high GI.
While many people, especially those with diabetes or who are sedentary, may do best eating low GI foods, choosing ones higher on the list will provide that shot of glucose that helps initiate muscle protein synthesis and tissue repair.
Whole grain options, while lower GI, provide essential nutrients that can boost recovery, such as manganese, selenium, calcium, and thiamine.
2. Pancakes and waffles
Pancakes and waffles make excellent tasty post-workout meals. These flour-based breakfast favorites will increase your blood sugar and are conduits for other healthy foods such as fruit, protein powder, and yogurt.
A post-workout protein pancake made with wheat or oat flour and topped with fresh fruit is a delicious nutrient-dense way to support muscle growth and tissue repair. You can make your own or use a healthy pancake mix. If you’re gluten-free, try making cassava flour waffles.
3. Rice cakes
Rice cakes are a popular food for bodybuilders because they’re low-calorie, carbohydrate-dense foods that come in many flavors and can be paired with other foods for a tasty post-workout snack. They range from about 60 to 90 on the glycemic index. Top them with fresh fruit, jam, honey, or Greek yogurt.
Crackers such as stoned wheat thins and rye crispbread are tasty snack-sized post-workout carbs that can help replenish your glycogen stores. Adding high-protein foods as toppings will boost muscle protein synthesis, with insulin helping to shuttle the protein into your muscle cells.
Breakfast cereal is often thought of as sugar-laden and devoid of nutrients, but it can be a part of a healthy diet. Cereal is affordable and nutritious, especially since it’s fortified with many essential nutrients like folate and iron.
Skip the trendy high protein and fiber cereals since getting these nutrients from whole foods is a more affordable and practical option, and instead, stick to tried and true whole grain cereals for your post-workout carbs. Try puffed wheat, shredded wheat, and brown puffed rice cereal.
6. Cream of wheat
Cream of wheat is a high-GI food made from finely processed farina wheat. It contains a bevy of vital nutrients to support recovery after a workout, including iron and several B vitamins. Top your cream of wheat with milk, such as filtered high protein varieties and fresh fruit for even more post-workout support.
Versatile, comforting, and easy to prepare, oatmeal is one of the best carb-based breakfast foods enjoyed post-workout. It’s packed with vitamins and minerals like iron, magnesium, zinc, manganese, and selenium while high in fiber and protein.
Try adding fruit, maple syrup, honey, nuts, and greek yogurt to your oatmeal for a nutrient-dense post-workout treat. Need some inspiration? Try these recipes:
Rice is a popular grain for a good reason. It’s a staple food worldwide, providing carbs, fiber, and nutrients like iron, thiamin, and manganese. White rice is a high GI food at 70, while brown rice has more fiber and nutrients than white and is only slightly lower on the glycemic index at 68.
Both white and brown rice contain magnesium, an essential nutrient for supporting muscles, nerves, and bones. Magnesium helps boost muscle relaxation post-workout and is an electrolyte lost in sweat during intense or prolonged exercise, making it important to replenish post-workout.
Plus, rice is endlessly versatile. Try making one of these 17 recipes that start with a bag of rice.
Millet is a grain that’s less commonly consumed than rice, but it’s worth adding to your post-workout meal. It’s a high GI gluten-free grain that’s relatively high in protein, adding to its appeal as an after-training food. Like rice, it contains magnesium and manganese – and millet pairs well with seafood, in salads, and as a base for grain bowls.
Pasta or noodles made from wheat, rice, corn, cassava, or other grains is fantastic to have on hand for a post-workout meal. Adding protein and veggies to pasta or noodle-based dishes is easy with endless options and flavor combinations.
Dig into one of our favorite clean pasta recipes after your next workout.
11. Ripe bananas
Ripe bananas provide a quick source of easily digested carbs after your workout, along with essential vitamins and minerals to support electrolyte balance and muscle repair. These include potassium and magnesium.
Unlike green or barely ripe bananas, the ripe or overripe fruit’s sugar content is faster to absorb and get to work replenishing your glycogen stores.
Packed with vitamins A and C and potassium, cantaloupe is a hydrating and refreshing fruit perfect after a workout. It’s high on the glycemic index at around 65 to 70. Try it paired with savory ingredients like zucchini and ham or in a smoothie with mint.
Watermelon is another delicious water-packed melon that packs a nutrient punch with lycopene, vitamin C, and vitamin A. This summertime favorite is high GI at 76, with half of the sugar coming from fructose, one-quarter glucose, and less than one quarter from sucrose.
Super flavorful mango is so versatile as a post-workout carb. You can eat it out of hand, in a smoothie, tossed into a chicken salad, made into ice pops, or as a sweet element in a curry. Packed with carbohydrates, vitamins A, E, and C, it also helps to reduce inflammation that can cause muscle soreness after a strenuous workout.
Fluffy, comforting white and sweet potatoes are perfect post-workout carbs. They’re starchy and nutrient-dense with more potassium than bananas, vitamin B6, and magnesium and can be eaten any time of day. Research shows that potatoes are as good as energy gels at supporting energy levels for your workouts. Exercise scientists agree that potatoes are a solid choice as a whole food carb source for a post-workout meal.
This sweet root vegetable is an all-around star for supporting your training. Beets have been studied for their ability to support endurance workouts by increasing cardiorespiratory performance. As a post-workout carb, beets are high in natural sugars and inflammation-fighting phytonutrients. Research shows beets can help aid muscle recovery and reduce pain after intense exercise like sprinting.
How to choose the best carbs for you
The number one way to choose a post-workout carb? Decide what you like best! Enjoying your food helps you build healthy habits and stick to them.
If you usually don’t eat a lot of natural sugars, after a workout is a fantastic time to add those into your diet. They will boost your recovery and can increase muscle if that’s your goal.
Starches and fiber are also essential components of carbs that support gut health and keep you feeling satisfied with your meals. If you’ve had a very strenuous or prolonged training session or your goal is to build muscle, choosing high glycemic carbs to eat post-workout is wise. Be sure to include high fiber, slow-digesting carbs for the rest of your meals to improve heart health and digestion, balance weight, and boost meal satiety.
Featured recipe: Sweet Potato Pancakes