After you finish running, using the elliptical, or attending an aerobics class, you might be feeling hungry and wondering what’s the best way to recharge.

For optimal muscle growth, it’s generally important to have a snack rich in protein right after a strength training workout. However, when it comes to cardio, the type you did, the duration, intensity, and your pre-exercise meal play a role in determining what you should eat afterwards.

While cardio can help build a bit of muscle, incorporating strength training is key for significant muscle gain. The main advantage of cardio is its calorie-burning effect, aiding in weight maintenance or loss when paired with a suitable diet. Following some nutritional guidelines can ensure you make the most of your post-workout meal.

When should you eat after doing cardio, and what should you eat based on your workout?

If your cardio session was under an hour at a low or moderate intensity, you likely didn’t use up all your muscle energy. The body stores energy as glycogen in the muscles, fueled by fat and sugar during aerobic exercise. If you haven’t eaten or done a longer or more intense cardio session, it’s important to eat within 45 to 60 minutes to replenish muscle glycogen, especially if you plan to exercise again soon.

Consider these recommendations from a study in the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition:

  • If you worked out on an empty stomach, have a mix of protein and carbs right after to support muscle growth.
  • If you haven’t eaten for 4-6 hours before a workout, a protein- and carb-rich meal immediately after can be beneficial.
  • If you ate 1-2 hours before exercising, that meal might be enough to promote muscle building post-workout, as the amino acids from your food stay in the bloodstream for up to two hours.

Now, let’s talk about what to eat after different cardio workouts.

For moderate cardio (like a 30- to 45-minute 5K run or Zumba class) that complements your strength training:

  • Focus on rehydrating by drinking at least 8 glasses of water, more if you weren’t properly hydrated before.
  • Consider coconut water instead of sugary sports drinks like Gatorade, which provide more sugar than needed for a shorter workout.

Handsome fit man preparing protein drink while standing at the kitchen

What’s the ideal post-workout meal after a HIIT cardio session?

HIIT workouts, such as sprints or cycling classes, involve short bursts of intense activity followed by brief rest periods. This type of cardio, known as anaerobic exercise, is highly demanding, burning more calories in a short time and triggering the afterburn effect, where your body continues to burn calories even after the workout.

Since HIIT raises your oxygen consumption, creating a greater post-workout deficit, what you eat matters more than after a steady-state cardio session. Besides hydrating with at least 8 ounces of water or coconut water, opt for a small meal combining protein and carbohydrates.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein in a post-HIIT meal for most people. Protein aids muscle recovery, while carbohydrates replenish muscle glycogen, restoring your energy levels.

Consider these meal examples:

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

What’s the ideal post-workout meal after a longer cardio session?

If you’re clocking in serious miles for a race or engaging in extended cardio sessions, it’s crucial to refuel thoughtfully.

After your workout, prioritize hydration by drinking water or opting for a sports drink like Gatorade with electrolytes to replenish fluids and sodium lost through sweat.

For your next meal, aim for a small combination of carbohydrates and protein with a 3:1 ratio. Good options include cereal with milk, a bagel paired with eggs, or a protein shake with added fruit.

Keep in mind that post-cardio nutrition depends on factors like workout intensity and duration. These suggestions are guidelines, not strict rules. Listen to your body, and if you’re hungry after any workout, choose a nutritious, well-balanced small meal to refuel and replenish.

What’s the ideal post-workout meal after a core strengthening session?

After a core strengthening session, it’s beneficial to have a post-workout meal that supports muscle recovery and replenishes energy. Here’s an ideal post-workout meal suggestion:

  1. Protein-Rich Option:
    • Grilled chicken breast
    • Tofu or tempeh for vegetarians/vegans
    • Greek yoghurt or cottage cheese
  2. Healthy Carbohydrates:
    • Quinoa or brown rice
    • Sweet potatoes or whole-grain bread
    • Fresh fruits like berries or apple
  3. Vegetables:
    • Broccoli, spinach, or kale
    • Bell peppers, tomatoes, or cucumbers
  4. Hydration:
    • Water or a sports drink to replenish fluids

Consider the timing of your meal. Eating within 30 minutes to an hour after your core workout can optimize muscle recovery. This combination of protein and carbohydrates helps repair and build muscles while replenishing glycogen stores. Adjust portion sizes based on your individual nutritional needs and goals.

What’s the ideal post-workout meal after a long cycling session?

After a long cycling session, your post-workout meal should focus on replenishing glycogen stores, repairing muscles, and rehydrating. Here’s an ideal suggestion for a post-cycling meal:

Kale salad with pomegranate and apple with pecans food photography

  1. Lean Protein Sources:
    • Grilled chicken breast
    • Salmon or tuna
    • Tofu or legumes for plant-based options
  2. Complex Carbohydrates:
    • Quinoa or brown rice
    • Sweet potatoes or whole-grain pasta
    • Oatmeal or whole-grain bread
  3. Vegetables:
    • Dark leafy greens (spinach, kale)
    • Broccoli, cauliflower, or asparagus
    • Bell peppers or tomatoes
  4. Fruits:
    • Berries (strawberries, blueberries)
    • Bananas or oranges for a quick energy boost
  5. Hydration:
    • Water with a pinch of salt to help replenish electrolytes
    • Coconut water is also a good natural electrolyte source
  6. Post-Workout Snack (Optional):
    • Greek yoghurt with honey and a handful of nuts
    • Protein smoothie with milk or a plant-based alternative, fruits, and protein powder

Timing is crucial. Aim to eat this meal within 30 minutes to an hour after your cycling session to optimize recovery. Adjust portion sizes based on your individual needs and dietary preferences.

Listening to your body and choosing nutrient-dense foods will support your recovery and enhance your overall performance.

Final Thought

Remember to stay well-hydrated by drinking enough water before and after your workout. Proper hydration creates the best internal conditions for your body to achieve optimal results.

While exercising, you lose water and electrolytes through sweat. Replacing them post-workout aids in recovery and boosts performance. If your next exercise session is within 12 hours, it’s crucial to replenish fluids, and depending on your workout intensity, consider water or an electrolyte drink.

After exercising, ensure you consume an appropriate amount of carbohydrates and protein. This combo sparks muscle protein synthesis, aids recovery, and boosts performance for your next workout.

Don’t wait too long after your workout to refuel with a meal or snack – a few hours is the limit.

To maximize the benefits of your workout, make sure to replenish lost water and electrolytes. This holistic approach completes the post-workout routine for optimal results.