Did you know that what you eat after a workout or a game is just as important as what you eat before? In this blog post, I will explain why recovery nutrition is essential for athletes and what are the best recovery foods for athletes.
Read on to learn more about how nutrition is a key part of the recovery process to help you to be ready for your next game or workout.
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Why recovery foods for athletes matters
When you exercise, your muscles use up your energy stores, or gylcogen, which is the stored form of carbohydrate in your body.
Glycogen is the main fuel source for your muscles during high-intensity activities, such as sprinting, jumping,or lifting weights. When your glycogen stores are emptied, your performance and energy levels will suffer.
To replenish your glycogen muscle stores, you need to eat carbohydrates after your workout. Carbohydrates are the building blocks of glycogen, and carbs are found in foods like bread, pasta, rice, fruits and vegetables.
But carbohydrates are not enough. You also need to eat protein after your workout. Protein is the building block of muscle tissue, and it helps repair the damage that occurs to your muscles during exercise.
In addition to muscle repair, protein also helps with muscle growth, building new muscle tissue, which can improve your strength and power.
To optimize your recovery, you need to consume a combination of carbohydrates and protein within 30-90 minutes of finishing your exercise. This helps your muscles absorb the nutrients faster and more efficiently.
The ratio of carbohydrates to protein depends on the type and intensity of your exercise, but a general guideline is to aim for 3-4 grams of carbohydrates for every 1 gram of protein.
The best recovery foods for athletes
So what are some examples of recovery foods for athletes? We’ve put together our top recommendations for recovery foods. These include foods with carbohydrates, protein, healthy fats, anti-inflammatory and chock full of vitamins and minerals.
Here are some of the best recovery food options that you can combine for a recovery meal or snack:
Tuna is a great source of protein, as well as omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B6 and B12. Omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties, which can help reduce muscle soreness and speed up recovery.
Vitamin B6 and B12 are involved in energy metabolism and red blood cell production, which can improve oxygen delivery to your muscles.
You can eat tuna fresh or canned, and pair it with some carbohydrates like whole grain crackers or bread. Tuna is an easy to pack snack because you can buy vacuum sealed packages to stash in your gear bag.
Bananas are a good source of carbohydrates and fiber, as well as potassium and magnesium. Potassium and magnesium are electrolytes that help regulate fluid balance and muscle contraction in your body.
When you sweat, you lose electrolytes along with water, so it is important to replace them after exercise.
However, the main electrolyte lost through sweat is sodium, so you’ll also want to make sure to choose a recovery drink, like a sports drink, or salty snacks with sodium to help fully replace your electrolytes lost.
Bananas are also easy to digest and convenient to carry around. You can eat them plain, blend them in a smoothie or with some peanut butter for some extra protein.
Greek yogurt is a good source of protein, as well as calcium and probiotics. Calcium is essential for bone health and muscle function, while probiotics are beneficial bacteria that support your digestive and immune health.
Greek yogurt also has a creamy texture and a tangy flavor that can satisfy your taste buds after a game.
Enjoy yogurt plain, blended into a smoothie or with some honey, berries and granola for some extra carbohydrates.
Spinach is packed with iron, which helps transport oxygen in your blood for better recovery.
It also contains vitamins A and K, acting as antioxidants to protect your cells from exercise-related stress, and its high water content can help you re-hydrate.
Add spinach to your salads, sandwiches, soups or smoothies for a nutritional boost.
Oranges are high in vitamin C and water. Vitamin C is an antioxidant that boosts your immune system and helps synthesize collagen, which is a protein that forms connective tissue in your body.
Collagen is important for wound healing and injury prevention. Water helps replenish the fluid that you lose through sweat and urine after exercise.
Oranges also have a sweet and refreshing taste that can quench your thirst. Combine an orange with a string cheese to create a mini after game snack.
They also provide carbohydrates and fiber, which can help replenish your glycogen stores and support your digestive health.
Eat berries fresh or frozen, or add them to your yogurt, oatmeal or smoothies.
Tart cherries have been shown to reduce muscle soreness and improve recovery after strenuous exercise. (1)
They contain anthocyanins, which are phytochemicals that have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.
Tart cherry juice is a favorite recovery drink for athletes.
Additionally, you can find tart cherry concentrate, which is easy to pack in your gear bag. Or add dried tart cherries to a yogurt parfait, blend tart cherry juice into your smoothie, or take a tart cherry supplement such as these capsules.
Salmon is an excellent source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, which can help repair and build muscle tissue, as well as reduce inflammation and improve blood flow.
Salmon is also a good source of vitamin D, which is important for bone health and immune function. Grill, bake, or poach salmon. You may also find salmon in sealed packets that are ready to eat and portable options.
Nuts are a good source of healthy fats, protein and fiber. They also provide magnesium, which is a mineral that helps regulate muscle contraction and relaxation, as well as prevent cramps.
Nuts also contain antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds that can help protect your cells from damage.
Make a trail mix with raw or roasted nuts and dried fruit, or enjoy nut butter spread on whole wheat bread or crackers. You can also add nut butter to a post game smoothie to boost the healthy fat and protein.
Eggs are a complete protein source, meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids that your body cannot make on its own.
They also provide choline, which is a nutrient that supports brain function and nerve transmission.
Eggs are versatile and easy to prepare, and you can eat them scrambled, hard boiled, poached or fried.
Milk is a natural recovery drink that contains both carbohydrates and whey protein in an optimal ratio for muscle recovery.
Milk also provides calcium, which is essential for bone health and muscle function, as well as other vitamins and minerals that support your overall health.
Quinoa is a gluten-free grain that is high in protein and carbohydrates. It also contains all nine essential amino acids, making it a rare plant-based complete protein source.
Quinoa also provides iron, which is important for oxygen transport in your blood, as well as other minerals and antioxidants that support your health.
You can cook quinoa like rice, or use it to make salads, soups, hot cereal or heat up a ready to eat quinoa packet.
Avocado is a fruit that is high in healthy monounsaturated fats, which can help lower cholesterol levels and improve heart health.
It also provides potassium, which is an electrolyte that helps regulate fluid balance and blood pressure.
In addition, avocado contains fiber, vitamin E, and other nutrients that benefit your health.
You can eat avocado plain, added to salads, sandwiches or burrito bowls. In addition you can smashed into guacamole to dip crackers or spread on toast.
Sweet potato is a starchy vegetable that is high in carbohydrates and beta-carotene, an antioxidant that is made into vitamin A. Vitamin A is important for vision, skin health, and immune function.
Sweet potato also provides vitamin C, potassium, and other nutrients that support your health.
Bake, roast, mash or stuff sweet potatoes to add as a carbohydrate rich side to your performance plate.
Cottage cheese is a dairy product that is high in protein and low in fat. It also contains casein, which is a slow-digesting protein that can provide a sustained release of amino acids to your muscles overnight and makes a great late night snack for athletes.
Cottage cheese also provides calcium and other minerals that support your bone health and muscle function.
Create an after game snack with cottage cheese topped with fruit, honey or granola.
Beets are root vegetables that are high in nitrates, which are compounds that can increase nitric oxide production in your body.
Nitric oxide improves blood flow to your muscles and organs. Beets also provide carbohydrates, fiber, vitamin C and other nutrients that support your health.
Blend beets into your smoothies or roast them and enjoy on top of salads or as a crunchy side with your meal.
Chicken is a lean meat that is high in protein and low in fat. It also provides B vitamins, which are involved in energy metabolism and nerve function.
Chicken also contains zinc, which is important for wound healing and immune function. You can grill, bake, or roast chicken, or use it to make soups, salads, burrito bowls or sandwiches.
Oatmeal is a whole grain cereal that is high in carbohydrates and fiber. It also contains beta-glucan, which is a type of soluble fiber that can lower cholesterol levels and keep blood sugar steady. (2)
Oatmeal also provides iron, magnesium and other minerals that support your health.
You can also add fruits, nuts, seeds, or honey to your oatmeal for more flavor and nutrients.
With so many shelf stable options, you can drink chocolate milk on the go and enjoy it right at the field or gym after your activity.
Hummus, made from chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and spices, is a good source of plant-based protein and healthy fats. It also provides fiber, iron, folate and other nutrients that support your health.
Hummus has a creamy texture and a savory flavor that can satisfy your appetite after playing a game or practicing. Pair hummus with whole-wheat pita bread, crackers or fresh vegetables for a crunch and savory post game recovery snack.
Peanut butter is a spread made from roasted peanuts and salt. It is a good source of protein and healthy fats.
It also provides fiber, vitamin E, niacin, and other nutrients that support your health. Peanut butter has a smooth or crunchy texture and a nutty flavor that satisfies crunchy and salty cravings.
Spread peanut butter on whole wheat bread, banana, apple or celery and top with dried tart cherries.
How to plan your post-workout recovery meals and snacks
Now that you know what are the best recovery foods for athletes, how do you plan your post-workout meals and snacks? Here are some tips to help you:
Prepare your recovery foods in advance or pack them in your gym bag or backpack so that you have them ready when you finish your workout or game.
Depending on the time of day and your schedule, you may not be able to eat a full meal within an hour of your workout. In that case, you can have a snack that contains carbohydrates and protein, and then eat a balanced meal later.
You don’t have to stick to the same recovery foods every time. You can mix and match different foods and flavors to suit your preferences and availability.
For example, you can make a smoothie with high protein milk, yogurt, banana, spinach and peanut butter or a wrap with whole grain tortilla, tuna, lettuce, tomato and cheese.
Listen to your body and eat according to your hunger and satiety cues. Don’t overeat or undereat after your workout. Aim for a moderate portion size that fills you up but doesn’t make you feel stuffed or bloated.
Recovery nutrition is an important part of your athletic performance and health.
By eating the best recovery foods for athletes at the right time post workout, you can replenish your energy stores, repair your muscle tissue, prevent injuries, and prepare for your next training session or game.
Remember to choose recovery foods that are rich in carbohydrates and protein, as well as vitamins, minerals and fluids.
Some of the best recovery foods for athletes are tuna, bananas, Greek yogurt, spinach, and oranges.
Plan your post-workout meals and snacks ahead of time, be flexible and creative with your food choices, and be mindful of your hunger and satiety levels. By following these tips, you can optimize your recovery and achieve your athletic goals.
Steph Magill, MS, RD, CD, FAND has over 22 years of experience in public health and nutrition. As a performance registered dietitian nutritionist, Stephanie specializes in sports nutrition and provides simple and actionable information so that athletes can be well fueled for high performance on and off the field. Stephanie has a Master’s Degree in Nutrition and is a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.