After planning and executing a workout—whether it be a complicated HIIT set or a long yoga flow—sometimes the extra effort of planning how to re-load an empty tank seems more complicated than it really is.
You may have heard that choosing the best post-workout snack has to do with its mix of macronutrients. But there’s been some confusion about exactly how to calibrate your macros—especially carbs. You may have heard some discouragement regarding post-workout carb consumption, but scientific research and expert opinion support eating carbohydrates to boost recovery after exercise.
In short, eating carbs after a workout is a good idea. Read on to discover how, when, and why you should reach for them.
Do You Need Carbs After a Workout?
If you’ve performed a light workout like a quick walk or lunch break stretching session, you probably don’t need to refuel with carbohydrates afterward. But if your exercise has been more vigorous, it has likely used up your stores of glycogen—the body’s preferred energy source for high-intensity activity.
When glycogen has been depleted in the muscles, it leads to a breakdown of muscle tissue. To help the body recover and rebuild, eating carbohydrates is a must. “Carbohydrates post-workout help the body release insulin, which in turn restores the glycogen stores that were just used during your training session,” says dietitian and personal trainer Anthony DiMarino, RD, CPT, of Eat Move Improve.
Carbs do this job even better when paired with protein. Proteins and carbs work together synergistically to increase the body’s rate of glycogen storage.1
Benefits of Post-Workout Carbs
Carbs are a critical macronutrient for exercise recovery. Here are four reasons to feel good about diving into a bowl of pasta or a plate of potatoes after an intense workout.
Carbs Help Prevent Post-Workout Fatigue
Since the body prefers to use glycogen for energy during heavy activity, when you’ve exhausted your stores, you may feel like you’re running on fumes. Adding carbohydrates back into your system can help you bounce back faster with less fatigue.
Research also shows that eating carbohydrates after exercise results in greater endurance capacity in subsequent workouts.2 A high-carb snack today might mean better performance tomorrow.
Carbs Help Blood Sugar Control
Most forms of exercise cause your blood sugar to dip.3 To get your glucose back in the black, don’t hesitate to grab a carbohydrate-rich snack. This can prevent unpleasant hypoglycemic symptoms such as shakiness, headache, brain fog, and rapid heart rate.
Carbs Promote Muscle Recovery
You may think of protein as the only macronutrient that builds muscle, but carbohydrates have their own supporting role to play in muscle growth. Carbs help amino acids (the building blocks of protein) to get to muscles more quickly, promoting faster recovery and growth. They also help increase protein synthesis and decrease protein breakdown.4
Carbs Help Reduce Cortisol
Cortisol—often referred to as “the stress hormone”—increases in response to low blood sugar.5 When you refill your carbohydrate stores to keep your blood sugar steady, it could have the ripple effect of bringing down cortisol levels.
Carbs to Reach for After a Workout
Now that you know carbs are A-ok after your cool-down, you may wonder: are all carbs created equal when it comes to post-workout noshing? Not exactly. “Complex carbs would be best as they would be readily stored as glycogen,” says DiMarino. Foods with complex carbohydrates are those higher in fiber, such as whole grains, vegetables, beans, and potatoes.
That said, your digestive system may sometimes have trouble with high-fiber foods right after strenuous exercise. “Simple carbohydrates may be tolerated better post-workout,” DiMarino says. “It’s important to test different combinations while training to determine the foods that work best for you.”
As for the best amount of carbs to consume, DiMarino offers the following guidelines: “Usually 15-45 grams of carbohydrate after a workout (with higher carbs after harder sessions) would be reasonable. A ratio of 3-4 carbohydrates per protein has been shown to be beneficial. This combination allows your body to recover by restoring glycogen stores consumed and repair muscles damaged during exercise sessions.”
How to Time Eating Carbs After a Workout
To reap the benefits of carbs after working out, it’s important to consume them within a certain window of time. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends snagging carbs within an hour of completing an intense workout. Just pay attention to your own tolerance for eating immediately post-exercise; some individuals may prefer to eat full meals while other bodies feel best with a snack and then a meal a little longer after your workout.
The Bottom Line
Eating carbs (in combination with protein) after a workout is a healthy choice that promotes recovery, repairs and rebuilds muscle, and replenishes glycogen stores.
If you’re looking to optimize your post-workout meals and snacks, meeting with a registered dietitian who specializes in sports nutrition could also be very helpful. These professionals are trained in the finer points of macronutrient-based meal planning for each type of physical activity, from strength training to endurance sports.