What you eat after a long, hard run has a big impact on how well you recover and how hard you can run the next day.
“Eating well after endurance exercise is important for a few reasons,” says Tommy Rodgers, a North Carolina–based registered dietitian and coach. The first, he says, is to replenish your glycogen stores. “Your body can store only a finite amount—and it’s minimal compared with fat stores.” This means that if you want to train hard two days in a row, you need to make sure to replace what you lost. The other reason is to minimize muscle breakdown. “Tough workouts that deplete glycogen and force the muscles to contract repeatedly can cause muscle teardown,” says Rodgers. Making sure your body has both carbohydrates and protein after a hard effort can minimize that damage and help you begin the rebuilding process.
How much you need to eat and the timing of your post-run nosh are a little more complicated. For easy workouts, a small snack or whatever meal you’d normally eat in the hour afterward is fine. “If it is a very intense or draining workout, then more attention needs to be paid to recovery,” says Pip Taylor, a pro triathlete and registered dietitian. Still, she advises athletes not to go too nuts with counting grams. “I think it is very easy to get too caught up in prescribing numbers rather than worrying about quality of food,” she says. “As long as you get something to eat that has some protein, some carbs, and some fats and is of good nutritional value, then don’t sweat the numbers.”
Here are 10 great options that will help your body prepare for tomorrow’s effort.
Last Night’s Leftovers
Taylor is the mom of two young kids, so making any sort of meal after a workout is often a nonstarter. Instead, she makes extra food for dinner and stashes it for the following day. Chicken with roasted sweet potatoes is a favorite, but she says anything works that has the recommended mix of protein, carbs, and fat.
Avocado on Toast
Elyse Kopecky, a chef, nutritionist, and former NCAA runner, often mashes an avocado onto whole-grain bread post-workout. “Add a little sea salt to replace the sodium and other minerals lost,” she says, adding that avocados are rich in potassium, which we shed while sweating. Plus, eight studies have found that the monounsaturated fats in avocados can help boost overall cardiovascular health. For an extra hit of protein, top your open-faced sandwich with a fried egg.
Cottage Cheese with Fruit
Marni Sumbal, a South Carolina–based coach and board-certified sports dietitian, often tells her athletes to break their recovery meals into two phases: a quick after-ride snack and a larger meal. You get something in your system right away, but you don’t have to power through a pot roast after 18 long, hot miles. One of her favorites is cottage cheese with fruit. It has good-quality whey protein and calcium, plus carbohydrates from the fresh fruit. Even if you’re counting calories, don’t you dare reach for fat-free cottage cheese. Not only is that a sin against all things delicious, but there’s also a growing body of evidence showing that consuming whole-milk dairy products doesn’t actually correlate to wider waistlines. Sumbal suggests eating 2 to 4 percent dairy-fat cottage cheese.
Egg and Veggie Scramble
There’s no need to eat just egg whites anymore. “The yolks are where all the nutrition is. It’s the best part,” says Kopecky, adding that it’s where you’ll find the majority of the vitamins, including vitamins A, D, E, and K. Since those are all fat-soluble vitamins, eating them in conjunction with the fat in the yolk is ideal. She likes to scramble two to three eggs with fresh veggies like kale and mushrooms and finish the whole thing off with Parmesan cheese.
Sardines or Salmon with Roasted Sweet Potatoes
Not only are these two fish great sources of protein, but they’re also rich in omega-3s, which research has shown can reduce heart rate and rate of perceived exertion during exercise. Researchers at the University of Aberdeen also found that athletes who consumed fish oil within three hours of completing a hard workout had better immune function. Since extreme endurance exercise can make us more vulnerable to colds, adding a meal rich in fish oil, like sardines or salmon, may be one way to stave off post-race sniffles. Sweet potatoes, meanwhile, provide vitamin A and plenty of complex carbohydrates.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with protein shakes. Sure, whole foods are all the rage, and for good reason, but throwing a scoop of protein powder into a cup and jetting off to work? That’s certainly better than not eating anything because you don’t have time. Sumbal says whey is the best way to go. “It has high biological value, so it’s digested well and has a lot of protein per calorie.” One note of caution: watch the added sugars in flavored protein drinks.
We have nothing against lettuce, but sometimes—like after a run—you need something a bit heartier. For Kopecky, that’s a grain salad. She usually makes hers with faro, wild rice, or quinoa, all high in minerals and fiber and contain some protein. Toss the grains with some sort of cheese and hearty greens like kale, which will retain integrity even after a few days in the fridge. Kopecky and Olympic marathoner Shalane Flanagan, her co-author on the forthcoming cookbook Run Fast, Eat Slow, both load up their grain salads with plenty of olive oil–based vinaigrette. “We both consume tons of olive oil for its anti-inflammatory properties,” says Kopecky.
Tart Cherry Juice
This juice alone won’t satisfy your caloric requirements, but it’s worth adding a splash to your next recovery smoothie. Several studies have shown that the dark red beverage can reduce exercise-induced muscle damage and perhaps even help boost runners’ immune systems. In the grocery store, make sure it’s a no-sugar-added tart (not sweet) cherry juice that you’re putting into your cart.
A staple in Rodgers’ post-workout recipe arsenal is throwing precooked brown rice into a skillet with a few eggs, some soy sauce, a few sesame seeds, and chopped veggies to make quick and nutritious fried rice. The soy sauce gives you a big dose of sodium, while the veggies and rice supply dietary fiber and carbs. The eggs bring protein to the table. If you have any leftover lean meat from last night’s dinner, throw that in too.
When done right, pizza can be a recovery food. Ideally you should opt for a whole-wheat crust and load it up with as many veggies as you can. Avoid highly processed meat toppings—they’re high in all the wrong kinds of fats and often contain nitrates, which have been linked to an increased risk of certain cancers.