How to support your recovery from a workout

This article was written by specialist dietitian – Elle Kelly

The right nutrition can help fuel our workouts so that we can perform well, but it can also enhance recovery too. This article will break down how nutrition can support your recovery from your workout and provide you with some inspiration so that you can get the most out of your sessions.

Exercise is a stress on the body, especially if it is intense, so it is important to support recovery through nutrition and hydration. How well you recover from a session can play a crucial role in how you perform in subsequent sessions, and this applies to both recreational gym goers and athletes.

There are 4 ‘R’s’ to recovery; repair, replenishment, rehydration and renourishment.

Repair with protein

Our body is in a constant state of muscle protein breakdown and repair, but the rate of this increases after exercise (1,2). Protein is the one macronutrient that we cannot store in the body (3,4), which emphasises the importance of protein post-workout!

In order to optimise muscle repair and growth (i.e. muscle protein synthesis); studies suggest that around 20-40g of protein is required after a workout (3). The quantity of protein consumed is not only important for recovery, but also the quality, as specific amino acids play important roles in muscle growth and recovery.

For example, 3-4g of leucine is required to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. This is usually easily obtained through animal protein sources, such as whey protein, milk, yogurt, and chicken.

For individuals who don’t eat animal products, leucine can be trickier to obtain in the right dosage post-workout, but not impossible! This is because plant proteins that contain leucine, usually have lower levels of it than animal protein sources.

Soy based foods and some legumes have higher quantities of leucine than other plant proteins, and so including foods like tofu, tempeh, soy protein isolate or black beans in your post-workout meal can provide 3-4g of leucine in certain quantities.

Replenish with carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the predominant fuel provider throughout most high intensity exercise (5), and we store carbohydrates as glycogen in our muscles and liver. When glycogen stores are at full capacity, they can normally provide us with energy for up to 24 hours, however, the rate at which we use glycogen is higher when exercising.

During exercise, glycogen stores become depleted, and the degree of this will depend on the intensity of the sport. The body’s ability to recreate glycogen is at its peak during the initial few hours following exercise, but this can continue over a longer period.

The more depleted the glycogen stores are, the longer it takes to replenish; it’s also important to remember that certain activities that involve the forced lengthening of active muscle like heavy weight training or hard running, can cause muscle fibre damage, which can delay glycogen replenishment as long as a week (6).

It is important to prioritise carbohydrates in post-workout meals. During the first two hours following a session, glycogen replenishment occurs about 150% more quickly that the normal rate (7), and after 4 hours, returns to its normal rate.

Rehydrate with fluid and electrolytes

Depending on how much we sweat, there is a loss of both fluid and electrolytes during training, and it is important to rehydrate after to prevent electrolyte imbalances.

Hydration is important before and during exercise too, and after a workout, you can replace water and sodium by drinking a comfortable amount of water plus having food, or having a sports drink, which will normally provide sodium. It is not recommended to drink a large amount of fluid straight away, as this can increase the risk of hyponatraemia, where sodium levels drop,  due to increased urination (6).

Renourish with micronutrients

Exercise can cause increased levels of oxidative stress, which produces free radicals, and can cause inflammation which can contribute to impaired muscle repair and thus, performance. Antioxidants are molecules found in fruit and vegetables and can help to protect against free radical damage by neutralising free radicals (8).

Vitamins A, C and E, are all antioxidants, and these can be found mostly in plant foods like fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, as well as in dairy and eggs. You can get all the antioxidants you need through a balanced and varied diet, and it is not recommended to take antioxidant supplements, as these can interfere with muscle repair and growth (9).

Post-workout meals Post-workout snacks
Tuna salad sandwich   Flavoured milk and a cereal bar
Chicken or bean burrito with rice    Cereal and a protein shake
Jacket potato with baked beans and cheese Greek yogurt and muesli
Pasta with chicken and tomato sauce Smoothie with oats, berries, orange juice and yogurt or protein powder
Porridge with a banana and Greek yogurt Tuna with crackers or rice cakes
3 bean chilli with rice  
Tofu noodle stir fry with vegetables  


  1. Gleeson, M., Nieman, D. C., & Pedersen, B. K. (2004). Exercise, nutrition and immune function. J Sports 22: 115–125.
  2. Rodriguez, N. R., Di Marco, N. M., & Langley, S. (2009). American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Nutrition and athletic performance. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 41(3), 709-731.
  3. Poortmans, J. R., Carpentier, A., Pereira-Lancha, L. O., & Lancha Jr, A. (2012). Protein turnover, amino acid requirements and recommendations for athletes and active populations. Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research, 45, 875-890.
  4. Kerksick, C. M., Arent, S., Schoenfeld, B. J., Stout, J. R., Campbell, B., Wilborn, C. D., … & Antonio, J. (2017). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. Journal of the international society of sports nutrition, 14(1), 33.
  5. Noakes, T. D. (2000). Physiological models to understand exercise fatigue and the adaptations that predict or enhance athletic performance. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports: Review Article, 10(3), 123-145.
  6. Anita Bean. (2017). The Complete Guide to Sports Nutrition. (8th edition). Bloomsbury.
  7. Ivy, J. L. (2004). Regulation of muscle glycogen repletion, muscle protein synthesis and repair following exercise. Journal of sports science & medicine, 3(3), 131.
  8. Morrison, D., Hughes, J., Della Gatta, P. A., Mason, S., Lamon, S., Russell, A. P., & Wadley, G. D. (2015). Vitamin C and E supplementation prevents some of the cellular adaptations to endurance-training in humans. Free radical biology & medicine, 89, 852–862.
  9. Ranchordas, M. K., Rogerson, D., Soltani, H., & Costello, J. T. (2017). Antioxidants for preventing and reducing muscle soreness after exercise. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews, 12(12), CD009789.

How to support your recovery from a workout was last modified: October 11th, 2022 by Elle Kelly

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