What to Eat After Cardio to Rebuild Muscle

Medically reviewed by Peggy Pletcher, MS, RD, LD, CDE on July 13, 2016Written by Nicole Bowling

What to eat after cardio

You just finished a run, elliptical session, or aerobics class. You’re hungry and wonder: What’s the best way to refuel?

To maximize muscle growth, it’s usually important to consume a protein-filled snack immediately after a strength training workout. But what you should eat after a cardio session depends on what type of cardio you completed, how long and intense your session was, and what you ate before exercising.

While cardio can build a small amount of muscle, you’ll need to incorporate strength training to really see muscle gain. The real benefit of cardio exercise is that it burns calories, which can help you to maintain or lose weight, when combined with the right diet. There are some nutrition guidelines you can follow to make sure you’re getting the most out of your post-workout meal.

How soon should you eat after a cardio workout?

If you did less than an hour of cardio at a low or moderate intensity, you probably did not deplete all of your muscle’s energy stores. Energy is stored in the muscle as glycogen, a chain of sugar molecules. Your body uses fat and sugar to fuel aerobic exercise. If you haven’t eaten or have done a longer and/or more intense cardio workout, be sure to eat within 45 to 60 minutes to restore muscle glycogen. This is primarily important for those who will be exercising again soon.

Here are the current recommendations from a study published in the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition:

  • If you fasted before you trained, you should consume a combination of protein and carbohydrates shortly after your workout to promote muscle growth. If you haven’t eaten for four to six hours before a workout, you may also benefit from a protein- and carbohydrate-rich meal immediately after a workout.
  • If you ate one to two hours preworkout, that meal may be sufficient to promote muscle building even after exercise. This is because the muscle-building amino acids broken down from your food remain in the bloodstream for up to two hours after eating.

With this in mind, here’s what you should eat after different cardio workouts.

What to eat after moderate cardio

If you’re supplementing your strength training routine with a standard 30- to 45-minute moderate intensity cardio session (like a 5K run or Zumba class), you should focus on replenishing lost fluids afterward. Although your heart rate is elevated and you’re sweating, your caloric expenditure was still relatively low.

After this type of cardio workout, drink at least 8 ounces of water. Drink more if you weren’t properly hydrated before exercising.

You can substitute coconut water, but stay away from sports drinks like Gatorade that provide an unnecessary amount of sugar for a shorter workout.

What should you eat after a HIIT cardio workout?

HIIT workouts, like sprints or a cycling class, combine short bursts of all-out activity with short periods of rest. This type of cardio, called anaerobic exercise, is an intense workout. You’ll burn more calories for a given amount of time, and you’ll experience the afterburn effect, or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC).

EPOC is the amount of oxygen required to return the body to its resting state. HIIT sessions stimulate a higher EPOC because you consume more oxygen during them. This creates a larger deficit to replace post-workout. It means you’ll continue to burn calories even after your HIIT session is over.

The amount of effort your body exerts during and even after an HIIT workout is greater. So what you refuel with is more important than it is a steady state cardio session of the same length. On top of at least 8 ounces of water or coconut water, choose a small meal with a combination of protein and carbohydrates.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a carbohydrate/protein ratio of 3:1 in a post-workout meal is appropriate for most people.

Protein will help rebuild muscles, while carbohydrates will replace muscle glycogen stores. This will replenish your energy.

Examples of these types of meals include:

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

What should you eat after a longer cardio session?

If you’re training for a race and putting in some serious cardio miles, those hours of exercise require thoughtful refueling, too.

After your workout, drink plenty of water or choose a sports drink with electrolytes, like Gatorade. These drinks help replace fluids and sodium lost through sweat.

Next, choose a small meal with a carbohydrate/protein ratio of 3:1. Some examples include cereal and milk, a bagel with eggs, or a protein shake with added fruit.

Next steps

What you should eat after cardio depends on several factors, including the intensity and duration of your session. The most important factor is to listen to your body. The above recommendations are not steadfast rules, but guidelines to follow.

If you’re hungry after any workout, choose a nutritious, well-balanced small meal to refuel and replenish your body. 

Nicole Bowling
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