As someone who dreaded the biannual mile runs of my childhood like a mutant form of the bubonic plague (anyone else?!), I'm as shocked as anyone that I've recently become a bit obsessed with running. But then again, I'm a firm believer that with different phases of our life come different cravings from our body movement-wise. For instance, almost all throughout college, my ultimate fitness reprieve was hot yoga. Then, as I transitioned into my first career and moved across the country from Minnesota to California, barre and Pilates felt supremely cathartic. However, as my professional life continued to evolve in tandem with an increase in responsibilities, stress, and excess adrenaline (I've always struggled a bit from anxiety and nervousness), a couple of months ago I randomly found myself in want of some serious cardio. (Truly, no one was more taken aback by this than me.)
Since I've never loved long-distance running, and cycling classes and boxing have never felt that great to me either, I finally got up my nerve and decided to try out an interval running class at my amazing gym, Equinox. Even though the class is about an hour long, you're never running for super-long lengths of time. After my first class, I was addicted. The bursts of running soothed my soul, and I finally understood the meaning behind runner's high. But then came a conundrum. Since my exercising had always been on the more low-impact side of the pendulum and less cardio-focused, I wasn't sure how to properly nourish myself after my running workouts.
So I reached out to some of the top experts in the business for their recommendations: What should I eat? When should I eat? And what should I avoid post-run? Luckily, both experts—Mark Sisson, founder of Primal Kitchen, American fitness author, food blogger, and a former distance runner, triathlete, and Ironman competitor; and Astrid Swan, a Los Angeles–based personal trainer, fitness model, and athlete—had all the intel I'd been craving. Curious to know what to eat after running? Keep scrolling.
Step 1: Prioritize Protein
While bearing in mind that both carbohydrates and a healthy ratio of fat are always important (to any healthy diet), both Swan and Sisson agree that refueling with high-quality sources of protein after running will be the most important when it comes to your recovery.
"After a run, the macronutrients carbohydrates, protein, and fat provide energy and aid in muscle recovery," says Swan. "However, protein is the most important as it provides the building blocks for muscle mass." To maximize muscle growth and development, she recommends consuming roughly 20 to 30 grams of high-quality lean protein after training and every four hours or so while you are awake.
That said, as Sisson explained to me, there's no need to go overboard with how much you consume after working out, and, truth be told, many of us overdo it. "After running, it’s not necessary to obsessively refuel, as we have been told for decades by flawed and dated conventional wisdom," he warns. Sisson says that first and foremost, runners should pay attention to maintaining a clean, nutrient-dense diet since processed sugar (especially after a workout) may lead to increased inflammation in addition to compromised recovery. A salad (with a little protein) is his preferred meal of choice post-run.
Step 2: Put Together a Shopping List
Since protein in general (plus some strategic sources of healthy carbohydrates and fats) will be most important, it's time to get your pantry and fridge in tip-top shape if you're looking to up your nutrition game post-run. Swan and Sisson's specific food recommendations go as follows.
For those who eat meat and animal products, Sisson recommends getting the majority if your protein needs through foods like eggs, fish, and lean cuts of meat like grilled chicken breast. Turkey and even yogurt (Greek varieties are higher in protein!) can also be great options. If you're vegan or vegetarian, you can reach for plant-based sources of protein like beans, tempeh, tofu, nuts, and seeds.
"Healthy fats should also be part of an athlete's diet," says Swan. Nut butters like almond or peanut can be good options as they are also relatively high in protein and even healthy oils (like olive and avocado) or a high-quality mayo can be a strategic way to supplement your protein-focused meal after running.
"A green salad with an assortment of chopped vegetables, fresh fruit, and some type of protein, would be my first choice," shares Sisson. "A healthy avocado oil– or olive oil–based salad dressing—my personal favorites are the Honey Mustard ($8) and Ranch ($8) flavors from Primal Kitchen—delivers nutritious natural fats that are very important, especially for female runners who can run into hormone balance concerns if their running goals are super ambitious."
For variety, Sission also likes veggie-rich omelets topped with sliced avocado or a burrito-inspired bowl composed of cauliflower rice, bell peppers, onions sautéed in avocado oil, sliced grilled chicken or steak, homemade pico de gallo, lime juice, cilantro leaves, and a generous dollop of Primal Kitchen's Chipotle Lime Mayo ($10). (Trust us, it's addicting AF.)
"My nutrition partner and registered dietitian Kim Denkhaus, MS, RDN, and I always hear, 'I just burned a ton of calories; I can eat whatever I want,'" shares Swan. "I am all about balance in life, and she too will agree, that there is room in a healthy diet to have cookies, cupcakes, a margarita, etc. However, nourishing your body with whole foods post-workout is key to recovery and long-term sustainable health." She suggests choosing high-quality carbohydrates such as whole grains, starchy vegetables, fruit, and yogurt.
Step 3: Know What Foods to Avoid
As mentioned by Swan, there will always be a place for treats and indulgences even within a "healthy" or "clean-eating" lifestyle (I used quotes because both terms can mean so many different things for so many different people). That said, if optimal recovery is truly your goal, you'll want to refuel with the above food fares while avoiding sugars and anything that's overly processed.
"Processed sugar, especially sweetened beverages, is one of the worst things to eat after running because it has inflammatory properties and produces free radicals," Sisson explains. "Consuming these types of sweetened beverages right at the time the body is trying to recover from the stress of exercise is anything but ideal. Runners who wake up the next morning with sore muscles, tight ankles, and lingering fatigue will notice great improvements in their post-run next-day conditions if they simply revise their eating patterns and stay away from sugary foods after exercise in particular."