Recover stronger: The best post-game foods for athletes and when to eat them

You just played the game of your life. After working out and training for weeks and weeks, you left it all on the field, exhausting every ounce of your energy to try and win the game.

But your work doesn’t stop there.

Post-game recovery and nutrition can be just as important as your pre-game preparation, especially if you want to have the energy to get back out on the field again. Your body needs the right nutrients to power you through the next practice, next game, next drill, or your next workout.

“Recovery nutrition is probably the topic athletes ask me about most,” says Ryan Turner, R.D., C.S.S.D., C.D.N., a sports dietitian at New York University and Top Balance Nutrition in New York City. “I see many athletes working out and doing a great disservice to themselves by not optimizing their nutrition after they play and after they train.”

So what should you eat and drink after the big game—and when?

“Your muscles are like a sponge once a workout or game is finished,” Turner says. “They’re ready to soak up carbohydrates to refuel your body and protein to repair your lean muscle. Rehydrating is just as important as eating, so water needs to be part of anyone’s recovery plan too.”

Here is a guide to some of the best food and drink options for athletes after the big game to help recovery and the best times to consume them.

Right After the Game

“Eating within 30-60 minutes after your workout or game will support optimal recovery,” Turner says. “If you’re eating a meal within this time, there isn’t a need for any powder, pill, bars or shakes. One of my best recommendations is Mexican food. Eating a burrito or burrito bowl provides complex carbs to refuel your muscles and protein to rebuild your muscles. But I recommend minimizing the higher-fat add-ons like guacamole, sour cream, and cheese—high-fat foods will slow the recovery process.”

Meal Options

Burrito or Burrito Bowl: Made with rice, beans, vegetables, and protein—Turner recommends chicken breast, sirloin, or tofu.

Sandwich: Made with a protein (chicken breast, sirloin, or tofu) and lettuce/tomato.

Best Post–Workout Snack Options

If you don’t have the time to get a meal after the game because of a long commute or other obligations, don’t worry, there are other options too. “You can always reach for a snack that contains carbohydrates and protein,” Turner says. “These are easy options—there’s no excuse to miss your recovery foods.”

– Pretzel chips with hummus
– Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich
– Dried edamame with a piece of fruit
– Low-fat greek yogurt with honey
– Tuna with saltines
– Chocolate milk

Alternate Post-Workout Snack Options

When there are those times when real food or a substantial snack is not practical, here are more options Turner recommends for a quick and easy recovery:

– Whey protein shake with a banana
– Clif Builder’s Bar
– RxBar

For Hydration Right After the Game

“To round out the recovery for right after the game, you need to be rehydrating with water,” Turner says. “Everyone’s amount for optimal re-hydration varies, but generally, 16 oz for every pound lost is ideal for athletes. It’s possible to lose 2-3 pounds of sweat during intense games and practice sessions. Try weighing yourself once before and once after to figure out your sweat rate. There is a place for sports drinks at this time with intense exercise over 60 minutes—they are formulated for optimal hydration. With that said, your foods will provide electrolytes like sodium and potassium.”

1.5–2 Hours After the Game

“At this point, if you were able to get a meal in earlier, then it’s time for a snack,” Turner says. “But if you were only able to work in a snack, it’s time for your meal. Opt for a carbohydrate-rich dish with a quality protein source for help your recovery move along smoothly.”

Best Meal Options for 1.5–2 Hours After the Game

– Grain bowl with salmon
– Chicken burrito (hold the sour cream and cheese)
– Salmon and tuna sushi rolls (easy on the spicy mayo) with edamame
– Turkey burger with a side bean salad
– Prepared salad with double protein and a liberal addition of beans and corn (choose an olive oil based dressing)

“If it helps, visualize an ‘athlete’s plate’ of 1/2 whole grain starch, 1/4 lean protein, 1/4 vegetable and fruit,” Turner says.

Pro Tip: “At this point you should have had the water necessary to be rehydrated,” Turner says. “If you’ve lost three pounds of sweat during the workout, 1.5 liters of water (16 oz per pound) can be challenging. Just take rehydration slow and time it out and that should normalize your body.”’

3–4 Hours After the Game and Meals Later On

“Eating every 3-4 hours is a good practice for anyone to optimize metabolism, maintain energy, and control food cravings,” Turner says. “For an active person, for an athlete, this is necessary. At this point you’ve worked hard to refuel your body with carbohydrates—it will be important to keep it as a component of your meals but doesn’t need to be the largest focus. At this point in the day, you should keep thinking about the ‘athlete’s plate’ for food with half vegetables or fruit, a quarter of lean protein, and a quarter of whole grain starch.”

Best Meal Options for 3–4 Hours After the Game

– Stir fry with fresh vegetable and slices of sirloin over brown rice (Note: One to two cups of rice respective of body size will be ideal)
– Red or green Thai curry with jasmine rice (Note: To-go rice containers hold about two cups – if you’re a smaller athlete, keep to half the amount. Larger athletes can opt for the full offering.)
– Chicken fajitas with whole wheat tortillas
– Turkey chili topped with avocado and low-fat greek yogurt.


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