What to Eat After Cardio

What to Eat After Cardio


February 16, 2022

Cardio exercise is hated by many because it simply doesn’t result in the same aesthetic and strength gains that resistance exercise does.

That’s valid, but what if I told you that the only reason you’re not gaining muscle, toning your body, or seeing favorable results afterward is because you’re not getting the right nutrition?

Nutrition plays a major part in how your body responds to exercise. When you perform cardio exercises (and it depends on the intensity, which we’ll get into), your body utilizes energy stores in your muscle called glycogen.

Glycogen is a chain of sugar, and your body is going to use it when you exercise, whether it’s strength training or cardio.

The important thing is to replenish this glycogen so you don’t end up taking fuel away from your muscles, because the next time you exercise, it can take away muscle as fuel, which will undo gains and make you look deflated.

The number one reason people hate cardio is that they think it kills gains (it doesn’t; it actually aids them).

Cardio isn’t evil. We’ve established that. Now we need to get into the nitty-gritty of your diet and what you should be eating post-cardio to retain muscle growth, replenish glycogen without overindulging in calories, and become the most efficient athlete you can be.

As a little bonus, correcting this nutrition problem may actually help reduce the levels of fatigue you feel after a workout as well.

How Soon After Cardio Should You Eat?

How Soon After Cardio Should You Eat?

Let’s say that you didn’t eat anything for at least two hours leading up to your cardio exercise. That means your body is going to look for fuel, so you need to supply it after the workout.

If you have eaten within about two hours prior to your workout, you may actually be fine. The amino acids in your food will still be in your bloodstream and may be used.

This changes depending on the person and that individual’s metabolic rate, so for the sake of consistency and reducing variables, you’ll want to eat after a cardio workout instead of before.

If you’ve just performed moderate or intense cardio, you’ll want to eat within 45-60 minutes after your workout.

This gives you time to either drive home from the track or make it to a lunch spot after you shower off at the gym, so the timing is actually very convenient.

What to Eat After Cardio

Protein and the dreaded carbohydrates that everyone demonizes. That’s right: carbs are actually supposed to be consumed in excess after a workout.

It depends on the intensity, but in order to restore the glycogen deposits to your muscles that we talked about earlier, you need to convert carbohydrates to glycogen.

You should have a 3:1 ratio for carbs and protein, but it does change depending on how intense your workout was.

Moderate Cardio

Moderate Cardio

Moderate cardio doesn’t require as many carbs. This is usually about 20-30 minutes of walking, light jogging, or a 30% speed or lowers on your treadmill.

Moderate cardio is usually steady-state cardio, which means you’re moving less and not sweating quite as much.

For moderate cardio, you should enjoy a 2:1 carb to protein ratio. These are a few ideas of what you can consume post-workout:

  • Tuna Salad Sandwich: Use mayo lightly, but the protein from tuna and the carbs from the bread you’ll be eating it on work beautifully together. Try to incorporate a vegetable like celery or cucumber in your sandwich.
  • Peanut Butter Oatmeal: Oatmeal incorporates a heavy amount of carbohydrates with an adequate amount of protein, hence why adding the peanut butter will help out. This also helps restore glycogen through the bit of sugar peanut butter has.
  • Vegetable Stir Fry Over Brown Rice: Brown rice has carbs, but it’s also whole grain, which will greatly help you after exercise. Use a bit of oil or soy sauce to stir fry up your veggies, which will have a bit of carbohydrates included in them. Add chicken or fish to your stir fry for protein, or two sunny side up eggs to the top of the dish.

Vigorous Cardio

Vigorous Cardio

Cardio tends to be vigorous around the 45-60 minute mark. Cycling, running, jogging, aerobic exercise, and anything else that really gets your heart pumping without you staying in place the whole time.

For moderate cardio, it’s time to bump up to that 3:1 carb to protein ratio we were talking about earlier. These are a few ideas of what you can consume post-workout:

  • Black Bean Burgers: Beans are good for your heart, meat is good for protein, and the fluffy buns will help boost those carbs. Be sure to have something on the side with this, such as some healthy homemade fries with a few cracks of salt on top to boost those electrolytes.
  • Baked Fruit Oatmeal: Oatmeal has that great carb to protein ratio we need, but to boost other nutrients that you definitely need during exercise, bake oatmeal and top it with banana slices, peach slices, or blueberries just before it’s done. You caramelize those fruits (which tastes amazing), and most baked oatmeal recipes require eggs in the mix, so you get great protein from that.
  • Turkey and Avocado Wraps: Hey, don’t know it ‘til you try it. Thinly sliced turkey with some mashed avocado lining the inside the wrap as a spread (and a bit of cheese) makes an excellent mini-meal when you use a multigrain wrap.

HIIT Cardio

HIIT Cardio

High-intensity interval training, better known as HIIT cardio is a form of exercise that takes place in short bursts with intervals of rest in between.

This creates an oxygen deficit in the body, which your body tries to recover, and leads you to burn calories even after you’re done exercising.

It’s pretty interesting stuff, and because it varies in intensity, you should custom tailor your diet depending on it.

However, most HIIT sessions are 30-60 minutes and are akin to or greater than vigorous exercise. These are a few ideas to refuel with:

  • Chicken and Rice with Avocado Salsa: Avocado salsa is something that doesn’t get enough recognition for being beautifully tangy and gloriously healthy. Heated over freshly seared chicken breast and laid over a bed of brown rice? It’s heaven on a plate, and super restorative after HIIT workouts.
  • Salmon and Spinach Salad: Fresh spinach and arugula make a stellar salad, especially when it’s served with a beautifully flaky filet of salmon right on top (with a bit of lemon to garnish).
  • Greens, Eggs and Ham: Not like your favorite childhood book at all. Eggs, ham, and some kale or spinach that’s been steamed to perfection, all between two halves of a multigrain English muffin. It’s basically the perfect sandwich with protein, iron, carbs, and loads of power.

As always, you need to replenish water and electrolytes when you finish a cardio exercise. Consider two 8 oz glasses of water (or coconut water) and something with a bit of salt to boost those electrolytes. That goes for each level of intensity.

Food is Fuel – Don’t Forget It

Don’t make the mistake of completely depleting your glycogen stores, and always be sure to eat after cardio even if it feels like you’re undoing the work you just put in, because the reality of it is: you’re not.

Your body uses fat and sugar to fuel your exercises, so don’t shy away from foods that contain these.

Make your post-cardio meal choices contingent upon the nutritional value and not the taste or perceived notions of a bad diet.

If the nutrition hits, then it hits. Treat food as fuel and be sure to fill up the tank (with premium) after your run.



Justin Rodriguez has spent most of his adult life inspiring people to take their fitness more seriously. He is not new to the business of providing practical solutions for those looking to set and smash their fitness goals. From sharing professional tips and tricks to recommending awesome products, Justin Rodriguez helps just about anyone who wants to get the best out of their workout routines.Having gathered a lot of experience both in and outside the gym, Justin Rodriguez uses DSW Fitness as a medium to show you exactly how to get that great-looking body with toned muscles you’ve always wanted.