By: Kevin P. Allen
When you work hard, you feel like you deserve to be good to yourself. It's true of a laborer who's sweated it out for his paycheck and finally reaches the weekend. It's the case with an elite athlete who crosses the finish line exhilarated but depleted. And it's true of your average runner who has the discipline and fortitude to put her body in motion to reach a personal goal and stay in shape.
But being good to yourself and treating yourself to something good -- onion rings and a cheeseburger, for example -- are two completely different things. Sure, something batter-fried or sugar-filled may seem good, but for our purposes, we're discussing foods that are tasty but nutritionally beneficial.
Not all workouts are created equal. A short run, say a two-miler, doesn't require much, if any, replenishment. Once you move beyond a 30 to 45 minute window of exercise, it's important to provide that miraculous machine of yours with both carbohydrates and protein. A run that lasts an hour or more taxes your body in such a way that you need to give it carbohydrates and protein in a particular proportion -- ideally, a 4-to-1 ratio of carbs to protein -- that will maximize immune function while restoring energy and rebuilding your muscles better than before [sources: Shea; English].
So, yes, you do deserve to be good to yourself. You also want to make sure you're getting the most out of your workout by replenishing yourself correctly. And taste is no small factor, either. With all those things in mind, here are some tasty and beneficial foods to eat post-run.
Elite ultra-marathoner Michael Wardian has no special powers, although he holds the Guinness World Record for fastest marathon run as a superhero (Spiderman). He has to refuel like the rest of us. When he's extremely hungry, he reaches for oatmeal [source: Wardian].
Oatmeal is a great post-run food because it contains carbohydrates, protein and fiber. Fiber makes you feel full so you don't risk over-indulging. Sound a little bland? Top it with a fruit of your choice to make it both healthy and tasty. An added benefit -- the fiber in oatmeal has been shown to reduce bad cholesterol [source: Mayo Clinic].
It should come as no surprise that triathlete Sarah Haskins is fond of a Greek food -- after all, she is an Olympian. The U.S. multisport athlete only has water when her running sessions are at an easy pace and less than 45 minutes in duration. But when they go longer than that, she goes with Greek yogurt. Greek yogurt has been growing in popularity with endurance athletes and it's packed with protein.
You certainly don't have to eat it plain, either. Haskins adds honey, almonds and fruit [source: Haskins]. It almost sounds like a dessert, but it's good for you. You can't beat that.
Think of hummus as a healthy dip. It's a tasty dip, too -- in addition to creamy chickpeas, it may contain tart lemon juice, nutty sesame oil and a host of other flavorful ingredients. It's full of protein and it also contains plenty of fiber to help make you feel full [source: Real Age]. Plus, there are lots of options for its use. You can dip celery or carrot sticks in a bowl of hummus or put it on pita bread. Spread some hummus on several romaine lettuce leaves and wrap them around diced veggies and you've practically got a meal. A note of caution: Just because a particular food is good after a run doesn't mean it's good before a run. Eating hummus before a run can result in bloating and intestinal distress.
Chicken breasts are protein filled and lean. They're also easy to cook. The last thing most people want to do after a hard effort is stay on their feet preparing a complex meal. Single-portion, precooked chicken breasts can be divided into individual plastic bags in the fridge or freezer, ready to be warmed up after a workout.
Microwavable steamed rice can also add some healthy variety to your quick chicken meal. Think brown or wild rice. A frozen vegetable can complete the post-run dinner. You'll have carbohydrates, protein and assorted vitamins and minerals. In short, you'll feel completely satisfied and ready for your next challenge [source: Shea].
OK, we get it. There really is no such thing as chicken of the sea. But if you've had your fill of chicken -- we all have our limits -- then salmon fillets are an option that's at least equal in nutritional value. Plus, they contain omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants that'll help your body recover. Like chicken breasts, salmon fillets can be precooked and ready to heat after a tough workout. Add a little olive oil if it suits you. A side of asparagus and some brown rice, wild rice or whole-grain pasta can round out a perfect post-run meal [source: Shea].
Sports bars are usually associated with beer, nachos and a lot of guys who know better than the professional players (or referees) they're watching on the big screen. Just ask them. But in this case, a sports bar could also be referred to as an energy bar, workout bar or any number of other names.
Marathoner Wardian says he tries to keep his post-workout nutrition pretty simple. Grabbing a sports bar is about as simple as it gets. His choice is a peanut butter PowerBar [source: Wardian]. If you check the nutrition label, you'll find it comes remarkably close to the 4-to-1 ratio of carbs to protein needed to maximize recovery.
There are many sports bars available that offer similar benefits. There are also many that are little more than candy bars masquerading as nutrition. Check the label for nutrition information.
Carbohydrates often get a bad rap, but not when it comes to athletes. Carbs are the fuel in the runner's tank and that fuel can come in many forms -- one of them is bananas. Both triathlete Haskins and marathoner Wardian list bananas as a staple of their post-run diets [sources: Haskins; Wardian]. But neither of them eat bananas alone.
Haskins puts hers in a smoothie with almond milk, peanut butter, honey, ice and cocoa powder. Wardian eats his with a glass of skim milk. Supplementing that banana with a source of protein -- as Haskins and Wardian do -- will top you off right.
Lots of fruits are satisfying after a run. They're sweet, juicy, cold (if you keep them refrigerated, of course) and not upsetting to your stomach. Haskins is a fan of grapes and blueberries. Wardian opts for oranges, apples or raisins. He, like Haskins, tends to mix his in with some yogurt [sources: Haskins; Wardian].
Many fruits, like oranges, also contain fiber, which will help them make you feel full. When few other foods are welcome because you're hot and tired, fruit can do the trick. There are many added benefits of eating fruit, too. The antioxidants in dark-colored fruits like blueberries may, in fact, prevent or delay Alzheimer's disease and cancer [source: Applegate].
You're probably noticing a trend by now. The foods that are best for you are natural foods. Add nuts to that list. Almonds are a runner's favorite. They provide antioxidants and, if eaten regularly, can even lower cholesterol [source: Applegate].
Almonds can be eaten alone, but they certainly don't have to be. Sliced almonds are good tossed in a green salad and added to pasta, or they can just as easily be mixed with a yogurt and fruit concoction. Haskins eats them with her Greek yogurt [source: Haskins]. They're also a source of fiber and don't go bad quickly.
Antioxidants, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals – what else could a healthy body ask for from a food? It's hard to go wrong with vegetables and, in fact, a growing portion of the population puts nothing else in their bodies but these naturally occurring treats. On a long run, you may not fantasize of having a plate of kale when you're finished, but there's a multitude of ways to make post-run veggies palatable and even quite tasty. Slice some cucumbers and put them in a whole-wheat sandwich with some hummus. Try some stir-fry. Mix carrots, iceberg lettuce and spinach leaves in a salad. There are any number of ways you can go, and virtually all of them will keep you going as you head toward your next workout.
Exercise is only one part of a healthy lifestyle. Once you've run your body through its paces, think about keeping your immune system humming, recovering your energy and strengthening your muscles for improved performance.