We know that fueling the right way before and during a ride can really make or break your performance—there’s nothing worse than a ride taking longer than expected and praying you find a gas station for emergency gummy bears before you bonk. But your post-workout meal is just as important.

Taking in the proper nutrients after a ride of any length or intensity can benefit your recovery and even subsequent rides, says Melissa Majumdar, M.S., R.D., a dietitian and a certified specialist in obesity and weight management at Emory University Hospital Midtown in Atlanta, Georgia.

Below, we outline everything you need to know about what to eat after a ride or post-workout, and what might happen if you don’t refuel your body properly.

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Carbs and Protein Are Key

Whether you just got back from a 45-minute spin to help clear your mind or a hilly four-hour long ride, carbs and protein are the most important nutrients you need to refuel. It’s best to get something in your system between 30 to 60 minutes after exercise.

Majumdar explains that carbs are used for glycogen repletion, and if you don’t replace the carbs you used up on a ride, you can feel sluggish, weak, and sore in the coming hours and days, including on your next ride. Protein is used to repair and build your muscles, she says, so if you don’t consume enough after the ride, your muscles’ recovery process can be impeded.

However, your length and intensity do play a role in the amount of carbs and protein you need to consume. During your ride, Majumdar advises to aim for 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour, and on the higher end of that for longer or more intense rides.

As far as protein consumption goes, Majumdar recommends spreading your intake out over the course of your day, since your body can only absorb so much protein at one time (around 30g). Cyclists with a goal of maintaining their muscle mass should consume 1.3g to 1.7g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight during your day, according to a 2019 International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) consensus statement.

Majumdar notes that it’s best to curb your fat or fiber intake directly after a ride, since it can hamper your body’s digestion process.

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Is Eating Something Unhealthy Better Than Eating Nothing at All?

Let’s say you’re absolutely starving when you get back to your car or home, and you can’t wait to eat, or you won’t be able to refuel within an hour. Do you stop at the first fast food chain you see just to get some food in you?

A 2015 study in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that fast food from McDonald’s is just as good for recovery and subsequent performance as other foods meant for those purposes. The study compared foods such as fries and hash browns to energy chews and PowerBars, and measured a large number of variables related to recovery—from blood cholesterol to thigh-muscle glycogen content to time-trial performance—and couldn’t find any significant differences between the two refueling approaches.

“I haven’t yet seen a study where a commercial supplement outperforms real foods,” says Nancy Clark, R.D. “The supplements may seem impressive because they offer a precise ratio of carbohydrates to protein, but you can get the same from tastier, less pricey, real foods with adequate carbs, protein, and calories.”

Majumdar agrees.

“After a long, hard ride, something is better than nothing—as long as it’s higher in carbs and lower in fat” she says.

Fast food restaurants like McDonald’s will usually have healthier options such as a grilled chicken sandwich, a side of fruit, yogurt, chocolate milk, or juice—and you can always ask for an extra bun to increase your carb intake, Majumdar says.

But if you’ve just completed a shorter, slower ride, Majumdar says it’s better to wait a little longer for a healthier option.

[Want to fly up hills? Climb! gives you the workouts and mental strategies to conquer your nearest peak.]

What If You’re Not Hungry After a Ride?

It’s not uncommon to not feel like eating after a bout of exercise, especially if you’ve been out riding in hot, humid weather. But as we previously mentioned, something is better than nothing—even if it’s small.

“Liquid can be easier to stomach,” Majumdar says. “Chocolate milk or a fruit smoothie can be cold, refreshing, and easy to digest.” (Boost the protein in a smoothie with some plain greek yogurt.)

Majumdar also suggests pre-planning or pre-making a post-ride snack—such as the above-mentioned smoothie, a banana and peanut butter sandwich, or even just keeping fresh fruit within reach—so you can easily munch on it as soon as you return. No cooking or guesswork involved. Pro tip for smoothies: You can freeze them overnight and leave them in the car, so they’ll be perfectly defrosted by the time you get back.

The Bottom Line:

Carbs are your friend, and are an integral part of your post-ride recovery. Protein is also an important component of your body’s recovery, and it’s best to aim for a 3:1 ratio of carbs to protein within 30 to 60 minutes after you get off the bike. Any food is better than none at all, so consuming a fast food sandwich or even just nibbling on some fruit will jumpstart the recovery process so you can tackle your next ride as strong as possible.

Headshot of Danielle Zickl
Danielle Zickl
Senior Editor
Danielle Zickl for Runner's World and Bicycling.