There’s a certain strategy to eating before and after big workouts, with a focus on quality carbs and protein to give you enough energy and promote muscle growth and repair. When it comes to rest days, however, knowing what’s best to eat can be a head-scratcher — but it doesn’t have to be.
If you’re tracking calories or macros, you’ll likely see them decrease on rest days, but that’ll happen naturally without the need to plan and micromanage your intake. That’s great news because it makes the transition between active and recovery days seamless. “My goal is for active clients to eat three meals and one or two snacks each day, regardless of whether or not they are training. This is the foundation of a healthy diet,” says sports nutritionist Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, author of “The Superfood Swap.”
Here, a look at how nutrition differs for exercise and rest days and why it’s more important to focus on well-balanced meals overall:
NUTRITION FOR WORKOUT DAYS
On days you’re strength training in the gym, doing a HIIT class or are out for a run or walk that lasts longer than 90 minutes, Blatner advises clients to add sports nutrition, or “functional foods before, during and after workouts.” Depending on your goal, you might have a pre-workout bar, an electrolyte drink during exercise and a post-workout shake. “The extra calories, protein and carbs help fuel a goal of muscle gain for higher intensity and longer duration exercise,” she explains.
However, if your goal is weight loss and exercise pace is moderate, you may pare this down a bit by scheduling exercise after breakfast and then eating a light post-workout snack — the idea is to tailor this sports nutrition to your individual needs.
HOW REST DAYS DIFFER
“When you’re taking a rest day, you simply need to omit the extra sports nutrition,” Blatner says. “Stick with the three meals and 1–2 snacks to give your body the nutrition it needs to slay the day and improve recovery.”
Even in the absence of a workout, your body still needs calories, so continue to eat full, health-minded meals. Blatner recommends this visual: 25% of your plate should come from healthy carbs, 25% from lean protein and 50% from vegetables with a little healthy fat. Healthy carbs include sprouted whole-grain breads and wraps, brown rice, quinoa, popcorn, potatoes (white and sweet) and root vegetables, she says. Quality protein includes things like grilled chicken breast, grilled salmon, eggs and beans). When it comes to veggies, the more colorful the better.
As for the one or two snacks, go for a combination of protein and produce, like a piece of fruit and nuts, carrots and hummus or berries and yogurt, Blatner recommends.
Don’t forget to drink. Your water bottle should stay by your side on a rest day just as it does at the gym. “As much as food helps recovery and rest, hydration is key. Many people slack on their hydration on off-days,” says Blatner and it’s been shown to help with weight loss.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Rather than stressing about cutting calories or changing your macros for rest days, focus on eating colorful, well-balanced meals and skipping the extra sports nutrition, says Blatner. “A well-balanced plate is not only filling and packed with vitamins and minerals, but it also provides what you need in terms of protein to stimulate muscle repair and carbohydrates to replenish glycogen (the fuel your muscles tap into for energy.)”
Eating a full three meals plus snacks means you’re eating at regular intervals throughout the day, which helps regulate your appetite. Remember, just because you’re not doing high-intensity interval training and your main activity one day might be walking your dog (which still counts), does not mean you can’t eat good foods in satisfying amounts.