After an intense workout, you probably feel like you could eat a horse. But that gnawing in your stomach isn’t the only reason you should grab a healthy meal post-workout. Eating the right foods at the right time after exercise is key to helping your body recover and grow stronger. In fact, these decisions can be almost as key to your fitness routine as the actual workout!

When you exercise, your body burns a lot of calories and nutrients! That is why replenishing the proper amount of the right nutrients is so important to post-workout recovery. There are three main things your post-workout meal needs to do: replenish your supply of glycogen (a sugar that acts as an energy store in the body), decrease the breakdown of your body’s protein supply, and help cells build up their proteins. Eating nutritious foods after you exercise can help with all these processes, leading to less muscle soreness, boosting your immune system, and even helping your body build muscle long after you walk out of the gym.

While post-workout nutrition should obviously include “healthy” foods, the amount and the exact foods to eat depend on a lot of factors. Gender, age, body size, and the length and intensity of your workout all factor into how much you should be eating post-workout. As a general rule, the bigger you are and the longer and harder you exercise, the more fuel you need to give back to your body. Eating lean protein, good fats, and healthy carbs are your best bets for feeding your body so it can recover and build muscle. Fresh fruits and vegetables, pulses like beans and lentils, and lean meats like salmon and chicken are all important to a full recovery. Need a meal-on-the-go? Blend up a smoothie instead.

Not only is eating the right food important after you exercise, but the timing is key, too. If you are familiar with the fitness world, you have probably heard of the “window of opportunity.” Though experts disagree on the exact amount of time, they suggest eating between 30 minutes and 2 hours after hitting the gym. Chowing down during this time period is essential to post-workout recovery because your body is perfectly primed to accept and absorb nutrients. If you wait too long to eat, your body is less likely to recover and grow properly, leading to soreness and putting you more at risk for injury during your next workout.