We have previously shown that whey protein hydrolysate (WPH) causes a greater increase in muscle protein synthesis than does a mixture of amino acids that is identical in amino acid composition. The present study was conducted to investigate the effect of WPH on gene expression. Male Sprague–Dawley rats subjected to a 2 h swimming exercise were administered either a carbohydrate–amino acid diet or a carbohydrate–WPH diet immediately after exercise. At 1 h after exercise, epitrochlearis muscle mRNA was sampled and subjected to DNA microarray analysis. We found that ingestion of WPH altered 189 genes after considering the false discovery rate. Among the up-regulated genes, eight Gene Ontology (GO) terms were enriched, which included key elements such as Cd24, Ccl2, Ccl7 and Cxcl1 involved in muscle repair after exercise. In contrast, nine GO terms were enriched in gene sets that were down-regulated by the ingestion of WPH, and these GO terms fell into two clusters, ‘regulation of ATPase activity’ and ‘immune response’. Furthermore, we found that WPH activated two upstream proteins, extracellular signal-regulated kinase 1/2 (ERK1/2) and hypoxia-inducible factor-1α (HIF-1α), which might act as key factors for regulating gene expression. These results suggest that ingestion of WPH, compared with ingestion of a mixture of amino acids with an identical amino acid composition, induces greater changes in the post-exercise gene expression profile via activation of the proteins ERK1/2 and HIF-1α.