While the world of nutrition is rife with controversy, most experts agree a proper post-workout meal can improve results versus no meal at all. The challenge is simplifying all the nuances to consider so you can eat a post-workout meal that works well for you.
What are the specific benefits of a post-workout meal? What meal ideas can work best for you? These questions and a lot more will be answered in this introductory article on post-workout nutrition. For more reading, I’ve linked to several research reports throughout the article.
Numerous studies2 show the benefits of post-workout nutrition, which include:
1) Prevents Muscle Breakdown – A tough strength training workout will create microscopic tears in your muscle fibers. If adequate nutrients are not supplied before and/or after the workout, these muscle tears can lead to further muscle breakdown, which means your muscle is broken down to form protein that your body uses as energy to repair itself.
2) Increases Protein Synthesis – After a strenuous workout, your body is biochemically primed to suck in nutrients. Your muscles are highly insulin sensitive, which means those carbs you eat can help shuttle protein into your muscles, instead of getting converted into fat. Insulin is a storage hormone that has a bad reputation because it is integrally involved in fat storage. After a workout, however, insulin is your friend and a proper post-workout meal can improve muscle building and increase fat loss.3
3) Faster Recovery – A properly timed post-workout meal with the right nutrients can help decrease soreness in your muscles for a given amount of training. For example, if you are able to recover in only a day as opposed to 2-3 days, that means you can train harder and more frequently, which will lead to better and faster results.
4) Glycogen Replenishment – Regardless of the type of workout, if you are working out intensely, your body will use glycogen as fuel. Glycogen, which is stored in your muscles and liver is best described as your body’s preferred fuel source for workouts. Depending on the duration, type, and intensity of exercise, glycogen stores can become depleted. Eating ample carbs after a workout can not only promote protein synthesis, but also help replenish energy stores to keep you feeling energetic the rest of the day.
There is a lot of debate as to the proper timing of a post-workout meal, but the preponderance of evidence suggests eating immediately after a workout as generating superior results.
A 12-week study4 conducted with previously untrained men examined the effects of consuming supplemental protein “immediately after versus two hours after a strength-training session. Those who consumed protein immediately after their workout gained significantly more muscle size and strength than those who consumed it two hours removed from their workout.”
Because of studies like this one, the 30-60 minute period after a workout is known as the “window of opportunity” to help maximize the training effect.
Given that the speed with which nutrients reach the body is critical, we need to take into account rates of digestion to maximize the nutrient delivery effect. Dietary fat slows down digestion, so a post workout meal should be low in fat. While protein in the form of meat can take a good 3-4 hours to digest whey protein5 takes as little as 20-30 minutes to hit the bloodstream. Fast digesting carbs are ideal post-workout to help maximize the insulin effect and replenish glycogen stores. The only time when eating processed carbs is a good idea (other than on the occasional cheat meal) is post-workout. Fruit can also work well, which is what I prefer.
Whey protein combined with a fast digesting carbohydrate in liquid form has emerged as the top post-workout meal of choice for anyone from athletes to bodybuilders to recreational exercisers. Consider a carb to protein ratio of anywhere from 1:1 to 3:1, with an average of 2:16 depending on the duration and intensity of the workout (i.e. 60 grams of carbs to 30 grams of protein). Sports nutritionists will typically recommend consuming 0.25 to 0.40 grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight.
Your post-workout meal is the only meal in my opinion where a protein shake should be considered. Whole, natural foods are superior for getting a lean, healthy body for a number of reasons ranging from greater satiety to increased thermic effect (food burns calories during digestion whereas shakes do not).
Please keep in mind focusing on total calorie intake, smart food choices, and proper exercise are far more important than maximizing the “window of opportunity” of the 30-60 minute post-workout period. I can’t emphasize this enough. Sadly, pre and post-workout nutrition has sabotaged many fat loss programs because of excess calorie intake. People lose sight of the forest amidst the trees.
Let’s tie everything together we’ve learned so far to create some effective post workout meals:
…and don’t forget to drink plenty of water! A good 16+ ounces can help you optimize your performance.
In addition to whey protein, there are two other supplements worth mentioning that are supported by research (1) creatine and (2) glutamine. As I’ve discussed in depth, I’m not a huge fan of dietary supplements in general, for a number of reasons. With that said, ingesting 5 grams of creatine post-workout has been shown to help7 and 5-10 grams of glutamine post-workout can help improve recovery8 from a workout. In fact, some people swear by glutamine substantially reducing muscle soreness in the days following a workout (delayed onset muscle soreness).
While I didn’t cover all the minutiae with post-workout nutrition, I tried my best to cover the basics that are most relevant. Feel free to ask any questions if you need more detail!