For decades, experts agreed a post-workout meal can improve results versus no meal at all.
In recent years, however, the value post-workout nutrition is being called into question.
What are the benefits of a post-workout meal?
What meal ideas can work best for you?
These questions and many more will be answered in this intro article on post-workout with help from Nick Holt.
Should You Be Concerned About Post-Workout Nutrition?
The truth is, most likely not.
But just in case, let’s take a quick quiz to find out.
- Are you sleeping at least 7 hours per night?
- Are you drinking half of your bodyweight (lbs) in ounces of water daily?
- Do you have at least 5 servings of vegetables per day?
- Do you eat protein with each meal?
- Are you exercising regularly?
If you answered no to any of those questions, the first step is to nail down all of these habits before you get too focused on post-workout nutrition.
A lot of people who want to transform their body seek out advanced nutrition strategies or quick fixes to get lean, but here’s the reality – most people don’t need, or aren’t ready for, these advanced strategies.
Mastering the basics is often enough to get you most, if not all of the way to achieving your fitness goals. Being consistent with the basics, and focusing on lifestyle habits, will have a far more positive impact on your health than worrying about post-workout nutrition strategies.
Post-Workout Meal Benefits
Numerous studies1 highlight the benefits of post-workout nutrition as the following:
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.2
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.
Post-Workout Meal Timing
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 study3 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 “anabolic window” to help maximize the training effect.
Most studies, however, have found that post-workout nutrition isn’t as important as many people make it out to be.4
The consistent finding is that, as long as your daily overall protein intake is adequate, then the actual timing of when you consume eat isn’t that important.5
Post-Workout Meal Size & Breakdown
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 protein6 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.
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 2:17 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 “anabolic window”.
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.
Post-Workout Meal Ideas
Let’s tie everything together we’ve learned so far to create some effective post workout meals:
- Whey protein shake mixed with a couple handfuls of fruit (banana, strawberries etc.)
- Whey protein shake combined with dextrose (fast digesting carbohydrate)
- Whey protein “Ready to drink” shake with 20-30 grams of protein and 20-60 of carbs
- Lean protein with fast digesting starchy carbs (i.e. grilled chicken with potatoes and veggies)
- 16 ounces of chocolate milk (not as effective as whey shake, but adequate)
…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.
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 Maximizing postexercise muscle glycogen synthesis: carbohydrate supplementation and the application of amino acid or protein hydrolysate mixtures
Maximizing postexercise muscle glycogen synthesis: carbohydrate supplementation and the application of amino acid or protein hydrolysate mixtures. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000 Jul;72(1):106-11. ↩