When your workout is over, you should be spent. You should have expended every ounce of energy as you leave it all on the gym floor. This will have used up your glycogen levels and thrown your muscles into a catabolic state. That means that the rate of protein breakdown increases, potentially making you weaker and smaller. What you do in terms of nutrition in the minutes and hours after your workout will either make you better or it will make you worse.
In this article, I delve into the issue of what to eat after your workout. I reveal what you should eat immediately after a workout and nutrition later in the day and before your workout.
Your Nutritional Needs Post Workout
After an intense warrior-type workout, your muscle cells will be very low in glycogen. The training challenges will also cause muscle damage, leading to the breakdown of proteins.
Your immediate needs after your workout are for the nutrients to restore depleted muscle glycogen levels and to provide amino acids to switch from a catabolic muscle depleting state to an anabolic building state. Glycogen is the body’s preferred energy source for high-intensity workouts.
To achieve those objectives, you need both carbohydrates and protein. However, you also need a certain amount of the right types of fat after your workout. Let’s break down the macros to get a little more specific.
When you work out, you place stress on the muscles. That stress causes proteins to break apart, which can, in turn, result in micro-tears in the muscle tissue. The degree to which this occurs depends on the type and intensity of your training. The high octane workouts that are part and parcel of the Fort Fitness training methodology produce a high level of protein breakdown.
You need quality protein after your workout to halt the protein breakdown and begin the rebuilding process. That protein will also supply the building blocks for new muscle growth.
There has been a lot of speculation and recommendations regarding how much protein you should consume around your workout. A recent study suggests a post-workout protein intake of 0.14-0.23 grams of protein per pound of body weight after your workout. So, if you are a 200-pound guy, that works out to between 28 and 46 grams of protein.
Taking in carbohydrates post-workout will help you to restore your depleted glycogen levels. Research suggests that a post-workout intake of 0.5-0.7 grams per pound of body weight is ideal to meet these needs. For our 200 pound guy, that works out to between 100 and 150 grams of carbs post-workout.
Combining protein and carbohydrates together has been shown to spike insulin release. Higher insulin levels help the body better synthesize glycogen, so taking both carbs and protein together as part of your post-workout meal will help you restore glycogen more quickly, which will replenish your energy levels faster.
Research also suggests that a post-workout meal ratio of 3:1 (carbs to protein) is the sweet spot for maximum workout recovery and anabolism. So, if you are taking 120 grams of carbs, you should also consume 40 grams of carbs.
Fats are often avoided post-workout because they will slow down the metabolism and impair the synthesis of glycogen and amino acids. Studies show, however, that this does not happen to any noticeable degree. Having a little bit of fat in your post-workout meal will not negatively impact your recovery level.
What About the Anabolic Window?
Gym lore tells us that there is an anabolic window of 20 minutes during which you have to get in your post-workout meal. If you don’t, so the ‘experts’ tell us, that window slams shut, and you have lost out on any nutritional benefit after your training session.
As a result of this pervasive belief, many people are convinced that you should eat immediately after a workout. As a result, you see people furiously chugging down their post-workout protein drinks the moment their workout is over. At the other extreme are those who rubbish the whole idea of post-workout nutrition. So long as you get plenty of protein and carbs over the 24-hour course of your day, they contend, you will be good to go.
So, where does the truth lie? As with most things, somewhere in the middle.
Most people use the term anabolic window without understanding what it actually means. It refers to the time after an exercise session when the body can switch from a catabolic to an anabolic state. Intense workouts cause the body to release catabolic hormones such as glucagon. It does this because glucagon helps the body make more glycogen, which is rapidly being depleted by your workout.
Interestingly, glucagon also stimulates the pituitary gland to increase insulin, an anabolic hormone, for that to happen; however, you need to get carbs high on the glycemic index into your system.
It is evident that you need to get high glycemic carbs and protein into your system after your heavy workouts. However, the idea of a 20 minutes anabolic window does not stack up. So long as you can get the carbs and protein into your body within a couple of hours of your workout, you will be fine.
What To Eat After a Workout
Now that we are clear on what you should be eating in terms of protein, carbs, and fats and when you should be eating it, let’s get down to precisely what to eat after a workout. Your focus should be on easily digested foods to get the nutrients to your muscles faster. That is one reason why many people choose a post-workout protein shake.
Protein powders provide amino acids in pre-digested form so that they get into your bloodstream faster than whole foods. Look for a whey isolate protein, which will digest more quickly than a casein-based powder. You should also look for a protein powder that is specifically designed to be taken post-workout, as this will include carbs, usually in the form of maltose or dextrose. Check the label for a brand that provides the ideal 3:1 carb to protein ratio.
If you choose to eat whole foods, here are some good options:
- Sweet Potatoes
- Rice Cakes
- Whole Grain Bread
- Nut Butter
As a side note, if you ever want to indulge in a sweet treat, after your workout is the time to do it. When your muscles are depleted of glycogen, those sugary calories will go directly into your muscle cells rather than be stored on the side of your waist. Just don’t overdo it – one piece is enough!