I know that when it comes to the subject of nutrition there is an unbelievable amount of information out there. One quick google search on ‘the best diet for….’ will result in thousands (if not hundreds of thousands…) of pages, most of which that have conflicting recommendations and information.
And it makes sense. Nutrition is an extremely broad topic, with hundreds of different diets and ways of eating that may have worked for some people and may not have worked for others. Which is ok.
We as humans are very individual creatures. We have different likes and dislikes, different needs, different metabolisms and different energy requirements. As a result, some diets work extremely well for some people, and do not work at all for others.
Despite all this conflicting information, something that most people DO actually agree on is the importance of a post workout meal. Having a decent meal after exercise can seriously improve your results, especially in comparison to having no meal at all.
But what are the key benefits of a post workout meal? What should the optimal post workout meal contain, and what are some good examples of a high quality post workout meal?
(photo by lefu)
Why is a post workout meal important?
A post workout meal serves three key functions.
- Replenish our energy stores
- Reduce the breakdown of proteins within our body
- Increase protein synthesis
These three processes are extremely important in optimal recovery, no matter the individual or their training goal.
When we exercise the glycogen stored in our muscles and liver is broken down into glucose, where it then enters the bloodstream. This glucose is shuttled into the working tissues where it is used for energy to fuel our muscle tissue and our cardiorespiratory systems.
Once glycogen stores are depleted it is quite common to experience feelings of fatigue, lethargy and even nausea! And I don’t only mean during training, it is also common to experience these feelings at work and while undertaking day to day tasks.
Additionally, when we workout at a high level of intensity, we damage our muscle tissue at the cellular level.
Now this process is extremely important as these damaged cells get repaired to a state where they are stronger and more durable than they were prior to being damaged. This is ultimately what makes us stronger, leaner, and more muscular.
This repair process occurs through the breakdown of old proteins, and the construction of new proteins (protein synthesis). Muscle growth and repair occurs when our rate of protein synthesis is greater than the rate at which we are breaking down old proteins. Post workout nutrition then becomes essential to ensure we have enough nutrients available to maximise our rate of protein synthesis. This allows us to recover effectively, while building strong and healthy new muscle tissue.
Post workout nutrition then becomes essential to ensure we have enough nutrients available to maximise our rate of protein synthesis. This allows us to recover effectively, while building strong and healthy new muscle tissue.
So what should we eat and why?
As mentioned above, during a hard workout we deplete our glycogen stores significantly, which can impair our ability to train in the coming days, and can even affect our ability to complete day to day tasks.
So our first priority is to immediately replenish our glycogen stores through the consumption of carbohydrates.
Now, carbohydrates have received a lot of negative attention in recent times by people within the health and fitness industry. They have been described to cause weight gain, and have even been blamed as the cause of the obesity epidemic!
These claims are ridiculous.
Like anything, when eaten in moderation carbohydrates are fine. In fact, when we are discussing post workout nutrition, they are essential.
During a workout we increase blood flow to the active muscles significantly. This is essential as it supplies our muscle tissue with energy to complete the workout, and essential nutrients to aid recovery. This increased blood flow continues for up to two hours after we complete our workout, which can also benefit our recovery. If we eat carbohydrates immediately post workout we increase the levels of glucose in our blood. Due to the increased blood flow to the muscle tissue after exercising, this glucose is quickly shuttles to the muscles where it is rapidly stored as glycogen. As such, by eating a carbohydrate rich meal immediately after a workout we take advantage of this increased blood flow to maximise the amount of glycogen replenished.
With this, the type of carbohydrates consumed is also important. If we really want to optimise this opportunity to rapidly replenish glycogen stores, carbohydrates that register higher on the GI (Glycaemic Index) scale should be eaten, rather than those lower in GI. These include whole foods such as white potatoes, white rice, and breads and cereals, or carbohydrate supplements such as dextrose or maltodextrin powders. There are two key reasons these higher GI foods are better immediately after exercise than those lower on the GI scale.
Firstly, these foods are digested at a very rapid rate, much more rapidly than low GI carbohydrates.
This means that they cause a much greater increase in blood sugar, making them easily accessible to the muscle tissue.
This increases the rate at which we replenish our energy stores, further aiding recovery.
Secondly, eating higher GI carbohydrates causes a significant rise in insulin secretion. Insulin is considered an ‘anabolic’ hormone.
The reason it is considered anabolic is that it attaches directly to the receptors on muscle cells. When it attaches to these receptors it immediately increases the rate muscles take up glucose, proteins and essential nutrients.
By increasing the muscles ability to take these in, it increases our rate of recovery. Additionally, as insulin increases energy and protein storage, it also reduces the rate our body breaks down glycogen and protein.
This leads us directly into the next component of our post workout meal.
If one of the key components of maximising recovery is to increase protein synthesis, protein NEEDS to be a part of our post workout meal. We have already established that blood flow towards the muscle tissue is increased post workout, and that to build muscle and promote recovery we need a significant increase in protein synthesis.
To increase the rate of protein synthesis in our muscle tissue we need to have protein readily available in the blood. By consuming protein immediately post workout, it can be rapidly absorbed into the blood stream where it is shuttled to the active muscle tissue. Once in the muscle tissue it can be used to build new muscle proteins, which promotes recovery and the restoration of any damaged tissue, ultimately building larger and stronger muscle tissue.
Again, the type of protein we ingest does play a small role in our rate of recovery. Ideally, high protein foods that are easy to digest are ideal in this situation.
Despite the negativity that ‘processed’ foods receive from the media, immediately post workout processed foods containing large amounts of protein are ideal (such as milk and whey protein supplements) as they require minimal effort to digest, and enter the bloodstream quickly as a result.
If you are lactose intolerant, or don’t want to take protein supplements, then lean protein sources such as chicken breast, turkey breast and egg whites are your next best bet .
Lean sources of protein are digested much quicker than fattier cuts of meat, as the fat content can significantly slow down the digestion process.
So now we know what we need to consume immediately after exercise, but how much do we need to consume?
Starting with carbohydrates, most sources suggest around 0.50 grams per kilogram of bodyweight.
This should guarantee enough energy to replenish muscle glycogen, while promoting an insulin response that helps shuttle proteins into the muscle tissue.
So for an 80kg male, we would be looking at 40 grams of carbohydrate.
Additionally, a 2:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio is recommended to ensure enough protein is provided to the damaged tissue to maximise protein synthesis.
So again using an 80kg individual as an example, they would consume 20 grams of protein as part of their post workout meal.
The anabolic window
So how soon should we eat after our training session?
This is actually a question that has been heavily debated in recent times, with most of the discussion revolving around what is known as the anabolic window.
The anabolic window describes the brief period (up to one hour) immediately after your training session. This is when blood flow is moving towards the muscle tissue used during the exercise session, and the body is primed to accept nutrients and shuttle them towards the damaged tissue.
It is suggested that consuming essential nutrients during this time frame can maximise your rate of recovery by providing them to the muscle tissue immediately, and by missing this ‘window’ of opportunity, we can limit our body’s ability to recover.
Now it is hotly debated whether this period of time is actually all that important, with people often suggesting that it is really your total daily nutrient intake that determines your results.
Now, I fall somewhere in between.
Focusing on the anabolic window is pointless if the rest of your diet is rubbish, as the benefits of consuming nutrients during this timeframe will not outweigh the negatives of a poor diet.
BUT, if the rest of your diet is on point, then consuming the optimal nutrients during this time period could be what provides you with some additional gains in muscle mass and strength, and genuinely maximise recovery.
So to answer the question, I still consuming essential nutrients IMMEDIATLEY after your workout can aid recovery, and eating between 0-60 minutes after your session is optimal.
Example post-workout meals
So now let’s put it all together with simple post workout meals that tick all the boxes
- Protein Oatmeal
– Rolled oats 60g
– Low fat milk 100ml
– 2 egg whites (mix in once oatmeal has cooked)
- Chicken and Rice – 100g grilled chicken breast (your choice of seasoning)
– 70g white rice OR roast potatoes and sweet potatoes (100g)
– Green vegetables of choice
- Protein packed sandwich – White bread
– Lean meat (shaved lean meat such as chicken or turkey, – 60g)
– salad of your choice
- Protein Shake – 50g Dextrose powder
– 30g whey protein concentrate powder
– 200ml water
So there you have it. Post workout nutrition DOES matter, and by eating the correct things after your workout you can improve the body’s ability to recover and repair damaged muscle tissue which can increase muscle growth and maximise strength gains.