Here’s What You Need to Know:
- Post-workout nutrition is a lot more relevant to athletes that the casual exerciser.
- If you haven’t eaten a long time before training then it makes sense to rush for your post-workout meal or shake.
- The same as above applies if you are training twice a day, using the same muscle groups in both sessions.
- Protein and carbohydrates are key nutrients after exercise.
- Fats are not detrimental to post-workout recovery.
- You can either eat a solid meal or down a protein shake or smoothie (recipe below!)
Are you an athlete or a Recreational Exerciser?
The traditional advice for post-workout nutrition is to down a shake or consume a meal contain mainly protein and carbohydrates immediately following a workout session.
The above is an example of a practice called nutrient timing (1), which is believed to be important for anyone exercising, athletes and non-athletes alike.
Context matters and the truth is that, while it may benefit some athletes, most people don’t need to stress about nutrient timing.
What’s true for the pre-diabetic office worker who’s never exercised is certainly not true for the serious endurance runner or the long-time bodybuilder. In fact, the people who stand to benefit most from specific nutritional strategies around their workouts are athletes.
Should you eat Immediately Postworkout?
It would benefit you to consume an immediate post-workout meal if:
► You are training in the fasted state in the morning after an overnight fast.
► You have not eaten anything in a 4-5 hour period before training. E.g. you had lunch at 12:00 and then haven’t eaten anything before your 5:00pm training.
► If you train or exercise several times in a day, using the same muscle groups. E.g. Soccer training in the morning and again in the afternoon.
Otherwise, if you have consumed a good pre-exercise meal there is no need to rush for a protein shake or a meal the moment you put down the dumbbells at the gym (2). You may run a few errands after your workout and then have your post-workout meal once you get home.
Key Post-workout Nutrients
Dietary protein is important after workouts because it stimulates protein synthesis to repair and rebuild muscle tissue (3).
Proteins that are fast-digesting and absorbing have been recommended in the post-exercise period because it was believed that results would be better the faster amino acids, which are the breakdown products of protein, get into muscles to carry out their functions (4).
Hence, the traditional advice of rushing for your protein shake immediately after workout, to benefit from the so called “window of opportunity“.
However, there is no solid evidence that fast-digesting proteins are superior to slow-digesting proteins like whole food proteins after training. Both work great and it all boils down to personal choice.
If you feel like drinking a shake or a smoothie, go for it. If you crave for whole food, help yourself to a high protein meal, as long as you consume about 20-30g of high quality protein. Use the picture on the right as a guide.
- Whole eggs.
- Cheese or yogurt.
- Fish or chicken.
- Protein shake (e.g whey protein).
- A recovery shake containing adequate protein.
The goal of consuming carbohydrates after a workout is to replace stored carbohydrates, called glycogen, which is used as a fuel during training (5).
Eating carbohydrates soon after a workout is a lot more relevant to people who exercise often, like twice a day in activities that use the same muscle groups (6). For these individuals, consuming proteins and carbohydrates at the same time gives better results than either nutrient alone because of the greater insulin secretion.
How much carbohydrates to consume after workouts is dependent on your type of activity and the level you are at. An athlete’s post-workout meal needs to contain 1.1–1.5 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of bodyweight immediately after training. For a 70kg athlete this means 77 to 105 grams of carbohydrates.
Recommended sources of carbohydrates:
- Rice, oats or sweet potatoes
- Fruits (banana, apple, berries)
- Dark, leafy green vegetables
What about fats?
Fat is believed to slow down the absorption of the post-workout meal and is often avoided. But scientific evidence does not show any negative effect of consuming fats on body recovery after training.
For instance, it was found that full-fat milk provided the same muscle-building benefits as skimmed milk after training (7). A high fat meal was also not found to affect muscle glycogen replacement in another study (8).
About the Author
Veeraj Goyaram, MSc (Med) Exer. Sci (UCT) cum laude, BSc (Hons) Biology.
Veeraj’s passion revolves around researching and developing nutritional products for optimal health and performance, with a particular interest in sports, child and diabetic nutrition products. Veeraj was previously based as a graduate student at the University of Cape Town, where he examined the effect of exercise and nutrition on the function of genes in muscle. His research was published in renowned scientific journals and medical textbooks on Diabetes and Exercise (PubMed listing). Veeraj keeps healthy by regularly lifting weights and taking daily walks.