When most people work out, their main goal is usually either to lose weight or build muscle. Of course, achieving either of these goals comes down to your nutrition. That's right, what you eat after a workout, is almost more important than the workout itself.
When talking about nutrition, there are three macronutrients to consider – protein, fat, and carbohydrates. All three macronutrients also supply your body with vastly different things. Protein aids in building muscle, fat helps with many essential internal processes, and carbohydrates provide glucose, which is typically your body's primary source of fuel.
When you complete a workout, your glycogen stores are usually exhausted -- your body stores small amounts of glucose in your muscles as glycogen. These depleted reserves are part of that 'tired' feeling you have after stepping off the treadmill. On top of that, some of the proteins in your muscles break down after your workout is over as well.
In order to maintain homeostasis, your body must rebuild your glycogen stores and repair damaged muscle proteins. By eating the right foods after your workout, you can help support this process.
Why is Eating After A Workout Important?
There are a variety of reasons why eating after a workout is essential. For starters, if you work out in a fasted state, it is crucial to eat soon after your workout. This fasted state can often come about just by heading to the gym first thing in the morning.
If you eat dinner at 5 PM and don't eat anything until 8 AM the next day, that is a 15 hour fast. After 15 hours of not eating and then depleting your glycogen reserves at the gym, your body desperately needs food. Eating right after a morning workout, when you are in this fasted state, is crucial for your success.
While fasting has its benefits, your muscles will continually break down if you work out and continue the fast afterward. Not at all what you want, if you're trying to look and feel your best.
As mentioned above, proper nutrition is vital to recovering from a workout. Just like you can't put poor quality gasoline in a Ferrari and expect excellent performance, you can't feed yourself junk and expect great results from your workout.
The unfortunate reality is that there are many mistruths out there when it comes to workout recovery. Hopefully, in this article, however, we can dispel some of them.
Recovery is most specifically an issue for two reasons – muscle protein breakdown and synthesis; and glycogen depletion.
Exercise and Muscle Protein Breakdown
When you exercise, your muscles go full tilt. Every fiber is used to push out those most challenging reps. As a consequence, some of these muscle fibers tear, requiring your body to make repairs.
Your muscle fibers are actually made up of tiny proteins, which themselves are made up of even smaller amino acids. Your body ultimately repairs damaged muscle fibers by replacing old broken down muscle proteins, with fresh ones from your diet.
There are two main concepts to understand here: muscle protein breakdown (MPB), and muscle protein synthesis (MPS). MPB is just what it sounds like -- your body breaking down existing muscle proteins. This is a common and natural process that occurs as a result of physical activity.
In response to MPB, a series of signaling pathways is activated within your body to repair and replace the damaged muscle tissues. It is through this signaling event that new proteins, along with other nutrients, are transported to the affected areas in order for MPS to occur.
In simple terms, in order to maintain your muscle mass, your levels of MPS and MPB ultimately need to be equal. When you have more protein breakdown than you do protein synthesis, it leads to muscle loss. Conversely, muscle growth only occurs when your levels of MPS are greater than your levels of MPB.(1)
As you might guess, numerous studies have demonstrated that muscle protein breakdown is higher after a workout -- this is one of the reasons it’s vital to refuel after your workout is over.(2)
That’s because research shows that your levels of MPS are also elevated following a bout of resistance training -- MPS can actually remain elevated for well over 24 hours post-workout.(4)
Getting in plenty of protein (and carbohydrates) throughout the day -- and especially after your workout -- helps to support this process, providing your body with the nutrients it needs to rebuild and repair.
Researchers in one study concluded that consuming a high-quality protein within close proximity of exercise helped to maximize the potential for muscle growth.(5). They also specifically noted that 25 grams of protein seems to be the ideal post-workout intake when it comes to supporting both recovery and muscle growth.
You do want to make sure that you’re taking in your protein from healthy, complete protein sources -- a complete source of protein is one that contains all 9 essential amino acids.
Exercise and Glycogen Depletion
When eating carbohydrates regularly, the carbs from your food turn into glucose. If your body doesn’t immediately need this glucose for energy, the molecules are linked together to form glycogen. This is simply the storage form of glucose.
The average person’s body has a relatively modest store of glycogen, which it uses as a ‘backup’ fuel source once circulating glucose starts running low. Glycogen is stored in the cytosol of cells, occupying 2% of the volume of cells on average. Each gram of glycogen is also stored with at least 3 grams of water.
As you exercise though, your glycogen stores become depleted. Studies show that when these reserves drop too low, muscle breakdown increases.(6)
Endurance exercise depletes these glycogen levels the most, which is why marathon participants frequently "carbo-load.” -- by increasing pre-race glycogen stores to the max, they can exercise for more extended amounts of time before their glycogen stores become depleted.
If you are an endurance athlete and you do not re-up your glycogen, you will eventually ‘hit the wall’. This unpleasant state is your body running very low on glycogen and subsequently sending signals to immediately stop your activity. Anyone who has ever exercised for a long period of time, has likely felt what ‘the wall’ is like.
On the flip side, if you are not active enough, consuming too much glucose will raise your glycogen stores and lead to weight gain. Quite literally, your body has an excess of stored energy in this state.
Glycogen is stored mainly in your liver and muscles, but if you are eating a low-carb or ketogenic diet, your body will have depleted glycogen stores. In these scenarios, your body then shifts to burning fat for energy.
What Kinds of Food Should You Eat?
Studies show that, on average, those who consumed protein and carbohydrates directly after a workout saw significantly greater improvements in strength, lean body tissue, and body fat percentage.(7)
The key, however, is also to consume high-quality protein and carbs – not sugary junk. You will always want to focus on whole foods, high-quality protein powders, and low-GI carbohydrates.
As we’ve already discussed, protein is vital after a workout because it helps to replace damaged muscle proteins. The amino acids found in protein are the building blocks of muscle and ingesting enough of them is the only way your muscles can recover and grow.
There are lots of sources of healthy protein, including whey protein, lean meat, fish, chicken, milk, yogurt, cheese, eggs, beans, and legumes just to name a few. It is usually easiest to simply put whey protein in a smoothie or shake, right after your workout is over (along with some carbohydrates, of course).
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Carbohydrates are the body's primary fuel source. The carbs you consume are turned into glucose, providing your brain and muscles with the energy they crave.
During and after exercise, carbohydrates are also used to resupply your muscles' store of glycogen, which becomes depleted during activity. If you are regularly active, you must consume additional carbohydrates to compensate for this increased activity.
Examples of healthy carb sources include (but are not limited to): rice, quinoa, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, oats, buckwheat, bananas, blueberries, oranges, beetroots, strawberries, and blackberries.
Dietary fat is essential for cellular growth, helps protect your organs, and also aids in the production of crucial hormones. Avoiding fat would certainly be a drastic mistake, however, when it comes to post-workout foods, fat is the least essential macronutrient.
Rehydration is Also Important
Drinking water before, during, and after a workout is also essential. When we workout, we can lose over a liter over water per hour, which can drastically increase the risk of becoming dehydrated.(8)
Even a 5% decrease in hydration can cause fatigue or dizziness, as the brain is made up of 75% water.(9) A 10% decrease causes physical and mental issues, and death begins to occur at a 15% loss of water in the body.
Oftentimes, we may think we're tired when the real culprit is actually dehydration. Our modern lifestyles include many different dehydrators, like colas and coffee – and most of us simply don't drink enough water, to begin with.
Replenishing your fluids is very important for recovery, as is replenishing your electrolytes. The longer you exercise for, the more critical both of these things become.
Post-Workout Meal Suggestions
There are many great post-workout meals you can consume. The best options will be a combination of protein and carbohydrates. Here are a few recommendations:
● Yogurt, granola, and fruit
● Cottage cheese and fruit
● Grilled chicken and sweet potatoes
● Protein powder and fruit smoothie
● Cereal and skim milk
● Crackers and tuna
● Avocado, eggs, and berries
● Peanut butter with rice cakes
● Protein shake and apple slices
While there’s a lot of information out there, the scientific evidence is clear that a post-workout meal containing carbohydrates and protein can be beneficial to your recovery -- the sooner you can consume protein and carbs after leaving the gym, the better the results seem to be.
One of the most convenient ways to hit this target is to simply consume a protein shake with a little bit of fruit. This method does not require much effort and provides excellent results.
Of course, many other meals can be consumed post-workout, as well. The key is to focus on the highest quality foods available to make sure that your body gets all of the essential nutrients it needs to recover.
- “Exercise, protein metabolism, and muscle growth.”Tipton, K.D., Wolfe, R.R. International Journal fo Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. Mar. 2001.
- “Increased rates of muscle protein turnover and amino acid transport after resistance exercise in humans”Biolo, G., Maggi, S.P., Williams, B.D., Tipton, K.D., Wolfe, R.R. American Journal of Physiology Endocrinology and Metabolism. Mar. 1995.
- “Control of muscle protein breakdown: effects of activity and nutritional states.”Wolfe, R.R. International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. Dec. 2001.
- “Muscle protein synthesis in response to nutrition and exercise”Atherton, P.J., Smith, K. Journal of Physiology. Jan. 2012.
- “Dietary protein for muscle hypertrophy.” Tipton, K.D., Phillips, S.M. Nestle Nutrition Institue Workship Series. Jul. 2013.
- “Effect of glycogen availability on human skeletal muscle protein turnover during exercise and recovery”Howarth, K., Phillips, S.M., Macdonald, M.J., Richards, D. Journal of Applied Physiology. Aug. 2010.
- “International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing”Kerksick, C., Stout, J., Campbell, B., Wilborn, C., Kredier, R., Kalman, D., Ziegenfuss, T., Lopez, H., Landis, J., Ivy, J., Antonio, J. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Oct. 2008.
- “Water Requirements During Exercise in the Heat”Gisolfi, C.V. Nutritional Needs in Hot Environments. 1993.
- “Effects of Dehydration and Rehydration on Cognitive Performance and Mood among Male College Students in Cangzhou, China: A Self-Controlled Trial”Zhang, N., Du, S.M., Zhang, J.F., Ma, G.S. International Journal of Environmental and Public Health Research. 1993.