Anyone interested in getting the most out of their workout knows that exercise is only half of the picture. Without proper nutrition, even the most intense training regimen will fall flat.
But what is proper athletic nutrition? For years, athletes have been told that it means eating a mixture of carbs and protein right after a workout ends. Does that really make sense? Or is eating the right sort of food throughout the day more important than what you do right after your exercise?
Most people exercise to achieve a dual goal: losing fat while gaining muscle. Athletes may focus on gaining muscle, while overweight folks might only care about losing fat, but working out will generally set you on a track to accomplish both.
Muscle growth can be expressed simply as a state in which muscle protein synthesis is greater than muscle protein breakdown. During exercise, muscles undergo intense stress. As a result, old muscle proteins break down, and new proteins are created in a synthesis of muscle fibers into strands called myofibrils.
But this doesn’t happen when you’re at the gym. It happens during rest, which is why sleep is also a key part of a good workout. And for it to happen at all, the body needs the right amount of protein to fabricate new muscle fibers in the first place.
Everyone agrees with these basics. What can be a bit confusing is how to get the right nutrients to support performance during exercise, and recovery from the workout.
A Familiar Story
According to prevailing wisdom, there is a ‘post-workout window’ of 30-90 minutes in which the body is primed to direct nutrients towards protein synthesis at rates far above average. As one coach told me, blood flow to muscles increases by up to 70 or 80 percent after intense exercise. That’s precisely why consuming protein and carbs within this anabolic window is key: more of them will go to rebuilding muscles than they would if consumed 3 hours out.
It’s Not That Simple
Do a little digging, and this story falls apart. It’s just too simplistic to account for the many variables that impact exercise and recovery. We all know that nutrients don’t enter our bodies already digested. So, if there really is a ‘post-workout window,’ shouldn’t we be focusing more on what we eat 3 or 4 hours before the workout, than what we do immediately afterwards?
What about people who eat paleo or keto and don’t get most of their energy from carbohydrates? Or the differences between endurance and intensity workouts?
The post-workout window simply does not deserve the attention it gets from athletes.
Still, that doesn’t answer the question of what a good post-workout meal looks like.
Look at the Big Picture
Since no post-workout meal is digested immediately, athletes should focus more on having a well-rounded diet than on stocking up on protein powder. And they should toss post-workout carbs out the window. While there is plenty of evidence supporting the claim that high-protein diets support the anabolic process, one recent study described carbohydrate dosage as “a gray area lacking cohesive data to form concrete recommendations.”
Once athletes are confident that their overall diet is giving them the right balance of nutrients, then they can start honing in on the post-workout meal plan. Rather, make that the pre- and post-workout meal plan.
Protein is King
While the evidence for a significant anabolic window effect is hazy, most researchers agree that it’s important to stock up on protein-rich food sources both before and after exercise. The question of how much protein is a difficult one, mostly because every athlete, every diet, and every workout is unique.
That being said, one simple guideline is to dose protein at 0.4-0.5 grams per kilogram of LBM, or Lean Body Mass, before and after the workout. That way, someone who has 75 kilograms of lean body mass would eat between 30 and 37.5 grams of protein before and after exercise.
Experts now recommend eating a solid meal 1-2 hours before the workout, and 1-2 hours afterwards, following the protein guideline mentioned above. That way, you support the heightened amino acid demands of strenuous workouts and recovery.
And if recent research is to be believed, nothing you eat as you prepare or recover from exercise is as important as what you do day in and day out. So, if you want to gain muscle, toss out the protein shake – and start planning your meals. If you’re too busy to prepare a well-rounded, protein-rich meal before and after your workout, consider ordering a meal plan to ensure that you get the most out of your exercise.