POST WORKOUT NUTRITION
WHAT IS POST-WORKOUT NUTRITION?
Post-workout nutrition is an intriguing topic and rightfully so. The basic idea is threefold:
- The body deals with nutrients differently at different times, depending on activity.
- What you consume before, during, and especially after your workout is important.
- By consuming particular nutrients after your workouts (aka post-workout nutrition), you improve your body composition, performance, and overall recovery.
Numerous studies have examined everything from the composition of the carbohydrate in post-workout drinks to exact amino acid combinations. Studies continue to reveal effective post-workout nutrition strategies for athletes and recreational exercisers of all types.
Generally, post-workout nutrition has three specific purposes:
- Replenish glycogen
- Decrease protein breakdown
- Increase protein synthesis
In other words, athletes/exercisers want to:
- replenish their energy stores
- increase muscle size and/or muscle quality
- repair any damage caused by the workout
- In doing so, they want to increase performance, improve their appearance, and enable their bodies to remain injury-free.
Proposed benefits of good post-workout nutrition include:
- Improved recovery
- Less muscle soreness
- Increased ability to build muscle
- Improved immune function
- Improved bone mass
- Improved ability to utilize body fat
These benefits seem to work for everyone, regardless of gender or age.
WHY ARE WORKOUT AND POST-WORKOUT NUTRITION SO IMPORTANT?
When we work out intensely, we damage tissues at the microlevel, and we use fuel.
This is what ultimately makes us stronger, leaner, fitter, and more muscular, but in the short term it requires repair.
Repair and rebuilding occurs through the breakdown of old, damaged proteins (aka protein breakdown) and the construction of new ones (aka protein synthesis) — a process known collectively as protein turnover.
Muscle protein synthesis is increased slightly (or unchanged) after resistance workouts, while protein breakdown increases dramatically. We’re doing a lot more breaking-down than building-up.
The relationship between these two parameters (rate of muscle protein synthesis and muscle protein breakdown) represents the metabolic basis for muscle growth.
Muscle hypertrophy occurs when a positive protein balance can be established during recovery — in other words, when we make sure we have enough raw materials available for protein synthesis to occur, so that it doesn’t lag behind protein breakdown.
This is especially difficult with endurance athletes as protein synthesis drops and protein breakdown goes up.
Studies show that this trend can be reversed – specifically, protein synthesis is stimulated and protein breakdown is suppressed when you consume the right type of nutrients after exercise.
Protein is not the only concern, however. During exercise sessions, stored carbohydrates can be substantially depleted.
Thus, during the postworkout period, we require protein and carbohydrates.
The raw materials we give our body through the consumption of food/supplements in the workout and post-workout periods are critical to creating the metabolic environment we desire.
WHAT TO EAT
As we’ve mentioned, post-workout nutrition requires two things:
- Protein to aid in protein synthesis
- Carbohydrates to help replace muscle glycogen (and to enhance the role of insulin in transporting nutrients into cells)
You could certainly eat a whole food meal that meets these requirements after exercise.
However, whole food meals aren’t always practical.
- Some people aren’t hungry immediately after exercise.
- Whole food digests slowly, and we want nutrients to be available quickly.
- A whole food meal that requires refrigeration might be less practical.
On the other hand, consuming a liquid form of nutrition that contains rapidly digesting carbohydrates (e.g., maltodextrin, dextrose, glucose, etc) and proteins (e.g., protein hydrolysates or isolates:
- might accelerate recovery by utilizing insulin for nutrient transport into cells;
- can result in rapid digestion and absorption; and
- is often better tolerated during and after workouts.
Data indicate that it may only take about 20 grams of protein after a workout to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis.
RULES FOR POST-WORKOUT MEALS
As a sports nutritionist, I consult for pro teams and privately counsel professional and competitive athletes in numerous sports, as well as fitness enthusiasts. Pros and weekend warriors definitely have different nutrition needs, but they do have one thing in common: In order to get the most out of being active, everyone needs to eat properly to help their bodies recover from the wear and tear of exercise.
Here are six rules to follow, and how to prevent overdoing it, which can cancel out the weight-loss benefits of breaking a sweat.
EAT WITHIN 30 TO 60 MINUTES AFTER EXERCISE
If you’ve had a particularly tough workout, try to eat a “recovery” meal as soon as possible. Exercise puts stress on your muscles, joints, and bones, and your body “uses up” nutrients during workouts; so post-exercise foods are all about putting back what you’ve lost, and providing the raw materials needed for repair and healing. In fact, it’s the recovery from exercise that really allows you to see results in terms of building strength, endurance, and lean muscle tissue. Not recovering properly can leave you weaker as you go into your next workout, and up your injury risk.
THINK BEYOND PROTEIN
Protein is a building block of muscle, so it is important post exercise, but an ideal recovery meal should also include good fat (also needed for healing muscles and joints), as well as plenty of nutrient-rich produce, and a healthy source of starch such as quinoa, sweet potato, or beans. These foods replenish nutrients that have been depleted, and provide energy to fuel your post-exercise metabolism. A great post-workout meal might be something like a smoothie made with either pea protein powder or grass-fed organic whey protein, whipped with fruit, leafy greens, almond butter or coconut oil, and oats or quinoa, or an omelet made with one whole organic egg and three whites, paired with veggies, avocado, and black beans.
KEEP IT REAL
The phrase “You are what you eat” couldn’t be more true. Nutrients from the foods you eat food are the foundation of the structure, function, and integrity of every one of your cells. Your body is continuously repairing, healing, and rebuilding itself, and how healthy your new cells are is directly determined by how well you’ve been eating. In short, your body is essentially one big miraculous construction site that’s open 24/7. So even if you’re lean and you burn a lot of calories, avoiding highly processed food and eating a clean, nutrient rich, whole foods diet can help you get the most out of all of your hard work, including cells that function better, and are less susceptible to premature aging, injury, and disease.
If weight loss is one of your goals, it’s important to not overestimate how much extra food you “earned” working out. In fact, it’s incredibly easy to “eat back” all of what you’ve burned. For example, in a one-hour elliptical session, an average woman burns about 490 calories. A large salted caramel Pinkberry contains 444 calories, and a 32 ounce high-protein pineapple smoothie from Smoothie King clocks in at 500 calories. Even if you don’t splurge on treats like these, you may be tempted to sneak a little extra almond butter, or be less mindful of your oatmeal or fruit portions, and those extras can add up. And if you’re going to be eating a meal within an hour of finishing up a workout, you don’t also need a post-exercise bar or snack. For more about how to prevent unwanted surpluses from interfering with your goals, check out my previous post Help! Why Can’t I Lose Weight with Exercise.
If you sweat heavily, exercise in high humidity (which prevents cooling of the body), or your workouts last longer than 60 minutes, you probably need a sports drink rather than plain water during exercise. These beverages are designed to keep you well hydrated, but they also provide electrolytes to replace those lost in your sweat (like sodium, which makes sweat salty; and potassium, which helps regulate heart rhythm), as well as fuel to keep you going. If your workouts are less strenuous, shorter, climate controlled, or not so sweaty, plain H2O is probably fine. The general rule of thumb is to drink at least two cups of fluid two hours before exercise, another two cups 15 minutes prior, and a half-cup every 15 minutes during. Post exercise, aim for two cups of water (16 ounces) for every pound of body weight lost, and monitor the color of your urine—if you’re well hydrated it should be pale.
WATCH YOUR ALCOHOL INTAKE
Many athletes and active people I work with enjoy imbibing a bit after working out. Alcohol in moderation is fine, but be sure to eat first to start the recovery process. Also, it’s important to know that alcohol has been shown to accelerate post-exercise muscle loss and the loss of muscle strength by as much as 40%. It can also interfere with replenishing glycogen, the storage form of carbohydrates you stock away in your muscles to serve as energy “piggy banks.” Less glycogen can translate into a lack of power or endurance during your next workout, so aim for moderation.