Proper nutrition intake is one of the most important factors in achieving body composition changes. The cliche saying that you cannot outwork a bad diet couldn’t be more true. However, the real question isn’t if you can outwork a bad diet, but what should your diet look like after you workout? Post-workout nutrition is an often overlooked component of exercise. Many people think if they just hit the gym, they’re going to build muscle and lose fat automatically. Unfortunately, there are many other factors that play a role in gaining results, and one of the most important factors is your post-workout nutrition.
What is the Purpose of Post-Workout Nutrition?
Your body processes different nutrients in different ways depending on your activity level. By consuming the proper nutrients after a workout will lead to an improvement in your recovery, which intern will lead to improvements in your body composition and performance. There are three major purposes to consuming the right nutrients once you are done working out:
- Increase protein synthesis (building new muscle)
- Decrease protein breakdown (damage done to your muscles during exercise)
- Replenish glycogen (energy stores)
When you workout at a high enough intensity, your muscle tissue breaks down at the microlevel. This is a good thing if you are trying to build muscle, as long as you are using proper post-workout nutrition to slow the tissue breakdown. The protein synthesis that is happening during your workout is significantly lower than the tissue breakdown, so if you are not slowing down the tissue breakdown, and increasing the protein synthesis, your muscles will not be able to recover as quickly or efficiently- hence leading to lesser results. The relationship between protein breakdown and protein synthesis represents the metabolic basis for muscle growth. Muscle hypertrophy, or in other words muscle growth, happens when there are enough nutrients to aid in keeping protein synthesis from lagging behind the protein breakdown.
Do Carbohydrates Count?
If you have the goal of building muscle, carbohydrates play a big role in recovery. When you workout at a high intensity, the glycogen stores within your body get depleted. These glycogen stores are what our body uses as fuel for energy. However, one of the most important roles of glycogen during post-workout is the function of enhancing the role of insulin to transport nutrients into the cells. Consuming protein after an intense workout is important, but the effects of it can be limited without consuming carbohydrates as well. This is why it is such a struggle for endurance athletes to maintain muscle mass. Once their glycogen levels get depleted, their body will start to breakdown protein faster than it can be synthesized.
The Window of Opportunity
Once your workout is over, your muscles are in a prime state to accept nutrients that will help in recovery and muscle growth. This window is referred to as the “Window of Opportunity.” This window of opportunity opens immediately after your workout and can last up to a quick two hours post-workout. Taking advantage of this window is critical to reaping the most amount of benefit from your workout. Even if you delay to the outermost edge of this window of opportunity, you can decrease glycogen storage and protein synthesis, limiting the number of gains you will get from your workout.
So What Should You Eat?
If you haven’t figured out by now, the two most important players in the recovery game are protein and carbohydrates. Eating a whole food meal is good, but even better is consuming a liquid shake immediately following your workout. This is because a whole food meal takes much more time and energy to digest, and get the nutrients to where they should be delivered. This delay in delivery also delays your recovery, which will stunt the amount of growth you will be able to achieve. Once you consume a liquid meal immediately following your workout, you can consume a whole food meal within two hours to increase the recovery from your workout. It doesn’t take much to stimulate protein synthesis and slow down protein breakdown immediately after your workout. Starting with between 30-40 grams of rapidly digesting carbohydrates, along with 15-20 grams of protein, immediately following your workout will make a major impact on how your body recovers.