You’re on your way back from one hell of a workout at the gym and you’re exhausted! I mean who wouldn’t be after doing 20 minutes of HIIT followed by a good hour of work on your back, biceps, and hamstrings. You owned up to the challenge! You busted your butt! And now you’re ready to PASS OUT!
You walk through your front door and get ready to plop yourself on the sofa when all of a sudden that annoying voice in your head reminds you that you should probably eat something. But what?! You’re way too tired to make anything. Heck, you can barely even lift your arms. So, you go to the fridge, grab an Activia yogurt, and call it a day. I mean, it’s not like you’re all that hungry anyway!
Time and time again I come across people that fail to take their post-workout nutrition seriously. They put in their time, they sweat hard, they lift heavy, and then come home and have a latte or granola bar to “hold them over” till their next meal.
WORST. HABIT. EVER!!!
So today I intend to focus on what is, in my opinion, the MOST important aspect of exercise nutrition – the post-workout meal. Understanding how to nourish yourself is a critical component of the fitness equation and is really the ONLY WAY to maximize your efforts in the gym. There’s no point in sweating your face off every day if you’re not going to give your body what it needs!
So let’s start by discussing the “window of opportunity” that exists after you work out and why it’s so important to refuel your body during this time. In a nutshell, exercise places a significant amount of stress on your body. Whether you’re doing endurance training or lifting weights, exercise depletes your muscle’s fuel resources (glycogen) and tears down your weaker muscle fibers, all with the purpose of building you into a better aerobic machine with bigger, stronger muscles. During the phase immediately after your workout, signals are generated to tell your body to repair and rebuild itself. However, without the proper protein and carbohydrate raw materials, the rebuilding process can’t effectively take place. What are you left with? Muscles that never reach their potential!
The “Window Of Opportunity”
Immediately after you finish your workout, your body begins to act like a sponge – absorbing as many carbohydrates and amino acids as possible for repair and recovery INSTEAD OF fat storage. This is called the “window of opportunity”, and it lasts for about an hour after you work out. To illustrate how quickly the window closes, research has shown that your body’s ability to refill muscle energy stores decreases by 50 percent if you wait to eat just two hours after your workout compared to eating right away. Timing is everything!
So, what should you be eating during this window?
Carbohydrates are an extremely essential part of your post-workout nutrition. Not only are carbs used by your body to restore depleted muscle glycogen, but they also create an insulin spike which helps move nutrients to your muscle tissue quicker!
What kinds of carbs are best? Well, the answer is actually kind of a fun one.
Because your body is literally CRAVING carbs post-training, you can get away with eating plenty of fast-digesting carbs without having to worry about body fat. Essentially, “bad carbs” become “good carbs”! YAY!
That’s right. Typically, “bad carbs” are those that lack fiber, nutrients, and release glucose quickly into the blood stream. What are some examples? Pasta, potatoes, and white rice. But in the case of your post workout meal, “bad carbs” are actually considered “good carbs” because you’re looking to maximize the speed of absorption. Fiber isn’t the answer here. You want simple carbohydrates, like the ones you might typically avoid at any other time of the day! I’d still avoid consuming highly processed foods. Stick with natural forms of simple carbohydrates, such as fruit, which can also provide your body with other sources of nutrients and fiber. Personally, bananas are my favorite because they taste great and provide the body with solid dose of potassium (a mineral and electrolyte involved in muscle and nerve function that helps maintain the acid-base and electrolyte balance in the body).
How much do you need? Research has shown that a carb intake of 0.8 to 1.2 grams per 1 kilogram of body weight maximizes glycogen synthesis and accelerates protein repair. However, I’d recommend you be VERY realistic about how “intense” your workouts really are, because consuming 1.2g/kg may lead to body fat if you’re not careful!
While carbs are essential, it’s also important to include some high-quality protein in your post-workout meal. This protein will stop your body from breaking down muscle tissue for energy and will initiate the process of rebuilding and repairing your muscles.
Let’s go back to the “window of opportunity” for a second, because it plays an important role in our discussion about what type of protein you should be consuming. Just because you put food into your body quickly, doesn’t mean that the food is actually being digested and absorbed by your body as quickly. So when we’re talking about good sources of protein to eat post workout, it’s important to think about what kind of protein will digest the fastest! While chicken, lean meat, fish, and eggs are all great sources of protein in general, the best source of protein after working out is whey protein powder. Not only do liquid meals digest faster than solid food meals, but whey protein is the fastest digesting form of protein there is! Whey contains all the essential amino acids required by the body every day. It also contains the highest level of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). BCAAs go straight into your muscle tissue, they’re the first amino acids used while you are working out, and they also help muscles from breaking down during and after a workout!
If you’re unable to get your hands on some good quality whey, consider eating egg whites as a substitute. Egg whites have been a bodybuilding staple for years! Unlike whole eggs, which contain significant amounts of fat, egg whites are completely fat free and easy to absorb.
How much protein should you aim for? Researchers recommend that you consume anywhere 0.4g – 0.6g of protein per 1 kilogram of body weight after an intense workout.
Not much needs to be said about consuming fat after a workout.
In short: STAY AWAY from it!
While consuming essential fat is a vital part of your daily nutrition, it has no place in your post workout intake. Fat tends to slow down the digestion process, which only delays the time it takes for your body to get the proteins and carbs it needs. So after working out, stick to replenishing your body’s glycogen and reducing, not adding to, the amount of fat your body stores!
Liquid Vs. Solid Food
Not only are liquid meals significantly easier to prepare when you’re exhausted from working out, much of the latest research also shows that liquid formulas containing fast digesting protein and carbohydrates are absorbed far more quickly than whole food meals. A liquid meal may be fully absorbed within 30 – 45 minutes, whereas a solid meal may take somewhere between 2 – 3 hours! When thinking about the “window of opportunity”, it’s obvious that liquid nutrition is the winner.
The choices you make after working out are essential to keeping your energy up, your workout performance high, and your body in fat-burning mode. So grab your magic bullet, throw in a scoop of protein powder, and get creative with the other ingredients! Frozen fruit, bananas, natural peanut butter, coffee – the options are limitless! J