Let’s talk post workout nutrition. What to eat, when to eat it, and does it really even matter?
The public perception for what to eat after a workout is pretty well known. You need to drink a protein shake within 30 minutes of your workout or you lose your gains, right? It is interesting how this has always been the accepted post workout thing to do but it makes sense – it’s cheap, easy to consume, and supplement companies love it so they continue to push that narrative. Let’s talk about where this came from and how important it is?
Mainly two things happen when you workout. You deplete you glycogen stores and you create micro tears in your muscles. Some workouts will do more 1 than the other. Long distance running will deplete more glycogen (this is why studies show people who do long, slow distance running will actually eat more food on the days they run) while a strength session will create more micro tears. By the way, micro tears sounds like a bad thing but it’s actually how your body breaks down and builds back up muscle AKA how you get stronger.
To replenish glycogen stores, we want to eat carbs – specifically high GI carbs like fruit and white rice.
To rebuild muscle, we want to eat protein – whey protein shakes, chicken, or other protein sources.
You don’t really need fat after your workout, but it probably is not a negative like it is often portrayed. Fat can slow down digestion. In the past this was seen as a negative because of this “window of gains” idea. If you have fat with your protein, it won’t get digested fast enough to enter your muscles quickly.
Let’s talk about this window of gain’s idea. The idea was that your body just went through a workout and if you don’t get protein into your body ASAP you will lose some of the potential muscle gain you have created by working out because it wasn’t fueled properly. This was also perpetuated by supplement companies because most people aren’t hungry for a meal after they workout or don’t prepare one ahead of time so the easiest way to hit this window was to drink a protein shake.
In reality, we are learning that are body does not work in these small windows. You body is an amazing machine that knows one thing – how to survive. It knows how to increase and decrease your metabolism based on your food intake, store calories for later use, and use fat stores when it “needs” them. This means that whats most important is our intake over the day or even the week and not hour to hour. I think this is an important point to make because when most of us decide to eat healthy we focus on things like how many meals do we eat in a day, the timing of our carbs around our workouts and fats away from them, and what supplements we need to take. In reality 95%+ of your results are simply going to come from eating the right foods in the right quantities day after day. I have seen people have great results with 2 meals a day or others with 6 – as long as you are having the consistent intake you need, the other stuff is less important.
So if you are cleaning up your nutrition, My first focus suggestion would be to figure out how much you need to be eating in day. I highly suggest counting your food for a day or two to get an idea of how much food it actually is. Next I would focus on getting consistent protein intake throughout the day. A simple way to start would be to take your bodyweight and multiply it by .8 and that is your grams of protein for the day to start (most people are super deficient in protein so this number is a great start). Now divide that protein number by the number of meals that you want to eat in a day. Make up the rest of the plate with veggies and low GI carbs like oatmeal, sweet potatoes, brown rice. Now you have a pretty solid start to eating healthy.
Why am I talking about how to set up your whole day on a post workout nutrition post? Because if you aren’t doing the things I listed above, then your protein shake after your workout is not going to do much. It is the equivalent of eating cake for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and then eating some broccoli before bed. From a priority stand point you should get your whole day cleaned up before worrying about nutrient timing and when you eat what. I know cleaning up your day is hard and adding a protein shake is easy but the first one will produce the results you want much faster.
Ok, so now you are eating the calories you need in a day, getting in a good amount of protein, and having each meal have some carbs and veggies with it and you want to focus on your post workout nutrition. Let’s do it.
Right after you workout, you want to take in some carbs that are easy to digest (coconut water, fruit, apple juice, white rice) and some protein (can be meat sources or a protein shake). We want to keep fat intake down but don’t have to completely avoid it. As far as number of carbs, if you did a strength workout, keep it lower and if you went out and did a 5 mile run make them a little higher.
Options for post workout
1. Whey Protein Shake + Coconut Water
2. Chicken Breast + White Rice
3. Beef Jerky + Apple
4. Hard boiled eggs (no yolks) + Berries
Also, don’t stress about nailing this 30 minute window that we hear about. If the first time we can get this in is 90 minutes later, that’s completely fine. You definitely do want to get in the habit of eating within an hour of 2 from when you workout simply because you probably ate 90 minutes before you worked out and you don’t want to have to cram in all your food later in the day.
After you eat your post workout meal of choice, just plan to have your next meal when its convenient 2-4 hours later and build it around the same protein, veggies, and low GI carb sources we talked about. I would think of the post workout meal more in the frame of setting up your whole day to hit your protein and calorie numbers – it is giving you a great boost in protein and giving you some carbs.
Protein shakes are still a super helpful tool and you will still see me drinking out a shaker bottle after my workout. I use protein shakes to help me reach my protein intake for the day and I especially use them when I get in a pinch (like when I eat out somewhere and don’t eat a ton of protein, I can add a shake in later in the day to help out). Just make sure you look at the big picture instead of worrying about the window of gains.