Want to get the best results from your workout? Then think about what and when you eat after training. Nutritionist Christine Bailey discusses the importance of smart post-workout nutrition…
Ever heard the expression ‘you don’t build muscle in the gym’? Well, there’s a lot of truth in it. Exercise, whether strength or endurance training, is a catabolic activity which means protein breakdown rates increase soon after you finish working out and glycogen stores become depleted.
This is particularly true if you work out in a fasted state or if training sessions are longer than usual. It’s also one of the reasons why its really helpful to know about post-workout nutrition.
Which nutrients do I need post-workout?
The key goal of post-workout nutrition is to help improve performance, support recovery, repair any damage caused by your workout and to enable you to train harder the next time.
More specifically, the food you eat should help replenish your energy stores, decrease protein breakdown in the body and increase protein synthesis (or muscle building). So, what should you include in your post-workout nutrition meal?
Firstly, don’t skimp on protein. This doesn’t mean you have to down endless protein shakes, but protein is a woman’s best friend after a workout. It doesn’t matter if you have just been out for a long run or endured a heavy weights session – your body needs protein.
The reason? Protein stimulates muscle protein synthesis rates, initiating muscle building. If you want to build more muscle and get toned, then remember that muscle gain can’t occur until your protein synthesis rate is greater than its breakdown.
Eating protein will do this, but you don’t need platefuls of steak, either – studies suggest that around 20g is sufficient for maximising muscle protein synthesis.
After a workout, aim to include around 20-30g of protein in a meal or snack. That’s not to say you can’t eat more, but if you are getting enough protein through the rest of the day, it isn’t necessary.
One of the most popular postworkout protein sources is whey protein. Whey is easily digested and a rich source of leucine, an amino acid shown to be especially important for protein synthesis. For vegans, a pea, or rice and pea, blend is a good option.
Do you need carbs? There is a debate over whether carbohydrates are absolutely necessary after a workout, and whether you benefit from them will depend on your training, its intensity and when you last ate.
Carbohydrates raise insulin which may aid muscle protein synthesis and recovery. However, studies have shown that, if you are consuming sufficient protein, this will elevate insulin sufficiently on its own.
What carbohydrates do appear to do is raise insulin levels higher, helping to suppress muscle breakdown rates. This means a combination of protein and carbs is likely to be a better option than protein alone.
The other benefit, particularly for high-intensity or endurance exercise, is that carbs help replenish glycogen stores and reduce fatigue. Your choice of carbs may depend on when you next want to train.
If you’re going to be working out again later in the day, you might want to choose quick-releasing carbohydrates such as that from a banana. Otherwise, some oats or toast is a good option.
The amount you need is not huge either. A simple rule of thumb is around 0.8g per kg bodyweight, or 30-40g (about the amount in a large banana).
Should you include fats in your post-workout meal? While fat may slow down digestion, there is no evidence that this hinders post-workout recovery. In fact, some studies suggest that whole milk is more beneficial than skimmed milk after training.
After longer training sessions, don’t overlook the importance of hydration. While it’s likely you will be consuming fluids during exercise, you still need to consider post-workout drinks.
Electrolyte drinks can be useful as they will also provide sodium, potassium and magnesium, but this doesn’t need to be a sports recovery drink a couple of glasses of coconut water may be sufficient.
When should I eat post-workout?
It’s a myth that you have to consume something within 30 minutes of completing your exercise
– good news for anyone who doesn’t feel hungry straight away! Numerous studies have shown that protein synthesis is elevated for at least 24 hours after a workout and may be longer.
That said, there is some evidence that taking protein within the first hour after exercise may lead to improved strength and recovery. This is likely to be because it helps lower the catabolic effect of the stress hormone, cortisol.
The importance of timing will also depend on when you last ate before your workout. If you train fasted in the morning, it’s likely your insulin and muscle protein synthesis levels are low, so it would make sense to eat soon after working out. But if you ate within a few hours of starting your workout, timing is less important.
What snack should I eat after a workout?
Try making one of these easy post-workout snacks for an after-exercise nutrition fix!
- Chocolate milk
- Cottage cheese and fruit
- Protein bar and banana
- Chicken wrap
- Greek yoghurt with berries and nuts
- Oatmeal (made with a scoop of protein powder)
- Smoked salmon and cheese bagel
- Scrambled eggs with toast
- Protein pancakes with fruit
Should I take post-workout supplements?
There is much hype around post-workout drinks and supplements, and while not essential, they can be beneficial.
Certain nutrients have been shown to improve lean muscle mass, decrease muscle damage, speed up recovery and reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). In addition, post-workout shakes are a good option if you can’t face food after training.
5 best post-workout supplements
Creatine supports muscle mass and strength, and research suggests taking it after working out is most effective. It’s a natural compound made up of the amino acids L-arginine, glycine and methionine.
Your body can produce creatine naturally but it can also absorb and store creatine found in meat, eggs and fish. If you’re vegan or vegetarian, your creatine stores are likely to be lower than others’, meaning supplementation may provide greater results.
Research shows creatine monohydrate also helps reduce muscle damage and soreness, increases the amount of glycogen your muscle can store and helps preserve lean muscle mass while restricting calories. You don’t need much either – just 3-5g post workout is enough.
Try…CreGAAtine (£25 for a 30-day supply).
A naturally-occurring amino acid found mostly in meat and dairy products, L-carnitine is important for energy production. Research shows supplementation can reduce exercise-induced muscle soreness, plus improve muscle repair and recovery. Aim for around 1-2g.
Try…myvitamins L-Carnitine Amino Acid (£14.99 for 120 tablets)
Ashwagandha has been used for hundreds of years in ayurvedic medicine and is known for its ability to help the body adapt to stress. It has been shown to improve recovery, lower cortisol and improve sleep quality.
Try…Raw Sport Adrenal Stress Formula Recover (£24.99 for 90 capsules)
Tart cherry extract:
Montmorency cherry juice is rich in anthocyanins, a type of flavonoid known for its antioxidant properties. Taken after training, it can help reduce oxidative stress, inflammation and DOMS, and improve recovery.
Try…Cherry Active Concentrate (£1.99 for a 30ml pack)
This is a great fruit extract rich in anthocyanins and shown in research to accelerate recovery, reduce muscle soreness, fatigue and increase blood flow for faster tissue repair. It also aids fat burning during moderate training.
Try…CurranNZ Blackcurrant Extract Capsules (£23.99 for 30 capsules)
Whey protein isolate:
Whey protein isolate is a form of whey protein that has been processed to remove fat and lactose.
Rich in leucine to support muscle synthesis, it’s easy to digest and makes a convenient way to consume optimal protein. Ideally, look for brands that avoid artificial sweeteners, fillers or sugars, and are sourced from organic milk.
Try…PhD Smart Bar Plant Bar (£2.50)