Expert Nutrition

Post Workout Meal Nutrition - What to Eat After Exercise

Your post workout meal is arguably the most important meal of the day and therefore some thought should be given towards what and when you are eating after exercise.

In particular the first 3-4 hours after exercise is the most important time to be ensuring adequate nutrition to maximise muscle growth, assist recovery and replace energy stores.

Why is the timing of post workout nutrition important?

When you exercise your muscles and bones are put under significant stress and your energy stores (in particular glycogen) become depleted. Exercise also promotes a catabolic state where your muscles start to breakdown and this continues post exercise until adequate nutrition is supplied to replace energy stores and promote anabolism (muscle growth) and recovery.

To help recover from exercise your body prepares itself to absorb the necessary nutrients required to replace the broken down muscle tissue and glycogen stores. If you wish to ensure the best recovery and maximise muscle growth you have a limited window of opportunity (timeframe) to deliver these nutrients and therefore both the nutrient timing along with the types of foods consume have the potential to influence results.

What to eat after exercise?

As discussed above, your body has a greater affinity for certain nutrients after exercise. You can enhance this absorbing power by consuming a combination of high glycemic index (GI) carbohydrates and fast acting proteins, both of which are absorbed quickly. This combination of foods will promote the production of insulin, an important hormone that helps to convert the rising blood sugar into muscle glycogen (to replace energy stores) and promote muscle growth by transforming blood proteins into muscle.

Main Goal of Post Workout Nutrition:
  • Restore muscle glycogen and blood glucose levels
  • Encourage muscle growth (anabolism) and reduce muscle breakdown (catabolism)
  • Provide vitamins, minerals and macronutrients to assist recovery and muscle growth

To help achieve these goals nutrient timing is important and therefore we will break this article into 2 parts, the glycogen window and the post workout meal.

The Glycogen Window: (0 – 30 minutes after exercise)

Immediately upon completion of exercise your muscles are screaming for nutrients and they will reach peak absorption capability within the first 30 minutes. Your main goal in this 30 minute window is to satisfy your glycogen needs by consuming carbohydrates.

Are post workout shakes worth it?

Sports drinks, meal replacements and protein shakes are a convenient way of delivering good nutrition to your body immediately after your workout to help satisfy the glycogen window. However it should be noted that the glycogen window gets its name for a reason. The biggest mistake that people make after a workout is to consume only protein (some shakes are 97% protein). Whilst your body needs protein for muscle growth, it also needs carbohydrates to replace glycogen stores and until muscle energy stores are replaced your body remains in a catabolic (muscle breakdown) state. Therefore the best post workout shakes provide a combination of a high GI carbohydrates (to promote insulin and replace glycogen stores) and highly bio-available, fast acting proteins (proteins that are absorbed quickly and easily utilised), such as whey protein.

A post workout shake is a great choice because liquid meals are easily digested and are better tolerated by the gut immediately after an intense training session. If you do not have access to a shake, an alternative method to replacing your glycogen stores is to consume high sugar fruits such as oranges, fruit juice or a sports drink.

There are a number of different post workout shake formulas on the market with different ratios of protein : carbohydrates. Regardless of what formula you choose you should be aiming to get 20 – 30 grams of protein such as whey, in combination with 50 – 60 grams of carbohydrates mixed with water.

After you have satisfied your glycogen window the next step is to follow it with a quality post workout meal.

Post Workout Meal (30mins – 3 hours)

As discussed above there is a greater affinity for certain nutrients after exercise, however some research has concluded that there is a 50% fall in this highly absorptive rate 2 hours post exercise. So whilst the post workout meal should be consumed within 3 hours of exercise, within the first 2 hours is believed to be better.

Is there an ideal time to be eating your post workout meal? Most professional athletes are recommended to satisfy their glycogen window within the first 30mins with a snack, drink or shake and then aim for a balanced post workout meal to be consumed approximately 45-60 minutes after exercise, assuming that there is no more exercise to follow. This is normally achieved with a shake or sports drink as they leave the gym followed by a post workout meal when they get home.

The follow up meal should consist of high quality whole foods. Complete protein from lean meat like grilled chicken, fish, or lean steak, complex carbohydrates like pasta, potatoes and rice, vegetables and good fats like olive oil.

Basic Post Workout Meal Sample:

  • 150 – 200 grams of Chicken breast
  • 2- 3 Cups of vegetables (including broccoli)
  • 2 cups of rice
  • 1 glass of juice

Conclusion
Good post workout nutrition will promote the metabolic process called anabolism that stimulates protein synthesis and muscle growth. Missing post-training meals will promote an extended period of catabolism which essential leads to the breakdown of your hard earned muscle. Therefore to maximise recovery and aid muscle growth appropriate post workout nutrition should be applied.

The glycogen window (first 30mins after exercise) provides an immediate opportunity to replace energy stores and switch your muscles from breakdown mode into growth. Using post workout shakes provides a good opportunity to meet these requirements as they are easily tolerated in a liquid form, provide a range of quality nutrients that are required and are easily prepared. Consume a protein shake or liquid meal immediately after your workout and a whole food meal within the next 1-2 hours.

If you wish to avoid using shakes, a high sugar drink such as fruit juice or sports drink would be a good start as you exit the gym, followed by a proper meal as soon as you get home.

To achieve the best results in the gym you need to combine good nutrient timing with a tailored, goal specific exercise program. If you haven't already, we encourage you to read the articles on nutrient timing and the pre workout meal to understand the whole concept. Alternatively refer to the article list below.

Related Bodybuilding Articles

Nutrition for Bodybuilders, Gym Junkies and Beach Bodies

Resistance Training 101

Muscle Building Nutrition Advice

Protein Powder and Gym Supplement Advice

Muscle Building Training Advice

Fit Body Photos and Images

These articles will provide you with the necessary tools to start a successful gym training or bodybuilding program. These principles are only the beginning. Remember that discipline, knowledge and consistency are the keys to achieving your goals. Good luck!

Over the coming months we will be developing this chapter. Please visit our blog and subscribe to our rss feed such that when new articles are added to this chapter you will be notified.

If you have any questions please don't hesitate to contact us for advice.

References:
http://www.sportsdietitians.com.au/resources/upload/GI_and_sports_performance.pdf
Burke, L.M., Claassen, A., Hawley, J.A., Noakes, T.D. (1998). No effect of glycemic index of pre-exercise meals with carbohydrate intake during exercise. Medicine & Science in Sports.
Nutrition in Sport (textbook); Chapter 6, 97-111, 2000 GI and insulin spikes
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition; 72, 96-105, 2000, Plasma insulin responses after ingestion of different amino acid or protein mixtures with carbohydrate
Exercise, 30, S82 (Abstract 471). http://www.ausport.gov.au/ais/nutrition/factsheets/body_size_and_shape2/increasing_muscle_mass, Pre and post training nutrition.
Ivy JL et al,J Appl Physiol 1988 Apr;64(4):1480-5
Zawadzki et al., J. Appl.Physiol. 72: 1854-1859, 1992,
Roy et al J Appl Physiol 1998 Mar;84(3):890-6

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