The Truth About Post-Workout Nutrition

Have you ever finished an amazing workout and felt completely drained of energy and exhausted within a few hours? The primary objective for a training session is to have clients leave the gym feeling better than when they walked in. But what is the point of leaving the gym on a high note, only to come crashing down within a few hours because your body hasn’t been refuelled? This is where post-exercise nutrition comes into play. Specifically, what and how much should you be eating/drinking after a workout? What can you do to maintain the post-workout buzz for longer and physically and mentally perform over the next 48 hours?

By enhancing post-exercising nutrition for when you’re returning to work or heading home for the night, you’ll be able to physically and mentally perform more effectively while also complementing your training and induce the metabolic adaptations to training. Basically, you’ll be giving your body every chance of adapting to the workout you’ve just finished.

So let’s break it down to three of the most important post-workout nutrients:

CARBOHYDRATES

When we exercise, our muscles require fuel to contract and produce movement. Fuel in the body comes in the form of fat and carbohydrates and these energy stores within muscles known as muscle glycogen stores become depleted during exercise. Research has also highlighted a significant relationship between muscle glycogen depletion and the subjective feeling of fatigue. Therefore, after exercise it is important to replenish muscle glycogen stores. The recommended post-exercise carbohydrate range is 1.0-1.5 g/kg of bodyweight (80-120g for an 80kg individual). For higher glycogen level replenishment it is recommended to ingest the carbohydrates within 30 minutes after exercise. However, if you are not exercising within the next 24 hours, the timing of ingestion is not as important provided that adequate carbohydrate intake is consumed over a 24-hour period. It is also recommended that a higher carbohydrate intake is required when attempting to build muscle and size, while lower intake is recommended when weight-loss is your goal.

PROTEIN

Following a bout of strenuous exercise, research indicates there is an increased amount of muscle damage in the respective muscles. The intake of protein following exercise can provide amino acids for the maintenance and repair of muscle proteins. While the recommended range varies within literature, there is a consensus that approximately 20g of protein should be ingested within 30 minutes post-exercise. This number may be increased to approximately 25-30g of protein for individuals completing high intensity strength, speed or endurance training, as the recommended daily protein intake for these individuals is increased from 0.8-1.0g/kg of bodyweight (BW) to 1.5-2.0g/kg BW. It is worth noting that intake of protein should be from dietary sources and additional supplementation is not required. However, if you’re returning to the office with a busy schedule following a workout, supplementation such as a protein shake is a sufficient option to attain post-exercise protein.

A common question I am asked as a trainer is “If a serving of chicken has more protein per serving than steak, is chicken a better option?” In short, no. Providing that each option has sufficient protein per serving (20g), each option is suitable. However when protein is consumed in excess, it is stored within the body as ketone bodies (fat) if it is not used as a fuel source. It is also important to consider other nutrients such as fat content and how the other nutrients within each option align with your training goals.

WATER

During exercise the average sweat rates are 0.5-2.0L/hour, and athletic performance can be significantly impaired when 2% or more of body mass is lost through sweat. This performance decrease typically occurs during 60-90 minutes of exercise. Furthermore, weight loss of 4% due to sweat may lead to serious conditions such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke. In addition to physical performance, a dehydrated state can lead to deficits in cognitive performance. As a result, it is important to replenish fluids during and following exercise to maintain athletic and cognitive performance.

So how do you tie this all together to maintain your post-workout buzz?There’s not one go to option for your post-workout nutrition, however, the best way to ensure your body is sufficiently refuelled is preparation. Whether it’s having a snack in your bag for your walk back to the office, having a designated place to buy your post-workout meal or bringing a protein shake with you, having a plan on how you’re going to refuel after your workout will ensure you’re capitalising on your training.

Here are a few simple post-workout snack/meal options you could try depending on your training goal:

Building Muscle and Size

Chicken and rice: A palm sized piece of chicken contains approximately 20-25g of protein, combined with a clenched fist size (1/2 cup) of rice will provide sufficient protein and carbohydrates required for your training goal.

High-carb protein shake: While there is a huge range of options, the majority of well-trusted brands contain approximately 20-30g protein that also come in vegan options. Most muscle gaining supplements will also contain 1:1 protein:carbohydrate ratios perfect for post-workout nutritional needs.

Weight Loss

Hard boiled eggs: 3 hard boiled eggs will contain sufficient protein for a post-workout meal. Whether eaten alone or added to a salad for lunch, hard boiled eggs are a convenient, high protein, low carb option.

Almonds: 2 cupped handfuls of almonds contains approximately 20g of protein. Almonds can easily be brought along with you for you to snack on while you walk back to the office or drive home.

Weight Maintenance

Cow’s Milk: 500mL of milk is a convenient and unique post-workout drink that not only contains sufficient protein and carbohydrates to refuel the body, cow’s milk has also been shown to induce muscle protein synthesis and rehydration.

Bananas: A banana or two is a convenient option to replace electrolytes and carbohydrates, particularly after a high-intensity cardio type workout. Adding a spoonful of peanut/nut butter to bananas is an additional option to replenish muscle protein if you’re wanting to maintain muscle mass.

Fish and potato/sweet potato: A whole hand sized (fingers included) piece of fish and one fist-sized potato (half if baked) will provide sufficient protein and carbohydrates after your workout.

It is important to note that these recommendations are based on the general fact that males are larger than females and will require greater serving sizes. Sian Porter, a consultant dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association explains “It’s proportional. If you’re a bigger person, you’ll need a bigger portion, but your hands will be bigger so the portion is adapted automatically.”

Whatever option you decide is most suitable for you and your training goals, it is important you have a plan in place to ensure you are refuelling your body after training. This will ensure you’re matching your training program and nutritional needs to achieve your goals.

Nathan Russell is one of our Senior Trainers based in Sydney. See his profile here.

References:

1. James, L., Stevenson, E., Rumbold, P., & Hulston, C. (2018). Cow’s milk as a post-exercise recovery drink: implications for performance and health. European Journal Of Sport Science, 19(1), 40-48.
2. Kerksick, C., Wilborn, C., Roberts, M., Smith-Ryan, A., Kleiner, S., & Jäger, R. et al. (2018). ISSN exercise & sports nutrition review update: research & recommendations. Journal Of The International Society Of Sports Nutrition15(1).
3. Mail, J. (2019). Handy guide to portion sizes: Never know how much food is too much?. Retrieved from https://www.gethealthyuk.com/News/101/handy-guide-to-portion-sizes-never-know-how-much-food-is-too-much#.XKKgXs8zZo4
4. Potgieter, S. (2013). Sport nutrition: A review of the latest guidelines for exercise and sport nutrition from the American College of Sport Nutrition, the International Olympic Committee and the International Society for Sports Nutrition. South African Journal Of Clinical Nutrition26(1), 6-16.
5. Rodriguez, N., DiMarco, N., & Langley, S. (2009). Position of the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Journal Of The American Dietetic Association109(3), 509-527.
6. Roh, H., & So, W. (2017). Fluid replacement following dehydration reduces muscle damage during exercise: A pilot study. Science & Sports32(4), 243-245.
7. Smith, M., Newell, A., & Baker, M. (2012). Effect of Acute Mild Dehydration on Cognitive-Motor Performance in Golf. Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research26(11), 3075-3080.

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