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When I first started training, there was nothing I looked forward to more than my post-workout meal. It was the time when my muscles were starved for food. But more importantly, I thought it was a time when my body needed a massive insulin surge to take carbs and transform them into hard earned muscle.

In my mind, insulin meant sugar, and sugar meant Frosted Flakes. (And lots of Frosted Flakes, as in several very large bowls.) After all, I was convinced my body was like a sponge after a workout and would soak up all the carbs.

Turns out, my mindset regarding the need for significant carbs after a workout was misguided. Of all the ingredients involved in building the body you want, there’s a certain mystique about the role and importance of the meal you enjoy after your workout.

There’s no shortage of information and opinions on what you should eat, how much you should eat, the importance of the timing, and the dangers of what you risk by not emphasizing this meal. And while timing is not insignificant, the latest research indicates that most what we thought was true about the post-workout meal no longer holds as much accuracy.

One of the most common suggestions revolves around the consumption of carbs after your exercise session. While consuming carbs after a workout is perfectly fine—and carbs are necessary for muscle growth—our bodies don’t need as many carbs as we think. More importantly, we don’t need to load up on simple carbs (think sugar) in order to refuel and see changes.

The New Rules of Post-Workout Meals

The biggest problem with focusing on what to eat after your workout is that we tend to view this meal in isolation. Instead, it’s best to be aware of what you had before your workout, or if you train in the morning, what you had for your last meal before you sleep.

Your body doesn’t run on a short-term fuel supply. Your glycogen (muscle energy, if you will) is filled up anywhere between 350 to 500 grams of carbohydrates. If those numbers don’t mean much to you, that’s more than enough fuel to get you through your weight training workout; and plenty for most endurance sessions, too.

Your goal is to promote muscle protein synthesis (muscle growth and repair), and for that to happen, you don’t need a massive insulin spike. In fact, research has shown that a moderate amount of protein and carbs (or even protein alone, more on that soon) can max out the muscle protein response after exercise.

In this study, scientists found that insulin is “permissive rather than stimulatory.” Instead, it’s to make sure you activate insulin and allow it to do its job.

Translation: the goal isn’t to jack up insulin to see a greater response.  More carbs and insulin is not better and does not accomplish more.

Pre-Workout v.s. Post-
Workout: A Team Approach

This certainly differs significantly from the general ideology passed down from some supplement companies. The commonly held belief is that if you don’t use fast-acting carbs immediately after a workout, then you won’t elevate your insulin levels, you won’t recover, your body will shrink, and all potential gains will be lost.

Your body isn’t carb-dependent because post-workout because you ate before your workout can have a big impact.

In fact, a pre-exercise meal can help ensure that your insulin levels remain elevated up until your workout is over. If you eat protein and carbs before you train, insulin can remain elevated for several hours. And if you don’t like solid foods, combining 6 grams of essential amino acids with about 35 grams of carbohydrates can keep insulin levels about four times higher than fasting levels for about two hours.

This isn’t to tell you must eat before you train (it’s completely goal dependent and also a matter of how well you digest food before you exercise).

Instead, it’s to emphasize how easy it is to create an insulin response that will help your body before, during, and after training. And more importantly, it allows you to know the flexibility involved in choosing what you eat before or after a workout without having to worry that you must follow a specific plan that might not feel right for you. (This is something I’ve tested with clients and have found to be much more beneficial than rigid plans.)

Insulin’s ability to prevent muscle protein breakdown and maximize muscle protein synthesis isn’t dependent on massive amounts of carbs (because you’re not completely depleting your glycogen stores), and doesn’t require a special carb blend.

This is another instance of people majoring in the minor. The, “I need magical fast-acting carbs from waixy maize within 30 minutes of training” is not as important as focusing on the bigger picture. In this case, making sure you have some protein and carbohydrates after a meal, and focusing on a good overall diet.

Whereas many people believe that the 5 percent is where winners are made, it’s really where the most stress occurs, arguments erupt, and progress can stall.

Master the big picture details first, and you’re likely to see more results, have better compliance, and achieve much better clarity. Then you can tackle the most specific details.

What is Best to Eat After a Workout

The urgency of a post-workout meal is significantly exaggerated. Moreover, most research with glycogen depletion and repletion focuses on endurance athletes. If you’re a runner putting in serious mileage, for instance, your need for glycogen-replenishing carbs is greater but still not urgent—and it’s on both ends of the spectrum.

Most people who have exercised are familiar with the concept of carb-loading. And yet, research published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that bumping up carbohydrates to more than 50 percent of their diet (and maxing out at 75 percent) didn’t improve muscle glycogen and only led to a minor 5 percent improvement in their performance. In other words, all those extra carbs are not worth it. (Although the meals might be enjoyable.)

When it comes to weight training, your body is in even less of a need for the instant carb surge. That’s because most weight workouts—even the more aggressive approaches in the 45 to 60 minute range—won’t come close to depleting your glycogen stores.

And if you do eat a preworkout meal, that need is even less as the food you ate beforehand is most likely still being absorbed by your body even after you’ve finished.

What’s more, even if you don’t eat carbs before a workout and skip them in the time period immediately after you train, as long as you eat carbs several hours later your body will still recover and glycogen resynthesis will occur within about 24 hours. (Yes, the body is an amazing machine.) Consider this good news as the benefits of the post-workout meal period are experienced for a longer period of time.

The majority of the most recent research emphasizes that timing is less important than the total amount of food you eat, and the macronutrient ratios (of proteins, carbs, and fats) you consume.

That’s not to say eating after a workout isn’t important; rather, “after a workout” is just a much longer period of time than originally thought. In fact, the idea of the “small anabolic window” is minimized with each passing year (this is not a bad thing).

It now appears that your post-workout window is really open for about 24 hours rather than 30 to 60 minutes, with the first 4 hours being when you want to make sure you eat or have a shake. 

That means more flexibility with your meals and not feeling forced to slog down a shake if you’re not hungry.

Just as valuable is the research that suggests the increasing importance of protein after your workout. A study published in 2010 found that adding carbs (about 50 grams) to 25 grams of whey protein did not increase post-exercise protein balance compared to the protein without carbs.

As for carbs? Unfortunately the research just isn’t as clear. This excerpt is from a research review in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition on nutrient timing published by Alan Aragon and Brad Schoenfeld.

It is tempting to recommend pre- and post-exercise carbohydrate doses that at least match or exceed the amounts of protein consumed in these meals. However, carbohydrate availability during and after exercise is of greater concern for endurance as opposed to strength or hypertrophy goals.

Furthermore, the importance of co-ingesting post-exercise protein and carbohydrate has recently been challenged by studies examining the early recovery period, particularly when sufficient protein is provided. Koopman et al 52 found that after full-body resistance training, adding carbohydrate (0.15, or 0.6 g/kg/hr) to amply dosed casein hydrolysate (0.3 g/kg/hr) did not increase whole body protein balance during a 6-hour post-exercise recovery period compared to the protein-only treatment….

For the goal of maximizing rates of muscle gain, these findings support the broader objective of meeting total daily carbohydrate need instead of specifically timing its constituent doses. Collectively, these data indicate an increased potential for dietary flexibility while maintaining the pursuit of optimal timing.

Lab to the Kitchen: Designing
Post-Workout Meals

What does it all mean? There is no “perfect meal” for after your workout. While the post-workout time period is still important and valuable, when it comes to achieving your goals, what you eat after (or even before) a workout is less important than meeting your overall calorie and macronutrient guidelines for the day.

If you are someone who tracks calories or macros, your daily goals should be focus 1A and 1B. In general, days where you train you should eat more carbs, and days when you don’t train you’ll most likely have less.

From there, determining what to eat post-workout depends on your preference. If eating pre-workout leaves you feel groggy or sick to your stomach, some branched-chain amino acids or potentially fasting (research has shown that protein breakdown is elevated after fasting and eating after training while fasted can have a positive effect; or if you don’t fast not eating 3 to 4 hours before your workout can be beneficial because a meal of protein and carbs can keep amino acid levels elevated for up to 6 hours) might be best for you.

But if you still need more direction for your post-workout meal, your top priority is probably protein. That’s because research shows that if you eat protein any time around your workout (before, during, after) then you have a similar increase in muscle protein synthesis.

Anywhere between 20 and 40 grams of protein before or after (or both) should do the trick, and based on Aragon’s research, a similar amount of carbs should work—although the science is not as definitive.

If you’re worried about eating fat in your post-workout meal, well, don’t. The idea that post-workout fat will slow down an “anabolic effect” of protein is unsubstantiated in any research. While protein and carbs are still the preferred nutrients, having some fat (think eating eggs) is not going to slow your process.

What you eat during the course of the day matters more than what you eat before or after your workout. In the post-workout meal prioritize protein over carbs, and when adding carbs understand there’s no need for massive amounts to raise insulin. This is not an anti-carb approach. Instead, it’s a matter of realizing the lack of urgency for carbohydrates post-workout, and understanding that you don’t need to consume excess amounts of carbs to recover properly.

Matt Sills