Whether you are male or female and have a goal to gain muscle, lose fat, shape up or improve or maintain your fitness and body composition; don’t waste all that hard work training by not having your all important post-workout nutrition spot on. Gain the results you are after with this guide.
Ladies, please put down your Acai bowls and listen up as this article is for you too. Ensuring you consume proper nutrition is going to help you lose fat, tone up and create your goal body – not end up looking like the hulk. Proper nutrition and exercise will give you a firm perky butt, strong body, toned abs and shapely feminine curves.
Without getting too deeply into the nitty gritty science of it, let’s break it down into what you need to know…
Post workout nutrition is a well-studied and written about topic, and for good reason. Studies have shown that the benefits of effective post workout nutrition for both athletes and recreational exercisers of all types include:
- Improved ability to utilise and burn fat
- Improved body composition
- Improved recovery & performance
- Increased ability to build muscle
- Improved bone mass
- Improved immune function
- Decreased muscle soreness
Effective post-workout nutrition is necessary to:
- Replenish glycogen and energy stores for recovery
- Increase muscle protein synthesis (anabolism) to repair damage caused by exercise
- Decrease protein breakdown (catabolism) & increase muscle size or density
When we exercise (and we are talking weights, HIIT sessions, sprints, sports, endurance – a yoga session or brisk walk doesn’t exactly count here) we damage, tear and breakdown muscles and deplete muscle protein and glycogen stores (this is carbohydrates broken down into glucose and stored in muscle tissue). Our body responds to this short-term stress by repairing less adapted muscle into stronger, more functional muscle – known as remodelling – and our immune system activates to clear out the debris.
Now this can only happen if we provide our body with the right raw materials to signal the body to do so. In order to repair and remodel damaged muscles the rate of muscle protein synthesis needs to be higher than muscle protein breakdown for anabolism (growth) to occur. If not, muscle breakdown will occur, and this is what we need to stop.
Amino acids (protein) are crucial for creating a positive nitrogen balance to increase protein synthesis. There is one amino acid in particular that is crucial for making these amino acids work – leucine – by stimulating mTOR pathways signalling to our body that we have sufficient protein for growth. Studies show leucine requirement is around 10g total pre and post workout. Lucky for you most protein sources contain sufficient leucine, so as long as you eat a good source of protein pre and post workout you will have this covered.
Now we need to stop muscle protein breakdown and replenish glycogen stores. How do we do that? With two hormones, insulin and cortisol. When cortisol is raised your body breaks down muscle. Consuming carbs both pre and post workout decreases cortisol levels which are high both from the stress placed on the body from training and depleted glycogen stores. Consuming enough carbs and protein together creates an insulin spike which signals the body to stop muscle protein breakdown, as well as shuttles the nutrients (protein and carbs) into the damaged muscles tissues where we need it for repair, remodelling and replenishment.
So what do I eat?
A whole foods meal rich in protein and carbs with minimal fats.
The amount of protein and carbs is dependent on your body, goals, training, intensity, and length of workout – I have broken it down and given you a guide below. This is a general guide only as it is partly dependent on how well your body tolerates carbs (dependent on your insulin sensitivity and body composition). However don’t make the mistake of not eating enough or going too low carb post workout and missing out on the crucial benefits. It can look like a lot of food to begin with, but don’t be scared as your body adapts to an increase in carbs by speeding up metabolism.
Optimal nutrient timing – is the post-workout window fact or fallacy?
It’s not just bro-science, nutrient timing is crucial to results. Research shows that our body is primed to absorb nutrients best within 60 minutes post workout as muscles are highly insulin sensitive during this time and will utilise glycogen (carbs) and amino acids (protein) to rebuild and remodel damaged muscle tissue. Eating within this time frame ensures you will decrease inflammation, decrease cortisol and inhibit fat storage, and recover much faster.
Is sugar and fruit ok?
Post-workout is the one time we intend to create an insulin spike as I mentioned. For this reason some types of sugar in small amounts is ok (but put down the ice-cream tub and opt for real food and nutrients). E.g. adding a little manuka honey or rice malt syrup to protein pancakes, which both are excellent sources of immediate digesting glucose. Keep the majority of your carb source as starchy complex carbs (discussed below) for added nutrients, fibre and sustained energy.
With fruit, keep it minimal post-workout and mix it with starchy carbs (e.g. 1x small serve preferably low fructose fruits – i.e. ½ banana, handful berries). The main carb source in fruit is fructose which is too slow to digest and is stored in the liver not muscles where we want it to go post workout. Don’t take this as needing to eliminate fruit altogether, just keep it low post workout and eat it at other times instead.
But what about healthy fats?
There’s a time and a place for healthy fats in your diet, now isn’t one of them. Fats slow digestion rate and post-workout we want that meal to be digested and absorb quickly and efficiently. Save the fats for your other meals.
Create your perfect post-workout meal:
Immediately post workout –
- 20-30g natural protein shake – An immediate source of easy to digest protein to start protein synthesis. Use a natural grass-fed whey concentrate or vegan pea or rice protein (my preference as I find it easier to digest and gentle on the stomach). Opt for natural proteins over regular ones filled with sweeteners, preservatives, fillers and other nasties.
Within 60 minutes of workout –
- 1 x serve of lean protein:
- Free-range organic chicken, wild-caught white fish (preferably Aus. /NZ caught), kangaroo, grass-fed lean beef, egg whites, tofu.
- 110-150g for females & 150-200g (raw weight) for males. This will provide between 30-45g of protein which is more than enough. Research has shown that consuming more than this is pointless as your body won’t absorb it and if anything will only make your digestion sluggish (protein is incredibly hard for the body to break down).
- 1 x serve starchy complex carbs:
- Sweet or white potato (yes white potato is good too), brown or basmati rice, oats, quinoa, or buckwheat are best.
- Aim for approximately 0.8-1.2g carbs per kg of body weight (E.g. I am 61kg and eat between 200-250g brown rice which provides me with 50-60g carbs, being 0.8-1g per kg of my bodyweight). Some athletes refuel on a lot more than this. This is a conservative amount so if you’re hungry, add 1.5g +.
- 1 x serve vegetables:
- 1 cup. I use a lot of leafy greens post workout so my meal isn’t too big and difficult for me to digest.
- Don’t skip your greens. Not only will the micronutrients and phytochemicals play a role in metabolising food and other essential body functions but the fibre will keep digestion healthy and aid eliminating toxins and mobilised fats broken down during training.
- Salt & Pepper:
- Use either a Himalayan salt or Sea salt (never table salt) and any black pepper.
- Yes I am actually including this as an important part of post workout nutrition. You need to replenish electrolytes including sodium after training (especially if you sweat). Black pepper contains the enzyme Piperine which studies have shown to increase absorption of nutrients by 4 times! Likely the most economical simplest way to boost nutrient absorption. Be careful with pepper if you are prone to gut irritation or leaky gut as it can irritate the gut lining and cause increased permeability.
At the end of the day it can take a little trial and error to get your individual requirements right, again which are dependent on your training, goals, body type, weight and body composition. Seek advice from a qualified Nutritionist if you are after a personalised plan to maximise your results.
Train hard & eat well!