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Fact checked by Andrew Lenau, ISSA CPT & Sports NutritionistFACT CHECKED
Updated On: March 06, 2023
Your post-workout fuel is just as crucial as your pre-workout food. And if you’re only focusing on what you’re consuming before a gym session, you are only concentrating on a small portion of the overall big picture of sports nutrition.
The post-workout meal helps set the stage for recovery, refueling, and ultimately making sure you’re ready for your next workout. Whether your goal is muscle gain, fat loss, or a combination of the two, it's important to know what to eat and when to eat it to hit your gym and physique goals. This article will help you nail your post-workout nutrition by explaining:
Finally, we will provide some post-workout inspiration by including some meal ideas to help you get to your goal!
When working out at high intensities, like when you take on a calorie-torching HIIT workout, for example, we primarily use carbohydrates for fuel. These carbohydrates are stored in our liver and muscles as glycogen. As we continue to work out, our glycogen stores begin to deplete.
Furthermore, tiny proteins in our muscles begin to develop micro tears that need to be repaired. You want to prioritize carbs and protein post-workout so you can refuel energy stores and support muscle recovery. Getting even more specific, it's important to include the protein and carb sources on our best foods for muscle list to ensure you're supporting muscle repair properly.
Here are the nutrients you need to focus on:
The process described above is a catabolic process, which means we are breaking down all the nutrients (specifically carbohydrates & protein). The environment we create through working out can persist for some time until we create a more anabolic (building up) environment with the inclusion of nutrients, mainly carbohydrates, and protein.
Our muscles are extremely sensitive to carbohydrate intake and primed to replenish glycogen in the post-workout window. It has been demonstrated that carbohydrate intake immediately and for up to 2 hours have the most profound effect on glycogen storage1.
Wondering why this is important? If you are training 2 times a day or working out again the following day, like in this ultimate cutting workout, it is essential to have your glycogen stores refueled, so that you have the energy to perform your next workout.
When it comes to protein during your post-workout window, you want to make sure your intake is sufficient. Our muscles are comprised of proteins, and when we work out, we damage those proteins. This process is known as muscle protein breakdown.
To reverse this process, we need to ingest dietary protein to begin to get into a state of muscle protein synthesis. For optimal results, we recommend selecting a high protein low fat food. When we are in a state of muscle protein synthesis, it allows and gives our body the resources to begin repairing the damaged muscles from our workout, as well as potentially building muscle.
Depending on the intensity of your workout you're likely experiencing an increase in body temperature. To combat this increase in core body temperature, your body begins to sweat. Sweat is comprised mainly of water but also includes electrolytes and minerals such as sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium2.
Just like carbohydrates, it is in our best interest to replace what we’ve lost. We can see a decrease in performance and cognition with just a 2% loss in body weight3. To put that into perspective, that is 3.5 pounds for a 175-pound individual. That may seem like a lot of sweat, but average sweat rates per hour are 0.5 liters up to 4.0 liters3.
This equals roughly 1 pound up to 8.8 pounds during one hour of exercise. This means you need to drink plenty following a workout. To be sure you’re ready for your next workout, whether it's on the same day or the following day, it is best to consume water with the addition of sodium to rehydrate.
To do this effectively, dietary supplements such as oral rehydration solutions, a drink that typically consist of water, sugar, and electrolytes like potassium and sodium, will provide you with enough sodium to rehydrate. Depending on how much you sweat during your workout, anywhere from 300 milligrams up to 1000 milligrams should be sufficient.
We covered the Best Electrolyte Supplements on the market to help you rehydrate after a grueling workout.
A pre-conceived notion is that you must eat immediately after a workout. We've all seen gym-goers with their shaker bottles shaking up protein powder as soon as they get done with their last rep, believing that is the best time to drink a protein shake.
We now know that we have much more time after a workout to get the necessary nutrients in4. This is largely based on whether you had a pre-training meal. Here are some training scenarios and meal timing suggestions.
If you partake in fasted cardio or strength train in a fasted state, it would be wise to consume your post-training meal as soon as you can to move from a catabolic state to a more anabolic state. This is achieved by consuming a meal consisting of protein and carbohydrates.
If you're consuming a pre-training meal 1 to 2 hours before training, the amino acids in that meal can remain elevated well into the post-workout period due to the time it takes for digestion and absorption to occur.
In this case, you can have your post-workout meal immediately, or 1 to 2 hours post-exercise.
Looking at a different, but quite common, scenario, is training at lunchtime when your last meal may have been 4 to 6 hours before when you ate breakfast. In this scenario, it is best to have your post-workout meal immediately after, regardless of whether you indulged in a big bulking breakfast or opted for a smaller protein coffee instead. This is due to the duration between your last meal and your workout.
Your best bet is to consume a meal rich in protein and carbohydrates 1 to 2 hours before training to maximize your training efforts and consume a similar meal immediately to 1 to 2 hours after completing your workout.
If your schedule does not allow a pre-training meal, a whey protein shake consisting of 20 grams of one of the best protein powders will be sufficient to push that post-workout meal by a couple of hours.
When it comes to your post-workout meal, there are several nutrients we need to make sure we consume. Remember, protein and carbohydrates are of utmost importance.
Fat is the one macronutrient to limit in a post-workout meal. This is due to fats' role in digestion and absorption. Fat, even healthy fat, tends to slow this process down, which delays protein and carbohydrate transit to their much-needed targets in the body.
You can have some healthy fat in a post-workout meal but just use portion control here. We love nut butter as much as the next guy, but post-workout probably isn't the best time to eat a tub of it.
To reduce our fat intake and still get enough protein and carbohydrate intake, emphasize lean protein sources, such as chicken, lean beef, white fish, and non or low-fat dairy. Not only does this reduce the fat intake in the post-exercise timeframe, but depending on your calorie goals, you may be able to enjoy additional fat sources later on in the day.
Eating protein after working out ensures your muscle proteins can repair and recover while providing you with the necessary essential amino acids needed for optimal health. New muscle tissue won't grow if you don't get enough protein, making your plans to achieve muscle hypertrophy much harder to accomplish.
Looking for creative ways to boost your post-workout protein? Try whipping up a batch of high protein French toast.
For carbohydrates, look for sources low in fiber. Fiber is essentially a carbohydrate that, for the most part, cannot be metabolized by humans. We can find fiber in whole grains, like brown rice, whole grain toast, whole grain crackers, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. This does not mean we need to exclude these foods, but find sources that are lower in fiber following exercise.
These sources are typically called simple carbohydrates or refined grains. Consuming carbohydrates such as these after an exercise session is important due to their quick delivery of glucose to muscles, ensuring adequate muscle glycogen synthesis, and helping you avoid a drop in blood sugar. A sports drink is a good example of a simple carb that will deliver a dose of glucose. Both carbs varieties are beneficial, but make sure to include some simple ones for best energy refueling results.
When the goal is gaining muscle after a hard workout, you need to ensure that you are in a calorie surplus to build more muscle tissue. This gives your body the necessary resources to build new muscle.
There is one caveat to this, if you are new to working out, or have taken a long layoff, it's possible to gain muscle without being in a calorie surplus.
To increase overall daily calories, you should be prioritizing an increase in food intake throughout the day, and in the post-workout timeframe.
Now that you’re in a calorie surplus, it is best to consume 25-30% of your total daily carbohydrate goal in the post-workout window with the addition of 20 to 30 grams of protein.
The same healthy living principles are true for fat loss as they are for muscle gain. To lose fat, you need to be in a calorie deficit. There is not a certain meal or food that is going to elicit fat loss without being in a calorie deficit.
If you are in a calorie deficit and actively trying to lose fat, protein intake, and determining how much protein you need per day to build muscle, should be a high priority for you. When losing weight, we don't just lose fat, we lose both fat and muscle, and it can certainly hinder muscle growth, making body recomposition challenging.
In addition, if you aren't getting adequate nutrients at the correct times, it can be detrimental to muscle repair and cause an increase in muscle soreness. To combat this as much as possible, a higher protein intake is warranted to hold onto as much muscle as possible while losing fat. An appropriate range is between 0.7 to 1.1 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight5.
Just like gaining muscle, you want to prioritize your carbohydrate and protein intake after your workout. We would argue it's even more important since you are eating in a calorie deficit.
To ensure you’re retaining muscle during a fat-loss phase, consume 25 to 30% of your total daily carbohydrate goal in the post-workout window with the addition of 20 to 30 grams of protein.
If your goal is to create a post-workout meal that will maximize your muscle gain after your grueling 7-day workout split sessions, you’ve come to the right place! These suggestions deliver the right foods to ensure proper nutrition to build muscle, helping your muscle cells rebuild while refueling your body's glycogen stores.
Pro tip: If you make a meal, make double, saving the other portion for after your next gym session. It’ll save you some prep work.
You can’t go wrong with these options, which will fill you up, support building muscle mass, and help your body burn fat following resistance training. These meals combine high quality carbs, high quality protein, and healthy fats for optimal post exercise recovery and fat loss.
Whether you're bulking or cutting, sauces and condiments can be high in unhealthy fats and an easy way to pack on calories devoid of nutrients. When you’re actively chasing fat loss while trying to repair muscle, that’s a sure-fire way to bring you out of a calorie deficit and halt your progress.
Below is a list of things you can use to bring out the flavor, reduce calories and make sure you’re on your way to fat loss.
There are many brands that you can find online that are marketed as zero calorie or low calorie that would also be great options.
If you take one thing away from this post, let it be this: Your meal post exercise is just as important as your pre-workout meal because your muscles deplete glycogen (stored carbohydrates) and break down protein during strenuous workouts, like these kettlebell HIIT workouts.
Remember, if you consumed a pre-workout meal within 1-2 hours, your post-workout meal can be consumed between 1-2 hours after working out. And if you consumed a pre-workout meal 4-6 hours before your sweat session, you should have your post-workout meal as soon as it is convenient.
As for how to prioritize your nutrients, keep these tips in mind:
There you have it! You’ve got all the information you need. Grab your lean proteins, some veggies, and a tasty carb, and get to cooking! And don't forget to stay hydrated.
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