Shannon Doleac, MS, CSCS
Post-workout nutrition is an ever popular topic. More people are aware that it’s important to take advantage of this unique physiological state and want to capitalize on the hard work they’ve put into a good workout. Recovery is said to begin within the first 30 minutes following your last pull-up, sprint or squat. The greater your goals, or desire for peak performance, the more important this refueling window may be. Your systems are thirsty, your muscles are hungry, and your body’s ready to begin repair. But, WHAT should you eat at this “critical” moment?
That may largely depend on your goals, current health status and the type of workout you’ve just completed. For example, if improved health and feeling good is your goal, than your overall nutrition is probably more important than the half-hour post-workout window. If your aiming to be the next CrossFit Games winner, than dialing in your post-workout fuel may be far more necessary.
Let’s consider recovery in general. I would say the three key factors for post-workout nutrition include:
- glycogen replenishment
- and muscle repair and rebuilding
Whether you are just starting an exercise regimen or you are an elite athlete, hydration is important! Period. The general rule of thumb for post-workout fluid intake is 16 oz of water for every pound lost. The majority of us don’t weigh ourselves before and after exercise, and for the average person I think it’s safe to simply recommend, “drink a decent amount of water after you workout and maintain good fluid consumption throughout the day.” If your workouts are real intense, the weather is hot, and/or you eat very “clean” (consume very little salt), you may want to consider adding a pinch of salt, an electrolyte tablet or some coconut water to your post-workout water bottle. Adequate electrolytes help ensure that you are absorbing the water you put in rather than having it run right through you.
As far as, glycogen replenishment and muscle repair/growth; it has been shown that immediately following a workout, muscle cells are sponge-like (ready to absorb) and very sensitive to the “anabolic” hormone, insulin. This is the main reason why the post-workout window is considered a “unique physiological state”. If carbohydrate (in the form of glucose) and protein (amino acids) are available for the body to use, insulin can quickly facilitate muscle glycogen and muscle protein synthesis. This means little fat will be stored and the body can begin the process of refueling, repairing and rebuilding.
Most “paleo” or “zone” followers are usually tuned into the importance of insulin control. The person trying to lose weight, improve health conditions (such as diabetes), and even the average exerciser may want to use this post-workout window to improve their insulin sensitivity and not take in any carbohydrate. Some believe that a post-workout “fast” gives the body an opportunity to tap into it’s own storage (fat) for replenishment.
On the other hand, a CrossFitter or high-level athlete, who’s training intensely and is at a good level of body “leanness”, may want to take advantage of this time and create an insulin spike that works in their favor (muscle refueling and building); thus consuming a higher glycemic carbohydrate after workout. This inclusion of a fast-acting carb may be most appropriate following a met-con, or endurance type workout verses a pure strength day. Max lifts don’t deplete glycogen stores the way a heart-pounder does.
The debate over post-workout protein consumption is often centered around the “best” form of protein. Supplement or whole food? And if supplement, which source (whey? casein? egg?)? Protein supplements (usually in the form of a shake) are digested and absorbed faster (allowing you to take advantage of this quick window). And let’s not forget their convenience! Bring some powder with you to the gym and add water at the end of your workout. But, many of these products are of poor quality and have additives and artificial sweeteners in them that may do you more harm than good.
Well, then what about a steak or chicken breast? Or better yet, wild salmon with it’s natural source of omega-3‘s? While these choices may be ideal for our overall diet, they have their limits post-workout. Most people don’t feel like eating a piece of steak 15 minutes after an intense workout. This may be for good reason and have much to do with which part of our nervous system is “on call” at this time. The sympathetic nervous system takes over during the so called “fight-or-flight” response to secrete adrenaline, increase oxygen intake, and prep the body for survival - similar to an intense workout. What becomes far less important at this time is digestion! In fact the sympathetic nervous system inhibits peristalsis.
As is explained by Liz Wolfe in a recent blog post about post-workout nutrition, whole foods may be far superior overall, but may be too hard for our body to deal with until we return to a less stressful state and allow our parasympathetic nervous system to take back over. (Click here to read more). Maybe that means that liquid nutrition is best in this situation, or maybe it means that by finding techniques (relaxation of some sort) to return to a calmer state we can better prep our system to digest whole foods within the optimal window. This is also an example of where individual differences may play a big role.
If you do opt for a protein supplement, try to find a quality product with as few ingredients (aside from the actual amino acids) and additives as possible. Branched-chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, valine) are continuing to receive a lot of attention as strong stimulators of muscle growth and repair. They are naturally found in animal proteins, but are often added to protein supplements and appear to work best shortly after a workout.
The best carbohydrate sources following a workout seem to be quality starches and possibly low-fructose containing fruits. The problem with fructose is that it is dealt with by the liver and fills the liver glycogen stores before moving on to fat storage. Starchier choices (yams, sweet potatoes, acorn squash, butternut squash, and even bananas) are quality carbs that are still quickly digesting; making them good options for the post-workout refueling window.
We haven’t discussed fat because fats tend to slow digestion and may therefore prevent you from taking advantage of this very brief time frame we’ve been talking about. Quality fats are vital to our health and necessary in our diet, but this doesn’t appear to be the best time for them.
If you are looking to lose weight, improve your insulin sensitivity, and your number one goal is overall health, than a post-exercise fast may be your best move. Shoot for a quality meal within an hour or two of your workout, rather than obsessing over the 30 minute mark. If you feel you’re where your need to be with regard to health and leanness, and you are an athlete looking for further improvement, your post-workout nutrition may be an area to experiment with.
Here are some common post-workout combinations people turn to and notice a difference with:
- Protein powder and coconut water (natural electrolytes and a touch of natural sugar)
- Whey protein, coconut milk, cocoa powder
- Whey protein, yams, applesauce (blended or stirred)
- Sweet potatoes, acorn or butternut squash and chicken breast, or salmon (more of a whole food option)
- Recipe for post-workout recovery (Jen's Gone Paleo)
Again, remember to consider the type of workout, your digestive tolerability, your goals, and your overall nutrition when thinking about your needs. It often helps to keep a log of what you eat and how you feel. We are each a little different and it may take some time to figure out what works best for you.
Additional Reading and Resources:
Nutrient Timing by John Ivy, PhD, and Robert Portman, PhD
The Paleo Diet for Athletes by Loren Cordain, PhD, and Joe Friel, MS
The CrossFit Journal (www.crossfit.com)
Robb Wolf’s podcasts and blog (www.robbwolf.com)