Post workout nutrition has three basic purposes – to replenish glycogen stores, to decrease protein breakdown and increase protein synthesis. In simple terms this means that we are looking to replenish energy, increase muscle and repair damage done during the workout. Yep, that’s right – damage done during the workout! This is a principle that is referred to as ‘tear and repair’. When you are mid-workout lifting heavy, running fast, jumping high and just generally training hard, you are actually causing small tears in your muscle fibres. Repair occurs through the breakdown of old, damaged proteins and the construction of new, stronger ones through a process called protein synthesis. Muscle hypertrophy (also known as muscle growth) occurs when we make sure that we have enough raw materials for protein synthesis to occur.
So how do we best assist our bodies to build those stronger muscles? We feed them the right nutrients at the right time.
First let’s look at what is known as the ‘Window of Opportunity’. Studies indicate that while protein synthesis occurs for at least 48hrs after exercise, it is critically important to get post workout nutrition within 10 minutes and then two hours after training.
The second thing we need to pay attention to is availability of nutrients. In order for our bodies to begin repairing muscle fibres, the raw materials must be available. Availability is improved in two ways here:
- Increased blood flow to muscles during and after exercise means that the nutrients we ingest are transported more efficiently (this ties in with our window noted above)
- Ensuring that the raw material we consume has a high level of bioavailability is also crucial. This means that we need to be looking at complete protein ie. those that contain all nine of the essential amino acids required for supporting biological functions of the human body. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein.
If both of these things are occurring at the same time, we improve availability by having more blood circulating quickly and by having more nutrients in that blood.
Ok, the science lesson is now over and done with and we are going to get on to what you all came here for – what to actually eat! As mentioned above, the first goal of post-workout nutrition is to replenish energy stores and the second and third are to create a state of hypertrophy through protein synthesis. Therefore, it stands to reason that we need to consume both carbohydrates and proteins during our “window of opportunity”. Carbohydrates will also enhance the delivery of insulin to our cells to help speed up the recovery process.
To start with, try consuming 30g carbohydrates and 15-20g protein straight after your workout. The easiest way to do this is by supplementation in the form of a protein shake. This is likely to be one of the few times that we advocate a supplement over real food and the reason behind this is timing. Whole foods take a number of hours to be digested and transported to our cells through our blood. As we noted above, our muscles will recover faster if we get nutrients to them straight away and liquid form is really the only way to do this.
I would recommend experimenting with different types of protein supplements as they will suit people to varying degrees. Bioavailability of animal based proteins will always be higher as they will contain all 9 of the essential amino acids and most good quality supplements will have already sorted out the carbohydrate / protein ratio for you.
Egg protein is the gold standard and is rated at 100 on the bioavailability scale, it is the protein that others are rated against and would be one of the most beneficial when ensuring adequate nutritional uptake of protein supplementation post workout. Having said that, egg protein is highly allergenic and may not suit everybody.
Whey proteins have come a long way over the years and an extremely high biological value ranging from 90-100 for whey concentrate and from 100-150 for whey isolate. It’s also high in the branch chain amino acids and is quickly absorbed by the human body.
For vegans and those with other allergies, it would be worth considering a good quality rice / pea protein combination. The combination of the amino acids in each of these components creates a bioavailability that is beginning to rival that of egg and dairy proteins. Both of these proteins are also hypoallergenic and easily digested making them a great choice.
Following on from supplementation, it would be wise to have a whole food meal approximately 2hours after your workout. Ensure that this meal also contains both good quality animal proteins and complex carbohydrates and you are well on your way to full workout recovery. This could be as simple as sweet potato and steamed or grilled chicken breast with a drizzle of olive oil for healthy fats or something sweet such as cottage cheese with berries and nuts.
It is also important to remember to stay hydrated during and post-workout. Loss of water and electrolytes through sweat can cause your body to become dehydrated which will make it harder for your muscles to recover adequately. Electrolytes are minerals that break into small electrically-charged particles called ions when they dissolve in water. These particles are found in our blood and in all of our cells and are essential to physical activity. Sodium and chloride maintain normal blood pressure and support muscle and nerve function, these are the key electrolytes that we would be looking to replace, others including calcium, magnesium, potassium and phosphate.
Light exercise such as walking, yoga, low intensity swimming will likely only cause you to lose water which can be fixed by good old fashioned water. However, for those that participate in higher intensity training like CrossFit & boxing or endurance exercise such as long distance running, it would be advisable to look in to electrolyte replacement. Coconut water is an impressive source of natural electrolytes and is a much better alternative to the highly processed, chemical laden electrolyte drinks found on supermarket shelves.
While we appreciate that we have taken a slight deviation from our usual recommendation to always look to Mother Nature for food and to stay away from pre-packaged foods, we do stand by our reasons for advocating a good quality protein supplement to assist with post-workout recovery. All of your other meals should still include whole foods, plenty of fruit and vegetables and good quality meats and healthy fats.