Ask the Coaches: What’s the “Ideal” Post-Workout Meal?
These are great questions! The short answer is that “it depends,” but since that doesn’t do anybody any good, let’s delve into it a bit further, shall we?
The Key to a Post-Workout Meal
The notion that the post-workout meal should be treated any differently than any other meal is based on the concept of “nutrient timing.” Nutrient timing refers to the consumption of specific nutrients—in particular, protein and carbohydrates—at very specific times, specifically before, during, and/or after exercise.
The rationale behind nutrient timing makes quite a bit of sense, and the goal is to optimize recovery and repair. In other words, nutrient timing implies that eating the “right” foods in the “right” amounts at the “right” times optimizes adaptations to exercise, including dramatic improvements in body composition (e.g., increased muscle mass) and performance (e.g., increased strength).
Arguably, the most popular application of nutrient timing is the “post-workout” period, which has been deemed the “anabolic window of opportunity.” You see, exercise results in a “sensitizing” effect on the muscles that are used, meaning that exercised muscle is more sensitive to ingested nutrients (like protein and carbs). Proponents argue that if the “right” foods are not ingested in the “right” amounts within as little as 45–60 min following exercise.
Despite the plausibility of the strategy, the effectiveness of nutrient timing in training studies has been decidedly mixed. While some studies have shown that consumption of protein in the post-workout period promotes increases in strength and/or muscle mass, others have not.
Repair and Build with Protein
To take advantage of this “window of opportunity,” it is common practice is to consume protein within 45 minutes to 1 hour after exercise to optimize adaptations to exercise. I’m sure you’ve seen someone mixing up his/her protein shake in the locker room post-workout. I admit that I have done that myself. This concept has undoubtedly played a substantial role in the rise in popularity of smoothie shops; in fact, you’re likely to see one right next to virtually every gym (if not inside).
It has been suggested that failing to ingest precise amounts of protein post-workout will result in diminished gains in body composition and exercise performance. Some researchers have argued that nutrient timing is even more important to these adaptations to exercise than the quantity and types of foods that make up the overall the diet.
When reviewing the entire body of evidence, however, the “window of opportunity” doesn’t seem to be as narrow as we once thought. In fact, the window may be as wide as 5 – 6 hours after exercise, and it seems that “it depends” largely on whether you’ve eaten before exercise and when that meal was consumed. For instance, the closer you’ve eaten a high-protein meal prior to exercise, the larger the post-workout window of opportunity.
In addition to the pre-workout meal, another “it depends” factor is total protein intake. In other words, some studies have shown that nutrient timing has a beneficial effect (on building muscle); however, those findings appear to be due to a greater protein intake (1.7g/kg) compared to the control group (1.3g/kg). In other words, total protein intake—not “nutrient timing”—seems to be the strongest predictor of improvements in body composition.
Having said all that, it is generally accepted that about 20 – 25 grams of protein is sufficient to maximize the body’s response to recover, repair, and build muscle (i.e., muscle protein synthesis, MPS). However, that recommendation comes from studies including lower-body-only exercise. More recently, researchers showed that MPS was stimulated to a greater extent after consuming 40 grams of protein compared to 20 grams following a full-body resistance training session.
Thus, as far as how much protein to consume, “it depends” (maybe) on the amount of muscle used during exercise.
Refuel and Replenish with Carbs
A traditional goal of post-workout nutrition is to replenish muscle glycogen stores. Glycogen is the body’s storage form of carbohydrate, which is used to fuel exercise. In general, the more intense the activity, the more reliant the body is on carbohydrate.
It is generally accepted that consuming carbohydrates in the post-workout period expedites recovery of muscle glycogen. Indeed, muscles appear to be more “sensitive” to carbohydrates (and insulin) after exercise. While this practice is most important for athletes, the post-workout window may be a “good” time for the average gym goer to consume some carbs as well.
You may also have heard that you need to “spike” your insulin with carbs after your workout because insulin puts the brakes on muscle protein breakdown, which hampers muscle building. As sound as that theory is, it doesn’t appear that carbs are necessary post-workout. In fact, protein (particularly the amino acid leucine) stimulates sufficient insulin secretion, and studies have shown that combining carbohydrate with protein does not lead to greater improvements in body composition or performance compared to protein alone.
Okay, so where does this leave us? Well, renowned protein researcher Dr. Stuart Phillips provides some very pragmatic advice. The post-workout period is a time when you should prioritize to the “3R’s”: rehydrate (with water), refuel (with carbs), and repair (with protein).
Having said that, most people don’t need to pack a cooler or chug down a protein shake within seconds of their last exercise. When you eat your post-workout meal is dependent on if/when you ate your pre-workout meal. If you ate a meal containing sufficient protein (20 – 40 grams) a couple hours before your workout, there’s probably not a need to rush your post-workout meal.
If you happened to work out in the fasted state (e.g., before breakfast), then it may be a good idea to consume your post-workout meal in closer proximity to finishing exercise. Overall, it doesn’t seem like the post-workout meal has to be consumed immediately after exercise.
How much protein you consume may be dependent on how much muscle mass you used during exercise. In other words, a full-body workout may require more protein than a lower or upper body workout. A good rule of thumb is to consume between 20 – 40 grams of protein per feeding, including the post-workout meal.
As far as carbs, the amount included in the post-workout meal is going to be dependent on a number of factors, including the intensity and duration of activity, body size and type, goals, and overall macronutrient composition of your diet. For instance, leaner, more active athletes may require more carbohydrates whereas sedentary folks with more fat to lose may do better with fewer carbs.
Taken together, each of the examples of meals that you provided in your question can be good post-workout meals. However, we have to look at the post-workout meal as just one piece of the puzzle, especially when it comes to “being toned and building lean muscle.” That is, improving body composition will be contingent on your entire body of nutrition work. Even the “perfect” post-workout meal (whatever that may be) wouldn’t make up for an otherwise lackluster diet (and other lifestyle habits).
For more information on “what” and “how much” to choose, I encourage you to take a look at the following articles:
I hope this helps!
– Coach Tim