Nutritionists have been working on these questions for decades. Amongst the dull pages of sports science journals and research papers, there exists a treasure trove of information. Thankfully, we’ve done the hard work for you, sifting through the science to bring you the optimal foods to eat after a workout in order to preserve gains and limit muscle loss.
Post-workout meals should be set up in order to achieve a few simple goals. Chief amongst these is protein management, in which we try to increase the rate at which muscle protein is synthesised and reduce the rate at which muscle protein is broken down.
Doing this correctly essentially means that we stand the best chance of preserving the hard work of our most recent session, leading to quicker and more dramatic muscle gains than we would otherwise see. Our food intake is a big part of this, so pay attention to what you eat after a session – after all, you’d hate to break new barriers in the gym only to fail to see your efforts reflected in your physique!
Another key aim to focus on when eating post-workout is restoring the body’s lost glycogen stores. This objective is particularly pressing for those who engage in endurance workouts (such as running or aerobic exercise), as glycogen tends to be depleted more dramatically in these forms of exercise. Glycogen remains vital for fuelling the muscles during exercise, and restoring levels through food intake means that our bodies can recover more quickly and engage in exercise sooner than would otherwise be possible.
When building your perfect post-workout meal, it’s good to start with protein, especially if you have been doing a lot of muscle-punishing resistance training. Strength training with weights naturally leads to the breakdown of muscle protein; as your personal trainer might tell you, resistance training is intended to cause literal damage to the muscle cells and fibres. We refer to this process as “catabolism”, and if exercise is taken without reference to food intake, we may actually see more losses than gains. We don’t want this!
The key is to ensure that muscle protein synthesis exceeds the rate at which muscle protein is broken down (otherwise known as anabolism). To do this, we need only consume sufficient amounts of protein after we work out, which gives us a vital source of the amino acids needed to build and repair torn and damaged muscle. Source
But how much to eat? Thankfully, a number of tests have been conducted over the years to identify the precise levels of protein needed to shift the balance. A number of studies have found that consuming 40g of protein post-workout on average seem to be linked with that all-important anabolic response from the muscles. Those looking for a more precise and tailored estimate can follow the advice offered by the International Society of Sports Nutrition, who recommend consuming 0.14-0.23g of protein per pound of bodyweight very soon after a workout. Source
Many of us make it a habit to cut back on carbohydrates as much as possible, but regular exercise routines demand that we keep our intake steady, especially when engaging in tiring endurance training such as running or cycling. This is because these forms of exercise result in our glycogen stores being depleted; failing to restore these in a timely manner will result in high levels of exhaustion and a slower return to full fitness.
Put simply, if we fail to take note of our carb intake after cardio-based workouts, we’ll be left feeling sapped of energy and potentially unable to perform at the same level in the next session.
This is especially important for those of us that train very regularly – if you tend to leave a few days in-between your training sessions, restoring glycogen levels is a slightly less important part of your exercise recovery (although don’t let us stop you from pursuing a balanced diet).
For optimal post-workout recovery, researchers recommend consuming in excess of 1g of carbohydrates per kg of bodyweight. Interestingly, researchers have also found that we can work to restore our glycogen stores in the best possible way when we combine carbohydrates and protein in the same meal, as this promotes greater rates of insulin secretion. Of course, it also means that we can maximise the benefits of protein synthesis at the same time, so consider mixing protein-rich food and carbohydrate-rich foods as part of the same post-workout meal. Source; Source
In terms of post-workout exercise recovery, the only other thing worth devoting attention to is your liquid intake. All forms of exercise result in sweating and electrolyte-loss. Fixing this is as simple as drinking a big glass of water both during and immediately after a workout session. Perhaps also consider trying out a specialised sports drink, as many of these are infused with vital minerals that can help athletes recover lost salts, preventing things like headaches or fatigue.
Selecting good post-workout foods often means just focusing on proteins and carbohydrates however. Dietary fats do nothing for exercise recovery post-workout, although adding some healthy fat to a meal won’t take anything away from the other elements at play. Don’t be afraid to add a little fat to a post-session meal, just don’t expect it to add to the restorative effect. Source
Similarly, dietary fibre is not wholly useful for exercise recovery. In fact, the ingestible carbohydrates provided by dietary fibre may arguably take away from the glycogen-boosting effect many athletes are chasing, making this one food group to perhaps avoid after an endurance training session.
Although timing is undoubtedly important when deciding when to eat after a session, most of the existing research is surprisingly vague on the specifics.
In the majority of the studies we looked at, researchers tended to state that athletes should consume their ideal meal either “soon” or “immediately” after the session.
Whether this is supposed to indicate eating 5 minutes after exercise has concluded or several hours afterwards is slightly unclear (although we can’t imagine there are too many athletes/bodybuilders out there who want to eat a hot meal straight after putting down the weights!)
Thankfully one study does provide a bit more specific guidance. Apparently, the greatest benefits will be experienced if athletes consume their post-workout meal from around 45 minutes to an hour after concluding exercise. This timing is especially important for our glycogen levels, as leaving food consumption for a couple of hours after the sessions effectively reduces the rate at which carb consumption leads to glycogen synthesis (meaning that we will need to eat relatively more carbs to achieve the same effect). Source
As the above evidence shows, the ideal post-workout meal should contain both carbohydrates and protein, at a ratio of roughly two-parts carbohydrates to one-part protein. We’re giving some ideas below, but almost any combination is possible if you follow some of the guidelines we’ve set throughout the article. Enjoy your meal.