Post-Workout NUTRITION

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Post-Workout NUTRITION

Post Workout Nutrition Article by Nadine Shaban

| By Nadine Shaban |

Recently, I decided to change up my workouts and join back up to a “chain gym.”  At first I thought I was regretting the decision; the gym turned out to be a place where men think that looking in the mirror will make their biceps grow bigger and females only know what the word “cardio” means. Many of the women I spoke to have the preconceived notion that lifting will make them bulky.  I would like to think that I led by example by coming into that gym and out lifting a lot of the men and looking damn good doing it.  After a couple of weeks, I started to enjoy the place.  I mean it had everything: a rain forest shower, sauna room, and strongman equipment.  I started to make a few acquaintances and get to know more people.  Due to the state of the art change rooms, I had the privilege of over hearing some of the following comments:

“After I workout I just drink water and wait as long as I can until my next meal….”

“I can’t eat fat… it will make me fat.”

“Carbs.. never.  I am too scared to eat carbs because I don’t want to lose my abs.”

“I can eat all I want during the 3 hours after I workout because it was coined “the window of opportunity”.

Sound familiar?  Does the idea of post workout nutrition hurt your brain?  If so, then this article is for you.

Following an intense workout, you'll need a lot more than water to repair your tired and damaged muscles.

All about Post Workout and Physiology

During exercise (strength and or endurance training) there are many physiological changes that occur.  For the purpose of this article, and to keep you awake, I will focus on the main three that are important to overall recovery and growth.

1. Glycogen Stores

When these get used and are drastically low, they must be replenished.  Glycogen is the stored form of glucose. In other words it’s our “energy” during exercise. Our muscles use stored glycogen during exercise, with the notion that not having high levels may be limiting to ones performance. In other words, if we have low levels, we will not be able to sustain intense activity/exercise and will fatigue quicker.

2. Protein Breakdown is increased

Protein is essential for tissue and muscle growth.  During exercise, we are in a state of CATABOLISM– breaking down muscle, tissues etc, as the tissues are being damaged (at the macro and cellular level).  Increased catabolism results in loss of muscle mass.  A good and math friendly equation that I like to follow from John Berardi (my PN mentor) to follow muscle protein balance is as follows. It allows us to see the relationship between the building and breaking of muscle protein, which puts us in an anabolic or catabolic state.

Muscle Protein Balance = Protein Synthesis – Protein Breakdown

Training increases protein breakdown, which underscores the importance of post-workout nutrition. (Randi Lotsberg Photography)


3. Decreased Muscle Protein Balance

After resistance exercise, muscle protein synthesis is either unchanged or  decreases, while muscle protein breakdown drastically increases. In layman’s  terms: we are doing a lot more damage (breaking down) to the muscle following a weight training session.

Without proper recovery through nourishment you are putting your health and your results at stake as common problems can be:

  • Longer recovery needed, therefore subsequent workouts will suffer
  • If trying to build muscle, will have a more difficult time… may stay in a prolonged catabolic state
  • Increased muscle soreness due to not repairing the muscles from the micro damage
  • Symptoms of fatigue, overtraining, and compromised immune health

Before you start to worry and think that training is bad for you, you are in luck. Studies have shown that with proper post workout nutrition, we can increase muscle protein synthesis, and enhance recovery so we do not feel like the above. In other terms, protein building (synthesis) is activated and protein breakdown is suppressed through proper post workout nutrition.

In order to get this benefit you do need protein.  However, protein is only a part of the post workout puzzle.

To create energy (think and recall our talk about glycogen), it must come from one of two sources – fat and/or carbohydrates. During most intense exercise sessions we are depleting, or close to depleting, our glycogen (carbohydrate) stores. Therefore, during the post workout period we need both protein and carbohydrates.

In my previous article, I talked about the hormone insulin. To recap, insulin is known to be one of, if not the most, “anabolic” (think muscle building and or storage) hormones.  It is like a superhero hormone; allowing muscle growth and recovery by shuttling glucose (carbohydrates), amino acids, and blood fats into the cells of the body.  In this case, it will shuttle the carbohydrates, and amino acids into the muscle cells for muscle growth – this is why post workout nutrition is so important as your cells respond well to an increase in insulin and you are setting yourself up for an anabolic-rich environment. Therefore, by consuming a large amount of carbohydrates, you will promote a large insulin release, increase glycogen storage, and increase protein repair. - Post-Workout Nutrition

Insulin is known to be one of the most anabolic hormones in the body, shuttling glucose and amino acids to muscles.

Because your body is primed to take in the nutrients and use them to “reproduce” any lost energy, repair the tissue damage, and stimulate an anabolic environment; many refer to this period as the “window of opportunity.”  This window begins immediately post workout, and starts to close quickly, however, it is known to last open for up to 2 hours post workout.  Therefore, it is best to consume carbohydrates and as much nutrients as possible during this time in order to get the benefits of this “window.”  Now, I am not saying as soon as you finish your last set to start chugging back a shake, however, just know that it is best to get something in as soon as possible.

Too many rules…What can I eat?

As we previously mentioned it is best to consume Protein in order to promote protein synthesis and carbohydrates to increase glycogen and promote an insulin response.

You want to avoid meals containing any type(s) of fat.  If you are one that takes shots of fish oil throughout the day,  you do not want it around your “window of opportunity.”  For one, fat is another macronutrient that stimulates the release of insulin.  Meals with a high carbohydrate content in combination with high fat meals can actually promote a synergistic insulin response. High fat with high carb meals represent the worst possible case scenario.  Aside from the hormonal destruction, fat also slows down the digestion process.  During the post workout feeding you want a rapid delivery of carbohydrates and protein to go to the muscles.  Fats slow the process down, so they should be avoided.

NOTE:  This is not to say fats are bad.  Fats are great!  Unfortunately, they are given a bad rep.  But, during the window of opportunity they should be avoided.

Whole Food or Liquid?

"Liquid nutrition is ideal post-workout, but I personally prefer whole food meals at most other times during the day."

In most cases, I always believe in having a whole food based meal.  However, this post workout period is an exception.  Due to the fact that we want to take advantage of the benefits of PW nutrition, replenish our glycogen stores, and increase protein synthesis as soon as possible; it is usually best to have a protein shake with some type of carbohydrate in liquid form.

Moreover, after exercise many people are not hungry.  However, we know that this time is critical to get nutrient dense food into the system.  It is much easier to drink than eat a whole food based meal.

If one’s goal is to gain muscle, they would want a protein shake to be as “fast absorbing” as possible. Protein shakes (whey hydrosylates and isolates) are absorbed more quickly than whole foods.  Also, you can incorporate fast digesting carbohydrates such as dextrose and maltodextrin.  Keep in mind that you want to try to avoid fructose at this point.  I will save the science behind this reason for another article.

Post Workout Nutrition - Strong-Athlete feature

Fast absorbing protein sources like whey are ideal post-workout for rapid recovery and muscle growth.

If one is trying to lose weight, they can still have a shake but I would add in starchier carbohydrates such as gluten-free oatmeal, sweet potatoes, etc., as oppose to the sugary (simple) carbohydrates.  Moreover, they may even want a whole food meal as recovery, as the main objective is fat loss, not muscle gain.  In this scenario, they can have a whole food option but still take advantage of the window and enjoy eating their favorite carbohydrates.

For those wanting to add muscle mass, I would recommend a post workout shake with at least a 2:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein.  In addition to that, after 1 to 1.5 hours, follow it up with a post workout meal that includes a lean source of protein and complex carbohydrates (quinoa, sweet potatoes, gluten-free oatmeal etc.).

Keep in mind these are just guidelines, as all of us have different genetic make ups.  The leaner one is, the better the body is able to tolerate carbohydrates.  If one wants to gain muscle, they need to time their carbohydrates around their workout.  This is also important to note that this article is for intense strength training or anything where intensity is a factor.  If one goes for a brisk walk or does yoga, they do not need to worry about this post workout window.  Intensity is the key factor.  Now get out there, lift some big weights and earn your carbs.

Strong-Athlete Contributor Nadine ShabanNadine Shaban

Nadine is a talented fitness model, trainer and nutrition expert who also holds a Masters Degree in Exercise Physiology from the University of Windsor. Her research specialty is glucose handling in Type 2 diabetics during high intensity interval exercise (HITT). Nadine also holds a B.S. in Kinesiology from the University of Windsor. In addition, Nadine is a certified strength coach under Charles Poliquin, a certified Biosignature Practitioner through Charles Poliquin, and a certified nutritional consultant through Precision Nutrition.

Nadine’s personal philosophy is to challenge people beyond what they believe they are capable of accomplishing. She hopes to inspire people to adapt to a healthier lifestyle. She believes people not only need to change their mindset towards exercise, but must also have a positive and balanced relationship with food. She truly believes a healthy mind represents a healthy body. For nutrition consultation or personal training, you can contact Nadine at

By |September 18th, 2012|Articles|

About the Author:
Strong Athlete was founded in 2011 by Strength & Conditioning Experts PK Mills and Gaétan Boutin. With over 40+ years of combined experience in sports nutrition, athletics, and fitness, the Strong Athlete team is dedicated to helping athletes achieve their maximum potential through a holistic approach to training, nutrition, and mindset.

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