Is Post-Workout Nutrition Really Necessary?
With so many gym myths around like lifting weights makes you "bulky," you need to live in the gym if you want results, or you need to chug a protein shake post-workout, it's no wonder people don't actually have a clue.
Just like you don't need to turn into a protein machine and lift until you feel like dying to build muscle, you don't always need to make a big deal about your post-workout nutrition.
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Cynthia Sass, RD is a New York City and Los Angeles-based performance nutritionist. She says “it depends on the length and intensity of the workout, your goals and when you’ll be eating your next meal."
Why Post-Workout Nutrition?
Getting some food in after your workout is an intriguing topic, but the basic idea is that:
Your body will deal with nutrients differently at different times, depending on the activity.
Consuming particular nutrients post-workout could improve body composition, performance, and overall recovery.
Taking into consideration what you consume before, during, and after exercise is important.
Many studies have taken a look at post-workout nutrition, and as studies continue, we are learning a lot more strategies for athletes and recreational lifters.
Some benefits of a solid post-workout nutrition plan could include:
- Less muscle soreness
- Improved recovery
- Increased ability to build muscle
- Improved bone mass
- Improved immune function
- Improved ability to use body fat as fuel
From a micro level, we damage our muscle tissue and we use up fuel. This is what makes us stronger, leaner, fitter, more muscular, and post-workout nutrition can help us repair those muscles faster.
When your body repairs and rebuilds muscle, you are breaking down old, damaged proteins and then your body will construct new proteins — through protein synthesis. This process is known as protein turnover.
Muscle hypertrophy — or building muscle — occurs when you can reach a positive protein balance. That means we need to make sure we have enough raw building blocks (protein) for protein synthesis to occur.
But protein shouldn't be your only concern.
We also deplete stored carbohydrates. So your post-workout nutrition plan should include carbohydrates, too.
You Can Skip Post-Workout Nutrition If
If you had a quick "in and out" session at the gym, simply eating plenty of protein and nutritious foods along with rehydrating with water is important.
Your Workout Wasn't Intense
Going for a walk or joining a yoga class is great for your body and overall health, but there's no reason you need to chug a protein and carbohydrate shake afterward, especially if weight loss is your goal.
“If your workouts are light-to-moderate and you aren’t engaging in muscle-building strength training, an extra post-workout meal or snack may work against you by preventing weight loss or contributing to weight gain,” Sass says.
Your Workout Didn't Last More Than An Hour
When it comes to high-intensity interval training, you could push yourself hard but may not need to worry about post-workout nutrition. This is especially true for those with weight loss as a goal — it simply isn't worth the extra calories to eat right after.
When it comes to restoring your muscle glycogen, you aren't depleting your glycogen stores in a 20-minute workout. “Your body has at least 48 hours to take the food you will feed it and have that replenish the glycogen,” says Mike Roussell, PhD, author of "The Meta Shred Diet."
You Shouldn't Skip Post-Workout Nutrition If
If you don't workout long or very intense, post-workout nutrition isn't as important as you may think. There are, on the other hand, times that you do need to replenish with post-workout nutrition.
Long, intense sessions break muscles down and need to be followed up with a decent dose of protein. Consuming post-workout protein helps stop muscle breakdown and starts the rebuilding process.
Simply speaking, if you skip post-workout nutrition after a long and intense session, you may be slowing your recovery.
“Exercise itself stimulates muscle protein synthesis, and if you add protein after exercise, it enhances the body’s ability to repair and rebuild muscle,” he says. “If you’re not getting adequate protein to fuel recovery, during your next session your muscles won’t be as strong, and you won’t progress as fast,” states Roussell.
Post-workout protein shakes are popular due to how easy they are to consume and the impressive branch chain amino acid profile that comes with them. Your body will easily digest these liquid proteins quickly — stimulating the muscle building process.
Research suggests the post-workout "window" lasts for hours, so your next meal could also help support your recovery. Real food should always come before shakes. Ideally, a combination of lean protein, vegetables, healthy fats, whole carbs, and plenty of water are helpful.
You Had An Intense Workout Lasting Longer Than An Hour
Continuously vigorous strength workouts that last longer than an hour should receive some post-workout food — especially if your goal is to build muscle.
You Have Another Hard Session Soon
If you are performing two-a-days, you're going to need to refuel post-workout so you can perform later.
If You Are Under A Lot Of Stress
Exercise is considered a stressor, but our body typically recovers from this small dose. If you are under a lot of pressure outside of the gym, it all could become too much for your body to handle. This will impair your body's ability to perform and recover from that activity.
“When under stress, what is a normal dose of exercise is too much for the body to handle,” Roussell says. “But you can use nutrition to counteract those negative effects of stress.” Follow the post-workout tips above.
A Few Post-Workout Nutrition Ideas
Here's a short list of some protein, carbohydrate, and fat sources that you could fuel your body with.
- Whey Protein Powder
- Cottage Cheese
- Greek Yogurt
- Sweet Potatoes
- White Potatoes
- Chocolate Milk
- Rice Cakes
- Dark Leafy Green Vegetables
- Nut Butters
- Olive Oil