What is the best time to work out
We all know that what we eat is important. But when we eat can prove to be just as critical.
Walk into any gym, and there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll get advice from fellow lifters regarding your nutrition - more specifically, what you should eat after you hit the gym.
Protein, carbs, fats, fiber, vitamins, minerals. Eat this, avoid that. Make sure to eat within a small window after your workout - or don’t. The list of often contradicting recommendations goes on and on.
Chances are, you’ve heard it all before.
But how important is post-training nutrition? Does it help build muscle faster? Or speed up recovery?
In this article, you are going to learn everything you need to know about eating after the gym - what, when, why.
Why Is Post-Workout Nutrition So Popular?
Every day, your body alternates between periods of anabolism (tissue growth) and catabolism (tissue breakdown). This ongoing process is known as “protein turnover.” For the most part, catabolism and anabolism are in equilibrium and cancel one another.
But, training severely tips the scale in favor of catabolism. Despite what many people think, training is acutely catabolic, which means, with training, your break down tissue that later needs to repair itself and strengthen.
Research has shown that protein synthesis drops dramatically during resistance training and protein breakdown spikes after a training session, especially if it has been done in a fasted state or the workout has been particularly long and demanding.
To build muscle (and prevent muscle loss), your protein synthesis rates need to exceed those of protein breakdown. It’s simple math. The more time your body spends in an anabolic state, the more muscle you build over time.
Training directly causes tissue breakdown, but when you give yourself time to recover and eat enough calories, training allows your body to grow stronger over time. And this is why post-workout nutrition is so popular. Combining different strategies - eating enough calories and having a post-workout meal, for example - is critical.
The goal of eating after the gym is to prevent catabolism and kickstart protein synthesis. There are three main things:
- Replenish muscle and liver glycogen.
- Decrease protein breakdown.
- Increase protein synthesis.
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Protein After the Gym?
We established that it’s important to decrease protein breakdown and accelerate protein synthesis. To do both of these things, we need to provide the body with protein.
So, yes, eating protein after the gym is important.
The primary player here is the essential amino acid leucine, though it can’t do everything alone. Research suggests that leucine directly stimulates muscle protein synthesis. The amino acid is particularly abundant in protein sources such as whey powder and red meat.
The Importance of Carbohydrates After Training
It’s a common belief that consuming carbs after training spikes your insulin which then turns the wheel of anabolism through various mechanisms. And though it does sound logical, research hasn’t been able to show any muscle-building benefits to eating carbs after the gym.
One possible reason why that might be the case is the fact that only moderate levels of insulin are needed to maximize muscle protein synthesis. Anything over that wouldn’t deliver extra benefit.
But though carb intake after the gym might not deliver extra benefit, you still need to consume them, mainly because of two things:
1) The more carbs you consume (particularly slow-digesting ones), the longer your insulin levels will be elevated. This is particularly good after a workout because insulin will keep your protein synthesis rates higher for longer.
This is one reason why high carb diets are more effective for muscle growth when compared to their low-carb alternatives.
2) Carbohydrates replenish your muscle and liver glycogen stores that get depleted during workouts, particularly if your training is long and demanding.
It’s also worth mentioning that until your glycogen stores get replenished, the carbs you consume won’t go into your fat stores. This is why you’ll often hear the advice that you should eat most of your carbs before and after the gym.
Whether this minor detail helps improve your body composition over time is up for debate. But, it’s certainly something to think about.
Let’s Not Forget The Third Essential Macronutrient: Fats
Protein and carbs both show impressive benefits as part of your post-gym meal. But, what about fats?
We know that fats serve an important role in many biological processes and help keep us healthy. They have a hand in hormone secretion, brain function, cell creation, and more.
But is there a benefit to eating fats directly after the gym?
Research has looked into the issue and hasn’t been able to find any acute benefits of fat consumption. In other words, fats are needed in the diet for long-term health, energy levels, brain function, and well-being. But, you don’t have to worry about consuming them after the gym.
So long as you get enough fats throughout the day, you’ll be okay.
Of course, this is not to say that havings fats after the gym is a bad thing. By all means, do it. Just don’t expect anything special to happen.
The Anabolic Window: Fact or Fiction?
If you’ve spent any time in the fitness space, there is no doubt that you’ve heard of the term “anabolic window.” Put simply, this refers to the window after your workout when your body can make the most of the nutrients you provide it with.
The idea here is, you should rush home to the fridge soon after training to maximize muscle growth. Once the window closes, you’ve missed the opportunity.
But, is there any truth to that?
Well, in the sense that you ‘miss the opportunity to grow,’ then no. Your body will make use of the nutrients you provide it with, no matter how long after the gym you eat. If you can’t make it home to eat right away but wait two hours instead, your body will absorb the food you’ve eaten and put it to use.
The importance of your post-workout meal largely depends on your pre-workout meal. If you have a large meal with plenty of calories, protein, and carbs within 3-4 hours before training, then having a post-workout meal immediately after the gym is not that important. Your body is still processing the last meal, and it can kickstart the process of repair and growth before you eat again.
But, if you had your last meal 6+ hours ago or it wasn’t particularly big, then it’s a good idea to eat after the gym. This is even more important if you train in a fasted state. Getting a post-workout meal as soon as possible is very important then.
The Bottom Line on Eating After the Gym
Eat as soon as you can if you tend to train fasted or your pre-workout meals are more than four hours before. At the very least, have a shake with 30-40 grams of protein.
If you normally eat two to four hours before the gym and the meal is big and filled with carbs and protein, then you shouldn’t worry about eating immediately after the gym. But do make sure to eat something before going to bed. Don’t have your last meal of the day before hitting the gym.
Also, make sure to eat a combination of protein and carbs after the gym. Rice with chicken. Potatoes with a steak. Eggs with toast. Whatever suits your taste.
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