I love the post-workout feeling of being done for the day. Afterward, I feel accomplished. I feel like I can conquer the world! Sometimes I feel like I just need to take a nap after, but that’s beside the point. Most of the time, after a well-fuelled workout, I feel like anything I do after that is just icing on top of the cake.
My favorite post-workout meal in university was a dessert from McDonald’s that I’m not sure they make anymore. They used to have these cinnamon bun-type treats, called Cinnamon Melts. I am not endorsing this as a post-workout snack! This was a year or two after I had quit all of my extra-curricular sports and I would use the gym at my university to lift weights (looking back I probably gave it 40% of my total effort) and go to Yoga and Zumba classes. The fact that I would treat Mcdonald’s as a “reward” is laughable now, but back then, that was how I justified going to the gym and working hard. It was a way to celebrate with friends and, to be completely honest, I wouldn’t change a thing.
My childhood and teen years were very regimented. My practices and games were frequent, my meals and snacks were all prepared for me by my mother and I was living the life and didn’t even know it! So when I quit playing softball and field hockey competitively, and I had to plan my own workouts and meals, you can imagine the freedom led me to a life of disarray and sugar.
Workouts destroy your body if you’re not eating right
My research did not begin when I started my own workouts. It began due to getting sick frequently from, you guessed it, eating poorly post-workout! Believe it or not, workouts kind of destroy your body. If you are a healthy person, you can recover from a workout by fuelling properly and making sure you recover with rest and proper nutrition afterward. However, I took a different route. I had all the freedom in the world to eat what I wanted. I had started working and could go out for fast food with my own money. The combination of me wanting to look skinny and eat whatever I wanted led to many sick days, mood swings, and caused major metabolism and gut issues.
I’m sure we all have different stories that led us to where we are now and how we feel in the gym, on the track, in the pool, etc. This is some of the information I found out while researching what to consume after a workout, when to get your post-workout calories in, and how to boost your recovery and gains using supplements!
Is timing really everything?
Have you ever heard of the “Anabolic Window”? Also known as “the window of opportunity”, it’s basically the optimal time to consume your post-workout protein and carbs in order to maximize results if you are looking to grow muscle and recover effectively.
Apparently, this anabolic window lasts 30 minutes, and anything beyond that is supposedly less helpful. There is lots of research out there that shows that protein synthesis actually persists for at least 48 hours after exercise, but that it’s most important to get your post-workout nutrition within 2 hours of completion! An easy way to make sure of this is to have a meal ready to go in your bag after you leave the gym or have a protein shake on your way home so you can get some food in you!
Eating post-workout is pretty important. It ensures you replenish your glycogen stores, decrease protein breakdown, and increase protein synthesis. When you do this properly, you can replenish your energy stores for the rest of the day, increase muscle size and quality, and repair any damage caused by the workout. Like I said earlier, workouts do destroy your body. It’s up to you to repair it!
When we work out, we deplete protein and carbohydrates that have been stored for that workout. This happens through Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS). A workout is basically the breakdown of old, damaged proteins (protein breakdown), and the construction of new ones (protein synthesis). MPS doesn’t really change much after a resistance training workout, but protein breakdown increases dramatically, meaning that a lot more breaking down is happening than building up. Eating post-workout stimulates this MPS, which helps with recovery and enhances performance during your next workout. This is why the timing of your meals does matter but does not have to be so limited to only 30 minutes post-workout.
Put in simpler terms, after your workout, your body tries to rebuild its glycogen stores and repair and regrow those muscle proteins. Eating a meal soon after exercise can help you go through MPS quicker, leading to better recovery and more gains!
So what do I eat?
It is particularly important to eat carbs and protein after your workout. Protein aids in protein synthesis and carbs help replace muscle glycogen. With intense workouts, start by ingesting 30 grams of carbs and 15 grams of protein (in 500 ml water) per hour of workout time. This can be either during or immediately after your workout.
I’m not here to list a bunch of foods you could eat, and if you’ve read my pre-workout article, you’ll notice pre-and post-workout meals are pretty similar. Eat what you feel comfortable with. If you are not hungry, try consuming a liquid that contains rapidly digesting carbohydrates and proteins. Some of these include:
This way, you may actually be able to accelerate recovery by utilizing insulin for nutrient transport to cells, more rapidly and easily digest and absorb the nutrients that are already broken down, and liquid is often better tolerated during and after workouts. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for athletes. Many people can reach this amount of protein through food alone, but protein powder is a great choice for those who do not get enough for whatever reason.
Look for a good quality protein powder that contains minimal preservatives, additives, and sugars, especially if you plan on taking it almost daily.
If you’re eating the appropriate food and macronutrients post-workout, supplements are just the cherry on top. I guess even a protein shake is a supplement to some!
Here are some of my favorites, however, you do not need to feel like you need to add all of these to your roster at the same time. Again, you may want to consider what kind of workout you’ve just completed. Do you need some of these if you’ve just gone for a long walk? Maybe not, but I’d probably still take some tart cherry and fish oil since I know I have arthritis. If I’m looking to build muscle after my Hypertrophy workout at the gym, I may want something extra. I’ve listed the following supplements in no particular order.
Tart cherries are loaded with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds that naturally support the immune system, muscle recovery, joint comfort, and promote healthy sleep patterns. This one includes Celery seed, whose active plant compounds support joint flexibility, comfort, and mobility – all keys for healthy joint function. Celery has also been shown to provide some protection from uric acid-induced inflammation in gout, making it a perfect partner with the tart cherry in this formula. You can also find or make your own Tart Cherry juice, but brace yourself: it’s going to be sour.
Protects muscles from excessive damage while training intensely. It can actually lead to as much as a 40% reduction in post-workout muscle tissue damage! Studies show that L-Carnitine supplementation can lead to greater uptake of testosterone, too! This leads to quicker recovery and a greater anabolic response to your training session. A scoop of 2 grams in your water is all it takes!
Like the NutraChamps Collagen because it is unflavored, supports hair, skin, and nails while improving joint comfort and gut health. It goes great in my coffee before a workout or in my protein smoothie after my workout.
This ingredient can be found in a lot of supplements, or can be taken on its own in powder or capsule form. It is the most anabolic (growth & building) and anticatabolic (breakdown of molecules in digested food for use as energy) of the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). Leucine is the BCAA whose benefits are backed by the greatest body of research and scientific evidence, all of which point to its effectiveness at aiding muscle recovery and growth. Most BCAAs will come with several varieties of amino acids, but you can find this one on its own if you prefer! Inactive people can take 3-4 grams of leucine per day, so if you’ve just completed a tough workout, 5 grams can be consumed during your workout and another 5 grams within 30 minutes of workout, equalling 10 grams total.
Fish oil is one of the most beneficial supplements available for heart & brain health, joint comfort, eyes & more! It helps prevent or reduce muscle soreness, inhibits the temporary loss of strength and range of motion after exercise, and improves muscle sensitivity in older adults. Even if you aren’t working out, I’d highly recommend using this supplement daily for all of its other benefits! In fact, back when I was getting sick all the time, I was not taking fish oil. Researchers published a study they conducted in 2012 regarding fish oil consumption post-exercise
and how it can enhance your immune function! Subjects performed an hour of cardio at 70% of their heart-rate max (HRM), then consumed 3 grams of fish oil or a placebo oil per day. Blood samples were taken pre-supplementation, pre-exercise, and 1 or 3 hours post-exercise. The samples revealed that 3 hours post-exercise, a specific protein that regulates the activities of the immune system’s white blood cells called PBMC IL-2, was greater in the group taking fish oil than in the group that took the placebo. PBMC IL-2 is a natural killer of viruses, and it looks like fish oil can actually enhance the actions of the immune system so you can prevent colds and drops in immune function post-workout! I thought that was pretty neat.
Another essential amino acid, L-Glutamine helps to ignite the release of natural growth hormone, enhances nitrogen retention, staves off muscle wasting (decrease in muscle mass due to lack of physical activity or proper nourishment), and provides a powerful boost to the immune system. Not only are you building more muscle (and likely burning fat), but you’re also keeping your immune system strong so you make it to your next scheduled workout.
What to avoid
You know what I’m going to tell you! Technically, eat what you want. There is no good or bad food, but there are foods that will get you to your goals and foods that may hinder your goals.
- Foods high in fat: This will slow the progress you’ve made during your workout and slow down your digestion. Post-workout, you want the opposite! You want to replenish your body’s glycogen and reduce the amount of fat your body stores.
- Snacks high in salt: Sure, you want potassium to replenish all the sweat/water you’ve lost since sodium is important for recovery and inflammation, but salty snacks actually lower your potassium levels, so replace those chips with a baked potato instead.
- Soda or fruit drinks: Sugary sports drinks are not going to help you recover. I know many athletes endorse Gatorade or other name-brand sports drinks, but they also train up to 10 hours a day. These drinks will likely slow your metabolism, so instead reach for electrolytes low in sugar or drink plain water and eat a potassium-rich banana.
- Sugary pastries: I guess these are technically considered carbs that could replace glycogen (muscle fuel) after a vigorous workout, but the cons far outweigh the pros! Doughnuts and pastries can clog arteries, make you gain fat, leave you inflamed, lengthen recovery time, and lead to gut issues over time. You’re better off swapping out for a whole wheat bagel with sugar-free PB and homemade jam.
The one thing I’ve worked on the most since I started my exercise journey over a decade ago is eating nutritiously post-workout. I managed to get away with eating poorly for years! I would justify it by telling myself I could take a few days off my training schedule due to inflammation and pain, and I knew that I could eat what I wanted without gaining weight.
When I could no longer get away with those excuses, I decided to listen to my body and give it what it needs. Although my body doesn’t crave food immediately after a workout, I know that the pain I will feel up to 2 days later will not be worth it. I don’t necessarily like protein shakes, but I know the benefits of chugging one after a workout will lead me to more gains long-term. In order to succeed at this, you need to be in it for the long haul!
Remembering that you just need some clean carbs and protein after a workout is pretty simple. Anything other than that is extra. Do not overcomplicate it. This guide to post-workout eats and supplements should give you a headstart in the gym. Let me know how you treat yourself after a workout. Do you ever think about your Anabolic Window? Do you like to indulge in junk food before or after? How did that affect the rest of your workouts for the week? I’d love to hear from you!
- Fish Oil study
Chelsea has been active most of her life, which led her to become a Personal Trainer and Yoga Instructor for the past 7 years. Health and Fitness are not solely dependent on movement, though, and with that understanding, she addresses her client’s other needs, such as diet, mindfulness, and stress management.
When she is not training clients or teaching Yoga, she is finding new activities that keep her mind and body active, such as rock climbing, hiking, listening to podcasts, or playing Board Games with friends. She is constantly working towards finding natural solutions to live as long as possible, creating inclusive Yoga for all body types, and aiming to find mindfulness in everything she does.