UEFP Nutrition Coaching: Post Workout Nutrition
I still remember the time when I was way out of shape. I’m sure my clients are rubbing their hands together, eager to hear this story. Back in my early 20’s I use to play a lot of hockey. I met a group of engineers who use to scrimmage during their lunch hour. They asked if I wanted to jump in on their daytime games and I said sure. I was a lot smaller than them, but figured with my skill, youth, and good looks, I could hold my own.
Boy was I wrong. These guys were skating circles around me. I remember being hunched over and using my stick to hold me up. A guy twice my age skated up to me and asked if I was okay. My ego kicked in and I waved him off. I had to sit out a shift. It was embarrassing but it was enough of a reality check to step my game up.
But how I stepped my game up was wrong. I had just recently changed my major to sports medicine, and I was learning about how the body responds to exercise. I thought more conditioning would help, but I still felt sluggish during games. Sometimes more is not the answer. It took a while to figure out a connection: I was playing the games several hours after hitting the gym in the morning. In between the two, I didn’t eat anything. My post-workout nutrition was AWOL and my performance was suffering because of it.
So I started learning about protein, carbohydrates, slow digesting versus fast digesting…..a ton of stuff. Some of this stuff I’ll get to in am minute. But the point is, once I cleaned up my post-workout nutrition, I wasn’t sucking wind anymore. In fact, it got to the point to where I could hold my own. And I wasn’t so small too. Maybe this post-workout thing worked after all.
The Exercise Paradox
The first mistake people make is that they think they’re getting in shape during a workout. Quite the opposite actually. Exercise is a stress, and hormones are in play during a workout. These hormones tear down tissues so you have energy to get through the session. Run out of energy, and the workout is terminated. Well, things can slow down. This is the second wind phenomenon: people think they’re getting a burst of energy when actually their performance went down a notch. This is the body picking a different energy source; that energy takes more time to break down, and you move slower as a result.
The changes from training occur long after the session is over. If you’re following a smart training program along with proper nutrition, then you’ll see positive changes. So your goals after a workout are to:
- Try to flip the switch from “muscle damage” to “muscle repair.”
- Try to suppress certain hormones, like cortisol and epinephrine (i.e. adrenaline)
- Let other hormones, like insulin, work their magic
Your Gas Tank
You eat food and your body stores it as energy. No matter how lean you are, you’re going to have more energy stored as fat than you will with carbohydrates (carbs). You store carbs in your muscles, and even some in your liver. You can then use this energy to train hard during a workout. An average size male can store about 300-400 grams of carbs in their muscles. That’s only 1,200 calories, which you can burn through in about half a day.
But exercise changes things. Circuit training, kettlebell swings, and intervals use a mix of different types of energy. You’ll burn some carbs during the set and then some fat while you recover. Do this long enough, and frequently enough, and you’re getting in shape. One set of a 6 second sprint was found to burn 14% of your stored carbohydrates (1). Imagine backing out of your driveway and you just lost 14% of the gas in your tank. Some workouts, just 30 minutes in length, can deplete more than 50% of your stored carbs.
You may be thinking “great, just work off those carbs and then I’ll burn fat from here on out.” Not precisely. We’re talking about one workout here. If you don’t eventually replenish those carbs, you risk burning out, using your own muscle mass for energy, and even getting sick. Putting excessive stress on your body can stop the fat burning process. It won’t happen immediately, but give it some time, and you’ll notice the changes. I have had client make thing worse by adding more training and not addressing their nutrition.
How This Benefits You
Eating a combination of protein and carbs after a workout puts your body into what we call an “anabolic state.” Combining protein with carbs after a workout is like putting Lennon and McCartney in a room together – goods things are going to happen. This anabolic state means that hormones are hard at work to rebuild muscle. In this process, the body can use fat as energy for all this construction work. It’s been shown that protein and carbs post workout elevate what’s called protein synthesis – the process of muscle rebuilding itself (2). Your body continually adapts to training as well. It was shown that after 5 months of resistance training, subject’s increased their storage capacity for carbs by 66% (3). That means more energy to workout harder! Now those sprints on the rower aren’t so difficult.
Your muscles, post workout, are very sensitive to insulin. Insulin is a hormone that helps carry food into the cells of your body. If your insulin levels are chronically high, it can lead to insulin resistance, a condition that can eventually lead to diabetes if unchecked.
But insulin is your ally after a workout. Since your muscles are so sensitive to insulin, they’ll act as a sponge to gobble up nutrients. When you consume the right foods, insulin helps build new muscle by stimulating the DNA in your cells. It also causes a rush of amino acids into your muscle. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Kind of like the bricks used to make a house. Amino acids are important to other system of the body too, not just building muscle. Insulin will also help lower cortisol, a hormone that breaks down tissues for energy. If cortisol stays elevated for too long, you could potentially develop insulin resistance. In this case, not eating after a workout can be damaging your heath.
What You Can Do
Here’s what you can do to get the most of your workouts.
- Liquid nutrition seems to work best. Nutrients are absorbed faster, and most people don’t have a huge appetite for whole food after a workout. But there are some clients who still want to eat a potato or some rice, so whole food is an option.
- Your food choices should be a combination of protein and carbs. A ratio of 1:3/4 works best. Meaning someone who consumes 20 grams a protein can take in 60-80 grams of carbs.
- Whey protein rocks after a workout. You absorb a lot of it and its fast digesting. Again though, you can use animal proteins too.
- A fast digesting carbs is what you want. I have most clients use maltodextrin, and you can even consume sugars like different juices and raisins. These simple sugars help insulin carry food into your muscle cells. Again though, you want to do this after a workout and not all day.
- This is not the time for slow digesting carbs like beans. We want things to happen fast, so save those for later in the day.
- Ditto for also dietary fat. Fat can stop the carbohydrates from being absorbed into the muscle. In later meals, drop the carbs and replace it with some fat.
Can you see now how powerful post-workout nutrition is? Make sure you have your protein and carbs on hand so you’re not sucking wind like I was. And if you still have questions, my office door is always open!
1. Rankin, J.W. “Dietary Carbohydrate and Performance of Brief, Intense, Exercise.” (2000). Sports Science Exchange. 13;4
2. Baty, J.J. Hwang, H. et al. “The Effect of a Carbohydrate and Protein Supplement on Resistance Exercise Performance, Hormonal Response, and Muscle Damage.” (2007) Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 21;2. 321-329
3. Widman, R. Kersick, C, and Campbell, B. “Carboydrates, Physical Training, and Sport Performance.”(2010) Strength and Condtioing Journal 32;1. 21-30