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There’s an old fitness adage that says, “You don’t build your body in the gym. It’s what you do after training that causes physical improvement.” So even if you exercise religiously, you’re selling yourself short if you’re not following the correct steps the moment you leave the gym.
When you finish a tough workout, your body is starving for nutrition. Intense training breaks down muscle tissue (which catabolizes protein), depletes muscle glycogen (which is critical for energy) and reduces muscular ATP stores (the cellular fuel that drives muscular contractions). Your body requires the replenishment of glycogen first and foremost. This storage form of carbohydrate is found in muscles (about 400 grams) and the liver (about 100 grams) and is critical for brain function, as well as fueling physical activity. It’s also used during training to replenish ATP in the muscles.
In addition, in the absence of carbs, amino acids are stripped away from muscle to be reassembled as glycogen molecules — a catabolic process you want to avoid.
The Carb Connection
The great thing about postworkout feeding is that you can eat a lot of carbohydrates, even on a restricted-carb diet. This is because carbs are protein sparing, which means they’ll go to work immediately to replenish glycogen stores and prevent muscular breakdown. Even on a low-carb diet, you can consume up to a quarter of your total daily intake in your postworkout meal. So if you’re eating 160 grams of carbs a day, you should take in 40 to 50 immediately after training. (A good recommendation is .3 to .5 grams per pound of bodyweight.)
Power Up With Protein
Muscle tissue requires amino acids for growth to occur. Research shows a combination of fast-, medium- and slow-digesting proteins speeds this process and ensures recuperation. Complete proteins from food and/or supplements supply a range of essential aminos to promote muscle building. Aim for eating 20 to 40 grams of protein, depending on how it fits into your daily intake. (A good rule of thumb is consuming up to .25 grams per pound of bodyweight postworkout.)
The final piece of the puzzle is ATP regeneration. As long as you consume ample carbs after training, your body should be able to replace the missing phosphocreatine in ATP in muscle cells. In addition, creatine can be found in red meat and fish, as well as supplements.
Timing is everything for postworkout feeding. Be conscious of your refueling window: Simple carbs are essential within minutes after you finish your last set. Protein and creatine should be consumed within the next hour. You also can include a few grams of carbs and a creatine supplement, if desired, with the latter meal to enhance absorption.
What are some examples of what to eat? Replacing glycogen is easiest — any carb will do. Lower-glycemic carbs such as fruit or juices may not be as optimal as candy for speed of glycogen replenishment, but they’re healthier. High-glycemic carbs such as sweet potatoes, rice and white potatoes are great options. Honey is another good choice; research shows combining it with protein helps maintain optimal blood-sugar levels to enhance uptake. For protein, supplements are superior to whole food because of convenience, digestive speed and specific benefits. However, you can enhance amino-acid absorption by eating egg whites, Greek yogurt, low-fat cottage cheese and low-fat milk (regular or lactose-free) after training.
Certain protein-rich foods provide the double benefit as sources of creatine. However, because appetite is not always the best following a workout, you might want to try creatine supplements. To speed recovery and get the most out of your training, be conscious of the small window postworkout when you can refuel your body and start the recuperation process. Remember, it’s the 23 hours outside the gym when your body improves. Make the most of it.