One of the most common questions I get asked is what the best thing is to eat after a lift or practice.
I too have wondered the same thing. In fact, for a while, I tried to consume a 3:1 or 4:1 carb to protein ratio beverage after any workout.
And why not? There’s a ton of research and a few books on the idea of “nutrient timing” (eating around your workouts to maximize recovery, fat loss, muscle gain, etc.).
But a review published earlier this year in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition has me thinking it may be time to change things up.
About The Review
“The purpose of this paper will be twofold: 1) to review the existing literature on the effects of nutrient timing with respect to post-exercise muscular adaptations, and, 2) to draw relevant conclusions that allow practical, evidence-based nutritional recommendations to be made for maximizing the anabolic response to exercise.”
What The Review Found
“Despite claims that immediate post-exercise nutritional intake is essential to maximize hypertrophic gains, evidence-based support for such an “anabolic window of opportunity” is far from definitive. The hypothesis is based largely on the pre-supposition that training is carried out in a fasted state.”
Essentially what the researchers are saying is that in order to maximize muscle gains, having a meal/taking in calories immediately after your workout will produce the most desired results. However, these studies were primarily performed on individuals who lifted in a fasted state.
Additional Problems Identified With Nutrient Timing Research
1. No long-term studies have been performed which compare the effects of various pre/post-exercise meal/beverage consumption. Long-term studies that have been performed do not compare pre and post-exercise against each other.
2. The majority of long-term studies don’t match the total protein consumed to the compared conditions. Therefore, you can’t be sure if it’s the total amount of protein being consumed or the timing of it.
3. Protein dosages in nutrient-timing studies are typically 10-20 grams. More research is needed to measure the anabolic response from the ingestion of 20-40 gram dosages.
4. The majority of studies are performed on untrained individuals. Gains/improvements made by untrained (beginner) lifters are typically much more drastic than those made by experienced lifters.
5. The tools used to measure muscle gain in the studies were not as precise when compared to other means. Immeasurable (height, weight, skinfold and diameter measurements) differences may not mean a difference in performance for the layperson. However, for a higher level athlete, small improvements often mean the difference between winning and losing.
The researchers performing this review then go on to propose a very relevant question. They propose that if you’re not lifting in a fasted state, then the nutrition you take in before lifting has to have some impact on your performance and recovery.
In fact, 2 studies that were cited in this review concluded the following:
“…a relatively small dose of essential amino acids (6 grams) taken immediately pre-exercise was able to elevate blood and muscle amino acid levels by roughly 130%, and these levels remained elevated for 2 hours after the exercise.”
“…the ingestion of 20 grams of whey taken immediately pre-exercise elevated muscular uptake of amino acids to 4.4 times pre-exercise resting levels during exercise, and did not return to baseline levels until 3 hours post-exercise.”
Additional research reviewed that the levels of muscle protein synthesis after solid meals showed an elevation of between 3-5 hours.
This led the researchers to conclude if you’re lifting 4-6 hours after your last solid meal and don’t consume a protein-rich beverage before, then a post-workout meal/drink should be consumed.
Two other studies cited in the review showed that the addition of carbohydrate to protein beverages after resistance training workouts did not increase muscle protein balance.
These 2 studies led the researchers to conclude that meeting your daily carbohydrate needs are more important than if you’re ingesting them specifically around a workout. This is the same conclusion that I discuss in Wrestling Nutrition.
“Distilling the data into firm, specific recommendations is difficult due to the inconsistency of findings and scarcity of systematic investigations seeking to optimize pre and/or post- exercise protein dosage and timing.”
Despite this conclusion, the researchers do have some decent suggestions based on all of the studies (85) they reviewed:
1. Specifically, they suggest a pre and post-exercise beverage containing .4-.5 g/kg of lean body weight in high quality protein.
Don’t know what high quality protein is? Read this post.
Don’t know what your lean body weight is?
Just shoot for between 20-40 grams per beverage. The research they reviewed suggests lower amounts for younger people and upwards to 40 grams for an older population. Nothing was mentioned about the bodyweights of the individuals of this study.
2. Pre and post-exercise beverages should not be separated by more than 3-4 hours assuming the lifting lasts between 45-90 minutes. If you’re eating meals, this may be increased to 5-6 hours.
3. Keep in mind these recommendations are for lifting. “Carbohydrate availability during and after exercise is of greater concern for endurance as opposed to strength or hypertophy goals.”
If you’re looking for what to consume after practice, I’d go with a 3:1 or 4:1 carb to protein ratio beverage. 16 or so ounces of chocolate milk is a great, convenient option.
I can imagine that sometimes when I review a study things can get confusing. I try to be as concise about it as possible. However, I also try to highlight some of the most important points that will best be applied to your training.
Here are my recommendations for pre and post-workout nutrition. These are based on the research review as well as the suggestions presented in Nutrient Timing.
1. Pre-workout beverage/meal- within 1.5 hours of starting workout. It should contain 20-40 grams timed released/slower digesting protein.
2. Post-workout beverage- within 45 minutes of finishing workout. It should contain 20-40 grams of fast acting protein (whey). Feel free to add 20-40 grams of fast acting carbohydrate to the equation just to be safe. A simple way to do this would be to add some whey (until you get to 20-40 grams including the protein from the milk) to 12 oz of chocolate milk. 12 oz of chocolate milk provides, on average, 35 grams of fast digesting carbs.
**Additionally, I would say a meal or beverage is fine pre-workout. However, for the sake of faster digestion, absorption, and utilization, go with a beverage post-workout.
Listen, my goal here isn’t to make it sound like protein supplementation is an absolute must. Drinking a fancy blend of specific protein is not going to get you the strength, power, and/or body you want in 4 weeks.
You know as well as I do that putting on size and/or strength takes hard work, dedication, and regimented eating. It’s definitely not some secret post-workout shake or pill.
But, if you are already busting your ass in the gym (following programs like these) and you want to ensure you’re getting the most out of it, then consider implementing the suggestions above. How can you go wrong with putting a couple decades worth of hard research to use?
Aragon, A., B. Schoenfeld. Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window? Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 10:5. 2013.