Recently Sheppy and I were talking about post workout nutrition and what was more important, protein or carbs? And my answer: “It depends” and “both”. Helpful right? Let me break it down.
First, the reason we focus on post workout nutrition is because your body deals with nutrients differently depending on your activity: Sitting on the couch vs walking the dog vs after a high intensity workout at the gym. By eating (or drinking) particular nutrients after your workout you can affect your body composition, performance and your recovery. Our post workout nutrition should:
- Replenish our energy stores
- Increase muscle size and/or quality
- Repair the damage caused by the workout
- Lower cortisol and aid in recovery
Protein to Repair and Build Muscle
Muscle repair and rebuilding occurs through the breakdown of the old, damaged proteins and the construction of new ones. After resistance training, muscle protein breakdown increases dramatically, and protein synthesis is slightly increased. We are breaking down more than we are building up. Muscle growth occurs when we have enough raw protein materials (aka amino acids) to create a positive protein balance – meaning we have enough protein for building muscle so that protein breakdown doesn’t win out.
Carbs to Build Muscle, Replenish Energy and Recover Faster
If we are looking to build muscle, we cannot overlook the importance of carbs. The insulin spike that occurs when we eat carbs is super helpful post workout to aid in protein synthesis. That surge of insulin will help to replenish your muscle glycogen (stored energy) which is essential to rebuild the damaged tissue and grow muscles. So, by providing the body with enough amino acids (protein) and glucose (carbs) we increase the rate at which protein synthesis occurs.
Also, our insulin sensitivity is higher around training. What this means is that during that post workout window (up to 2 hours after your workout), our body is more likely to take those carbs and store them as muscle glycogen and use it to build new muscle tissue rather than storing them as fat. So, if your goal is fat loss, post workout you are more insulin sensitive, so you’re going to better utilize those carbs compared to right before bed or early in the morning or at a random time of the day.
Carbs are even more important after intense, adrenal fatiguing training (a lesson I learned from DP the hard way!). When you really push yourself hard you’re driving into that sympathetic nervous system and we need to spike insulin as it has an inverse relationship with the stress hormone cortisol. When we eat carbs post workout we bring cortisol down, which blunts that cortisol response and allows us to de-stress faster, recover faster, and get into that parasympathetic mode a little bit faster.
So, it’s pretty damn important to have carbs after an intense training session because it is going lower cortisol and allow us to start recovering just a bit faster. So, for the intense individual, it’s less about muscle glycogen storage and it’s more about cortisol management and recovery.
Precision Nutrition recommends having 15 grams of protein and 30 grams of carbs per hour of workout time, consumed either during the workout or immediately after (this is where protein shakes or smoothies are helpful). Then have a whole food meal within an hour or two.
If you are interested in learning more about 1 on 1 or small group nutrition coaching reach out to me