22 Jul

How to Maximize Post-Workout Nutrition


The fitness industry is guilty of giving a one-size-fits-all prescription to the masses on everything from supplements to nutrition to workouts. Maximizing the benefits of post-workout nutrition is a bit more complicated than just “drink a protein shake.”

Before we dive into the details, there are a few pieces of biology, human physiology, and research about post-workout nutrition that need to be reviewed:

  1. Glycogen repletion takes upwards of 24 hours to happen. Protein synthesis can last up to 48 hours.  
  2. The speed of repletion of both causes a cortisol downturn, which has nothing to do with the first truth. 
  3. When we do intensive training, we increase cortisol from the stress response. This is the purpose behind training, but we want to get trainees back into a parasympathetic state (rest and digest) as quickly as possible BEFORE they consume their next meal. The period of time between the completion of a training session and the period when cortisol and their nervous system has moved back towards baseline is anecdotally called the “post-workout blackout period.” Do not consume foods during this time. There actually is legitimate science behind this period. The sympathetic response of training diverts blood away from your gut and induces a temporary form of insulin resistance. The “fight or flight” response that kept us alive while being chased by saber-tooth tigers hundreds of years ago is at play here. No time for digestion or energy storage when trying to avoid death. Ideally, trainees give themselves 15-20 minutes to chill out prior to consumption and then take 30 minutes to consume their post-workout meal.
  4. Follow your post-workout nutrition (whether it’s a supplement or a snack) with a whole-food meal that includes protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Why? Nutrient uptake is very quick. If an individual ingests 60 grams of carbohydrates and 30 grams of protein, that is only 360 calories. Our body will utilize this completely for recovery, and leave us empty-tanked very quickly. Think of your post-workout nutrition as recovery, and everything after that as fuel for tomorrow's fire.

Now that we have established a foundation for how training and post-workout nutrition works, let’s dig into how to maximize what we consume after working out. The goals behind post-workout nutrition are to optimize the speed of recovery between training sessions and to ensure that what is consumed is aligned with the overall training objective. In order for the food that trainees consume post-workout to be aligned with the intent of training, we need to consider three things:

1. Goal - Is the trainee trying to live well and prosper, or are they trying to peak for a 2,000-meter row time trial? Understanding what the individual wants to accomplish is paramount to an optimal post-workout nutrition prescription.

To be more specific, if an individual is trying to look and feel better, has an average body composition, and has just completed a moderate volume and intensity session but doesn’t particularly move a lot throughout the day outside of the training session, keeping it simple makes the most sense. Lean meat works well, followed by meat and veggies within 90 minutes of their post-workout meal. To be blunt, the majority of people who engage in exercise should stick to this prescription. 

However, there is a small percentage of individuals who are very lean (under 8% for males and 12% for females), train hard, and need to recover quickly due to their training goal. These people will need a more specific prescription.

2. Body Composition - Is the individual lean, fat, or somewhere in between? Do they have 100 pounds of skeletal muscle mass or 50 pounds? The more adipose tissue someone has, the more this tells us about the person’s inability to metabolize carbohydrates and sugars.

If we are refueling an athlete who needs to maximize recovery, there are a few formulas that work well when taking body fat percentage into account. We may use something like a protein and carbohydrate supplement since we care less about maximizing nutrient density and we can more about quickly ingesting nutrition so they are recovered for the next training session:

  • Non-lean non-athlete - protein alone immediately. Vegetables with protein within 90 minutes.
  • Leaner non-athlete - can have fructose (fruit) afterward, but can stick to food sources and not supplements.
  • Non-lean athlete - protein and MAYBE a small amount of carbohydrates depending on the activity, immediately as they can’t use carbohydrates well. The next meal is meat and vegetables.
  • Lean athlete - forms of sugar to recover for the sport. Protein and carbohydrate supplements are something to consider.

Since body fat percentage is an indirect measure of insulin sensitivity (essentially how well you can metabolize carbohydrates), you can see from the examples above that the leaner someone is, the more carbohydrates are being prescribed. The opposite is true due to the fact that these folks will be more apt to store excess calories and carbohydrates as adipose tissue.

3. Activity - Did the trainee complete a two-hour resistance training session with conditioning or an easy 30-minute session on a flywheel bike? The type and amount of exercise will dictate the dose of post-workout nutrition.

  • Central Nervous Systems (CNS) dominant sessions will require fewer post-workout carbohydrates, and more post-workout protein (think 5x5 deadlift).
  • Cellular dominant sessions will require less protein and more carbohydrates (think 10km run).
  • CNS/Cellular sessions require both HIGH carbohydrates and protein (bench press, pull-up, and a 30-minute flywheel bike @ moderate intensity)

Example: 32-year-old male, 5' 9, 180 lbs, 7% body fat.  Variance in post-workout nutrition per session:  

  • If it is metabolic only (cellular), it will be 30g/120g P/C
  • If it is strength only (CNS), it will be 50g/60g P/C
  • If it combines both strength and metabolic (CNS/Cellular) in the same session, it will be 60g/120g P/C.  

Keep in mind these are the numbers that work for THIS trainee. This example is used to stress the variances between sessions with differing intent.  Don't run out and slam 120 grams of sugar after your training session if this is your first day reading the Central Athlete blog.

To be clear, we recommend that most individuals focus on consuming lean meats followed by meat and veggies within 90 minutes of their post-workout nutrition. Most people want to look and feel great, are not super lean, and are not athletes. So why would we want to treat them like the minority that does need very specific post-workout strategies?

Post-workout can be complex, but hopefully, this article sheds some light into the frameworks our Central Athlete coaching staff uses when creating individualized nutritional plans for our clients. If you are looking for more direction in this arena, schedule a strategy session with one of our professional coaches TODAY!

In Health, 

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