Just because the timing of your post-workout meal has been reduced from urgent to “apply on your time,” doesn’t mean the entire concept of nutrient timing is dead. In fact, it’s just the opposite. It’s similar to supplements, we know there is no one cure all pill but it’s still true that low testosterone levels can be boosted with testosterone boosters, just like weak wrists can be helped by the best crossfit wrist wraps.
There’s never been a clearer idea of exactly what you should be eating to help your body. And the biggest breakthrough is clear.
Protein is the new carbs.
It used to be that you needed to fuel up with carbs prior to your workout and then replenish after your workout. This all ties back to glycogen as a primary source of energy and fuel for your body. Most of the research tested the benefits of using carbohydrates as fuel, and then testing different amounts of carbs. But even that rationale was a bit flawed.
Nutrient timing should focus on three aspects that help improve your performance and appearance.
Glycogen replenishment: Glycogen is your fuel. The more you have the harder you can push your body for longer periods of time.
Protein breakdown: If you want to gain muscle, protein synthesis (anabolism) has to be greater than protein breakdown (catabolism). Protein Building – Protein Breakdown = Muscle Growth or Loss. So it only makes sense that you want to slow the breakdown process.
Protein synthesis: Eating protein after a workout is supposed to optimize the other side of the same equation by increasing muscle protein synthesis, the process that helps you repair and rebuild muscle. Combined all three of these factors influence how hard you can train (endurance, strength, work capacity), how well you recover, and your ability to build muscle and burn fat. So it only makes sense that what you eat should target any or all of these goals.
Your Carb Solution
The glycogen question seemed to have an easy answer: carbs fuel glycogen. Eat more carbs and you’ll have more energy, right? Not exactly. Depleting glycogen is actually very difficult.
For example, let’s say you did a full-body workout of 9 exercises, performed 3 sets of each exercise (so 27 sets total), and pushed at a high intensity of 80 percent of your 1 rep max. That’d be a grueling workout, but when researchers tested this exact protocol, they found that it only depleted about one-third of total glycogen stores.
Even crazier? When a similar workout was tested and followed with no food, about 75 percent of the depleted glycogen was replenished within 6 hours. So what’s going on? Your body is actually protective of your energy. The more you deplete your glycogen, the faster resynthesis occurs. The higher your intensity, the quicker you recharge.
Even in marathon runners and endurance athletes, complete resynthesis is usually complete within 24 hours.
That’s not a call to avoid carbs.
They are important and necessary, and if you’re exercising they need to be a part of your plan. But the extreme nature of pre-workout (carb loading) and post-workout (insulin spiking) carb needs were overblown. You don’t need to fuel up with hundreds of grams of fuel pre, during, and post workout because you’re not tapping out your glycogen.
When your tank is actually on empty, you won’t be able to move. So your ideal carb plan will ultimately depend on the type of activity you perform. (See “The Ultimate Guide to Workout Nutrition.”) As for protein breakdown and protein synthesis, back in 2010, research seemed to find the sweet spot for carb consumption.
That’s when it was found that 70 grams of carbs offered no additional recovery, muscle, or strength benefits compared to just 30 grams of carbs. But in that study, no protein was consumed. Then protein was added to the mix, the game changed.
When eating protein and carbs was compared to carbs alone, recovery, muscle protein synthesis, and protein breakdown were improved when protein was part of the equation.
But most interesting? When protein and carbs (25 grams of protein and 50 grams of carbs) was compared to just protein alone (25 grams), there was no additional benefit in terms of muscle protein synthesis or muscle protein breakdown when the carbs were added.
The verdict: Protein is the new king of workout nutrition. But it doesn’t end there.
While we know that protein is important for preventing muscle protein breakdown and fueling muscle protein synthesis, and some carbs (but not too much) are good for glycogen, how much you eat around your workout should not be your primary consideration.
The work of Aragon and Schoenfeld found that the most important dietary factor for performance and appearance was not how much protein or carbs you had before or after your workout, but rather how much you ate in the entire day.
In essence, even if your pre or post workout nutrition was less than optimal (say, if you’re in a rush to get to work), as long as you still ate the right amount of nutrients (proteins, carbs, and fats) for the entire day, then you would still see benefits. That’s not to say that you won’t see some psychological benefits of eating around your workouts.
Or maybe, more importantly, the closer you get to high-level goals, the more important nutrient timing becomes. So if you’re trying to go from 20 percent body fat to 15 percent, then nutrient timing can help but won’t move the needle significantly.
But if you’re already at, say, 10 percent body fat, using nutrient timing to help you become leaner becomes a valuable tool and of greater importance.
In other words, master the basics first, and then progress to more detailed areas of focus. Don’t major in the minor. Major in the major, and then—and only then—learn to master the minor.
Let’s set one thing clear: What food you put into your body is still very important and determines how hard you can exercise and how well you recover. The bigger issue is exactly what you should be eating, or maybe more importantly, when you should be eating it.
The idea of the “anabolic window” was one that struck intense fear that your muscles lived in an hourglass, and with each passing second of eating before or after a workout you were losing out on improvement.
For the past 20 years the prevailing idea was that you had about 30 to 90 minutes to eat something after your workout. If not, your body would become catabolic (a state of stress) and you would lose muscle, not recover fast enough, and fail to see the benefits from all your hard work and time invested.
When you think about it, the theory seems crazy. How could the human body have such a small window for recovery? That was the question two researchers—nutritionist Alan Aragon and exercise physiologist Dr. Brad Schoenfeld—wanted to know. So they reviewed a large number of studies that examined nutrient timing and set out to answer a simple question: Is there such thing as the “anabolic window.”
Turns out there is—but it’s much bigger than anyone ever suggested.
And the timing of your meals after a workout isn’t even the biggest indicator of your success. (More on that in a moment.) After you exercise you burn up your main energy store of carbohydrates, also known as glycogen. So it only makes sense that you need to refuel glycogen by eating lots of carbs to replace what was lost.
But when food was consumed in a shorter window of time after a workout there was no significant difference than when it was consumed after a longer delay. In fact, the research would go as far as suggest that your post-workout window is actually the entire 24 hours after you train, with the key time to eat occurring about 4 to 6 hours after you finish your last set, stop your run, or end your athletic event.
Not exactly the same message as slug your protein shake before your muscles shrink.
So how did this massive misunderstanding occur? It goes back to the sports drink phenomenon. The “glycogen emptying” idea wasn’t really applicable to the average person. In reality, it takes a tremendous effort to completely deplete your glycogen stores. Extreme marathoners can do it. Bodybuilders who train twice per day can do it. NFL athletes who play a 3-hour game can do it.
But you? It’s a different story.
Even when these ideas were tested in a lab, they didn’t follow a typical routine. Most people don’t’ go to the gym completely fasted. And yet, those were the test conditions used to determine what to eat after your workout. While it might feel like your body needs food immediately, the ROI of rushing to or even forcing food into your system is minimal. No added strength. No improved endurance. And no boost in recovery. The new rules focus on the bigger picture. What you eat before your workout, what you eat after, and what type of activity you perform.