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.