Nutrition lore has drilled into our heads the ‘importance’ of consuming a post-exercise meal after every workout.
“Your body needs the carbs” they say.
“You need calories to recover” they say.
“You won’t have enough energy to get through the rest of your day” they say.
Much of this info is based on earlier studies that led to the theory of the Anabolic Window. This refers to a brief window of time immediately after workouts where your body is primed to absorb all those good nutrients and put them to work, refueling glycogen stores and rebuilding torn down muscles. They made it sound as if you didn’t get those nutrients in within that small sliver of 30 or so minutes immediately after your workout, all those gains would be lost.
With all new information, old paradigms are tough to shed, especially when it comes to nutritional science.
So, I want to set the record straight on this newer scientific information, so you can better understand how and when you should consider post-exercise refueling.
One caveat to start with however, is that what I’m about to tell you doesn’t pertain to endurance training - training sessions that are greater than 2 hours. That’s a different beast and doesn’t pertain to the anabolic window.
What I am referring to is meal timing after workouts under two hours in length. For many of us, the majority of our workouts probably fall into this category (even endurance athletes have shorter workouts some days!).
Here are 3 reasons why you shouldn’t stuff your face ASAP after a shorter workout:
Protein timing is NOT a factor in the anabolic window.
True - after an intense workout your body is primed to receive nutrients for refueling and recovery. In the past (and well, it still happens!) there’s been this almost alarmist message that you HAVE to get your protein in after a workout, or it was all for naught and your muscles would shrivel on the vine that day. This just isn’t true - athletes who consumed large amounts of protein immediately post workout fared no better than athletes that consumed the same amount of protein throughout the day in newer studies.
So, you can relax and not have to worry about chugging your protein immediately after. You can get your protein replaced throughout the day, using real food if you prefer. By the way, there’s nothing wrong with a protein shake right after your workout. It won’t hurt you whatsoever. All I’m saying is that it just isn’t necessary to have all of your protein right then and there (your gut will probably thank you). But you do need to get your protein in over the next 6-8 hours, that’s for sure.
Cortisol is all too often labeled as the bad guy. Cortisol really isn’t ‘bad’; it’s just a factor we can look to when things are out of balance. By now you’ve probably heard that excess cortisol helps you store fat and gain weight in unfavorable places (i.e. your gut). Oftentimes we’re told (incorrectly) that if you don’t eat immediately after that workout, you’ll suffer the ravages of unchecked elevations in cortisol.
This isn’t exactly true. We actually want and NEED that acute post-exercise cortisol spike - cortisol oversees the muscle and tissue rebuilding/remodeling process through a complex orchestra of pro-inflammatory mediators. That is where the gold is after a strength workout, and this is where ‘inflammation’ is good!
Consuming carbohydrates during and immediately after that workout will actually blunt that acute cortisol release, thereby putting the brakes on that muscle recovery process. No, it won’t completely abolish all of your gains, but it definitely impedes the process enough to where we recommended you don't bomb your gut with tons of carbs immediately after.
Back to the cortisol - as I just said acute elevations are good for you, but chronic elevations aren’t. This is more of a problem for endurance athletes and stress cadets, whose lifestyle if full of stressors in all forms - it all contributes to chronic elevations in cortisol over time and that’s when you start seeing problems with weight/fat tissue, insomnia, fatigue and overall energy.
Think about it. We’re really not that far off from our hunter and gatherer ancestors (No, I’m not going on a paleo tangent here…;) ) We didn’t evolve eating every 2 hours and fueling up during the hunt (aka workout ala 21st century). We’re made to store fuel, to persist and endure. Not much has changed in that realm. You WILL survive the gym for 2 hours, I can assure you of that.
Despite the nutritional dogma, your body has huge amounts of fuel stored for exercise in the form of carbohydrate (glycogen) and fat (not that you’re going to break into those stores in a short workout). If you replace energy (sports drinks, gels, bars, etc), you’re going to be pushing up very closely to the calories you’ve just burned. If your goal is weight loss, then you need to run from the idea of fueling during your workouts. If you’re looking for muscle gains, you also need to avoid these fuels due to the aforementioned blunting of acute cortisol release.
So, now what?
To summarize, if you’re working out less than 2 hours, stop consuming anything with calories in it. You don’t need the calories, you want some cortisol to be released, and you don’t have to freak out and chug your protein immediately after. Do your workout. Drink lots of water. Go take a shower, and have your protein now or throughout the day.
You’ll recover just the same, and your goals of either weight loss or muscle protein synthesis will be all the more attainable.