Here at Stronger U, we love helping people change their bodies and their lives along with it. For some people, that comes through a deeper understanding of food. For others, it’s gaining some muscle. For the vast majority of people, it means losing some weight. And still, for others, it means taking your performance in the gym up a notch through losing body fat and nutritional strategies that help you recover. Those strategies are what we’re talking about today because there are quite a few myths and misconceptions that we want to clear up.
When it comes to weight loss, muscle gain, performance, or just about anything else, we know that your total food intake over the course of a day is the most important thing. As long as your food selections fit your macros, it doesn’t matter if you eat three meals a day, five meals a day, practice intermittent fasting, and you can even fit in treats here and there.
But while total food intake is the most important thing, that doesn’t mean meal timing and food quality are irrelevant. For example: spacing your meals out evenly can help maintain stable hunger and energy levels. And when it comes to performance and recovery, peri-workout nutrition can play a role in how well you’re able to train and recover.
Quick note: if you’re just getting started, don’t stress this point too much. The first order of business is making sure you can consistently hit your macros day after day. Once you’ve got the macros down, then we can start to fine-tune and work on the finer details, like peri-workout nutrition.
(Peri-workout is a fancy-sounding term but it just means what you eat around a workout.)
In this article, when I talk about working out, I’m talking about moderate to high-intensity resistance training. Bodybuilding, Stronger U Fitness, CrossFit, Orange Theory, etc. If you’re doing something like a walk or hike, yoga, or something else that doesn’t breakdown muscle tissue in the same way as resistance training, you don’t have to worry about this too much since it doesn’t create the same level of muscular damage, and long endurance events are a different game altogether.
If you’re someone who loves endurance events, going on long-runs, long bike rides, or something similar, I don’t want you to feel left out, though. We’ve got a couple of great resources that talk about fueling for those sorts of activities here and here.
What happens after lifting weights?
Let’s start with a very basic look at what goes on inside of your body after a tough workout. After an intense weight training session, your body and your muscles are primed to absorb nutrients as they need them to repair from a hard workout.
Why do they need them to repair? Lifting weights creates micro-tears and breaks down muscle tissue, and while you recover in the days off from the gym, it grows back stronger. This is how you make gains; what you do in the gym matters, but it’s in the days post-workout as your body recovers that you make real progress. This is why lifting every day isn’t necessary or even recommended, it’s very important to stimulate your muscle properly, and then let it recover.
Recovery and growth is more than just getting in the gym, moving your body around, lifting some weights, and calling it a day. That typically makes up 4% of your entire day (if you’re spending an hour working out). Whether you recognize it or not, that 4% plays a very small part in what actually leads to you getting stronger, faster, or more fit.
Food is an important part of improving your strength and performance.
After lifting, your muscles will want to start the repair process right away so they’ll try to absorb amino acids and glucose from your bloodstream. Your muscles will be primed to receive all the beneficial nutrients they can. This is why plenty of post-workout shakes and meals are made up of mainly protein and carbohydrates. They provide the fuel your body is looking for in order to recover.
It’s because of this very reason that many of you have probably also been told that you need to be pounding protein shakes as soon as you walk out of the gym. Just so you’re aware, that’s an oversimplified look at post-workout nutrition. Getting in protein after you lift weights is important for recovery, but there’s not a specific window of time around when you need to get your protein in like we once thought. In reality, instead of a window, it’s more like a garage door.
The post-workout window is longer than you think, and this is important to remember. The old adage used to go that you need to drink protein within 30-minutes of being done with a workout. In reality, you probably have at least 2-3 hours where your muscle tissue is more receptive to nutrients post-training. It’s important to eat after your workout, but it doesn’t need to be a race to the kitchen, just eat something when you can.
Oh, also, just in case we haven’t put that 30-minute window myth to bed yet; digestion is a lot slower than most people realize. So if you really want to maximize this, you’ll want to have some food before training as well. That shake you chug on the way home isn’t going to be instantly absorbed, no matter what the supplement companies claim.
Blood Sugar, Insulin, and Nutrient Transportation
When you eat a meal containing carbohydrates, they are broken down into simple sugar molecules, which eventually end up in your bloodstream, and increases the levels of glucose (aka sugar) in your blood. Hence the term blood-sugar spike, or carb spike. As the saying goes, what goes up must come down.
If you’ve ever sat and drank fruit juice, a soda, or had some candy, you’ve probably felt this — you feel great, happy, then often tired and cranky when the blood sugar drops back down soon after. This is your body trying to restore balance.
When it detects high blood sugar, it releases insulin to lower blood sugar. Insulin flips on the storage switches in your body and causes your body to push nutrients out of the blood and into storage. Carbs, fats, and proteins — insulin doesn’t discriminate. This is why we talk about eating carbs and protein post-workout. Your body is primed to begin that recovery process, and eating a meal that is going to cause your body to release glucose, and in turn — insulin can help you shuttle those nutrients into your muscle tissue.
Now, its thanks to this same physiological response to eating food that many people have also fallen victim to the idea that overeating carbs or sugar leads to weight gain because it leads to dramatic insulin spikes. This is another one of those oversimplifications of what happens inside the body. For the vast majority of people with normal hormonal function, it’s not insulin that’s leading to weight gain. It’s too many calories.
So what should I eat?
So! We know that carbs cause your body to release extra insulin, which then turns on the “storage switch” so to speak. In addition to carbs, we also want amino acids, the building blocks of your body, which come from protein sources and/or supplementation. Protein and carbs together give your body amino acids and tells it to start pushing them into the muscles quickly.
Seeing how all the pieces tie together?
- Protein + carbs = higher levels of amino acids and blood sugar
- Higher blood sugar = insulin turning on the storage mode
- When this happens after training, boom! Amino acids are pushed into your muscles to start growing them even stronger and bigger.
This whole process would happen regardless of when you eat, but it’ll go faster if that food is soon after your workout. If you go for a long run in the heat, you’ll want to rehydrate right away, right? This is the same thing. Sure you could come home, cool off, and THEN start drinking water, but you’re probably going to feel awful.
If you’ve eaten a pre-workout meal within 2-3 hours of beginning your workout, that food is still being broken down, so there’s no urgent rush. Just eat whenever you can, preferably within an hour or two of wrapping up your lifting. A good pre-workout meal would be anything containing carbs, protein, and some fats, so really any balanced meal. I’d avoid during a pure carb, as you might get a little blood sugar crash during your workout.
The ideal food to consume after training is a blend of carbs and protein, preferably ones that will digest quickly.
You really don’t need to minor in the details, but fast-digesting usually helps. Fruit and a protein shake will leave your stomach faster than a big meal of steak and potatoes. The fastest digesting would be from a simple carb powder or drink with whey protein, but any solid food and carb combo that’s low in fat will also work just as well.
Note: this isn’t because we’re demonizing fat, it’s because fat is slowly digested.
Foods that digest quickly will be your best bet after a workout. I like to use rice, fruit, or something like rice cakes with a lean meat like chicken or fish. You could also drink a whey protein shake with a piece of fruit or some toast, some Greek yogurt with berries, or any other combination of protein and carbs. Just keep fat low if you can, since you want those nutrients hitting your blood quickly, and as we’ve learned, fat will slow down the digestion process.
What about fasted training?
Plenty of people have busy schedules that make it hard to train any other time than early in the morning. And I’m not sure about you, but I’m not exactly the biggest fan of waking up before the crack of dawn to eat and then go lift weights, only to come back home and eat again.
Which means that sometimes life just dictates that we have to train without eating prior. That’s okay. It’s not the end of the world and you can still get excellent results.
First off, remember what we said about digestion earlier. Digestion takes a very long time. Anywhere from 12-72 hours depending on what you’ve eaten previously. So if you’re training early in the morning and haven’t had a meal since you woke up, that’s okay. There’s a strong chance you’re still breaking down some of your last meal.
Or, as Mike Doehla likes to say:
“While it would be cool, we’re not the same as a toy that goes the moment you stick a battery in it“
Outside of that, if you’re training fasted, this is the one time we’ll advise that you would want to hurry up and get protein and carbs in as quickly as possible after training. You won’t have a pre-workout meal in your system, so getting food in quickly will be important, as the fuel tanks may be running low. If you train early in the morning, you might consider bringing a protein shake to drink when you’re done with your workout.
In summary, after training your muscles will absorb more of the nutrients in your blood than usual, especially if you consume carbohydrates, so this is the perfect time to use carbs and the resulting insulin spike to push nutrients into your muscles.
This stuff can be complicated and the nutrition and fitness world likes to make it even more complicated than it already is. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with people who are worried about their protein shake but haven’t prepped a meal in a year or more.
Above all else, remember that total calories and your macros over the course of 24 hours make the biggest difference here. If you don’t get a protein shake with some rice cakes in immediately after lifting, that’s alright. Your muscles won’t shrivel up and blow away. Spending some time and effort to pay attention to what you’re putting in your body before and after a workout can play a role in helping you progress in the gym. They won’t be a magic bullet that immediately lead to you setting PR’s every single day for the rest of your life, but over time you just might start to see some noticeable differences. Because, like all things, consistency and time are what matter most here.