After the Gym: Your Post Workout Guide to Nutrition and Health
The best time to start preparing for your next workout is immediately after the workout you just finished. Your post-workout routine is going to “set the table” for next time. It’s also going to repair and rebuild your body, the two activities that are most crucial right after you drop your last set.
Knowing how to refuel to replenish your body effectively allows you to recover quicker, grow muscles faster, and be better prepared for your next workout session. Proper nutrition and stretching have an incredible impact on how your body responds after you finish the last exercise in the gym.
We’ll break down the nutrition your body needs immediately after your workout and the importance of recovery and how to get your body restored faster for a better workout next time. We also talk about how to soothe your muscles after you’ve pushed them to the limit with stretches to improve blood flow.
To understand why you need to give your body a good post-workout meal, it’s best to understand what you’re doing to the body during your workout.
As you train, you are causing damage to your muscle tissue called microtrauma. These microtrauma tears are caused by an intense workout and they are essential to building strong muscles. During an intense workout session, you’re also depleting the stores of energy you have in your body called glycogen. This glycogen is what you use for heavy resistance training and lifting weights.
The main goal of your post-workout meal is to repair and rebuild your muscles and replenish your depleted energy stores. You also want to encourage your body to increase your muscle size. You don’t want to just repair your muscle, you want it to become bigger and better at lifting. This comes about through taking in carbohydrates and protein.
The Metabolic Window of Opportunity
Immediately after a workout, your body is starved for nutrients. You have this optimal time, often called the metabolic window, that you have two actions simultaneously going on in your body.
First, you have massive amounts of blood flowing rapidly through your body. Your heart is pumping faster, your blood vessels are contracted, and your muscles are demanding blood for more oxygen and energy.
Second, you have depleted the stores of glycogen and amino acids needed to repair and rebuild the muscle tissue. Your muscles are like sponges at this time, ready to take in as many amino acids as it can to synthesise protein to make your muscles whole again. This temporary window is your chance to refuel while your body is in the re-building stage.
This window only lasts up to 1 hour, and many experts say it only lasts 30 minutes after your workout is done. The best time to take in nutrients is as soon as you’re done your last set.
Whole Meals and Supplements
When your workout is done, a well-balanced meal will provide your body the nutrients that it needs to get to work. The meal should include a source of protein like eggs or chicken. It should include a carbohydrate like oats or potatoes.
If you’re short on time, protein supplements are a great alternative. A protein shake makes it easier to get the rapid carbs and protein your body needs, and you can even bring it to the gym with you.
Your protein matters because this is how your body will get the amino acids it needs to rebuild your muscle tissue. At this time, it’s best to take a rapidly-digested protein source like whey protein that can begin metabolising and reaching your muscle tissue within 30-60 minutes after you eat it.
Protein also stops the body from catabolising muscle tissue to access the amino acids it needs. We know that our bodies use the available nutrients it has access to, so providing enough protein immediately after a workout encourages the body to use it right away, increasing the muscle size and strength.
Around 30 grams of carbs per hour of working out is a good source of energy to restore glycogen. That means more stored energy for next time. There is a danger here to eat fewer carbs because it will “promote fat loss”. This is hardly true.
Not eating enough carbohydrates will reduce your effectiveness for the next workout, diminishing your results with each progressive workout. Your body needs carbs, plain and simple.
Speaking of simple, the best source of post-workout energy is simple carbohydrates, such as fruits and milk. They digest quickly and spike the insulin in your blood. Insulin has the added benefit of helping protein uptake into the muscle tissue.
Is creatine good for post-workout supplements?
Yes, in part. Although creatine is a supplement that has the greatest effect once it’s saturated in your body, you have the most uptake right after your workout. Essentially, it’s easier for your body to absorb creatine right after a workout, even if it doesn’t have immediate results. Creatine has the impact of increasing ATP stores, the energy your cells use, giving you more fuel for your next workout.
One of the impacts of creatine is that it increase water absorption into the muscle tissue, making it look pumped up. But you need to hydrate well after your workout to take advantage of that increased water intake.
Dehydration slows down protein synthesis and increases fatigue in your muscles. A normal, healthy male should be drinking approximately 3.5L of water a day. Right after a workout, you need to drink between 300-600mL of water to preempt your thirst.
Just drinking water, however, isn’t always the solution to dehydration. You lose electrolytes, the key chemicals that your body uses to fire neurons in your brain. Add a pinch of salt to your drink, have some coconut water (rich in potassium, sodium, and magnesium), or pair your water with an electrolyte drink. Be careful though because many of these “sport” drinks are loaded with sugar.
Post Workout Stretching
The common belief is that you should stretch before you workout. Warm-ups are essential but there is little evidence to suggest that pre-workout stretches will improve your performance or prevent injury. In actual fact, post-workout stretches have more benefits.
The benefits of stretching are both in the body and the brain.
As you lift heavy weights, the fibres contract. This is especially true if you use weight machines, and even if you are using free weights like dumbbells and barbells. Stretching releases the contracted tissue and helps improve the flexibility again. It also reduces the sore and stiff muscles you might experience if you ignore a simple stretch after you train. The contracted tissue and lactic acid that builds up after intense exercise contributes to the soreness you feel. Stretching works to relieve that
You can use both dynamic and static stretches to see this effect. Static stretching is holding a position for a period. Dynamic stretching is when your body is in motion while you stretch, like walking lunges. You don’t need to stretch all of your muscles, but focus instead on the ones that you trained. Hold a static stretch at the apex of your flexibility for 20-30 seconds. Do dynamic stretches 4 to 5 times to see an increase in flexibility in the area you trained.
You want to feel slight discomfort, not pain. Some people use self-myofascial release after they workout. You can use rollers or balls to apply the technique. It’s a gentle pressure applied to the tense muscles to release contracted tissue. This relaxed tissue can move easier and allow blood to flow to the microtraumas in the muscle tissue.
We can not ignore the power of recovery in building muscle tissue. Your body needs rest and recovery for at least 24 hours after an intense workout.
When you’ve trained hard, your muscles respond with a demand for more amino acids to rebuild that muscle tissue. This response to rebuild takes place over a 24-48 hour period.
What’s the risk of ignoring your rest times? Training wears down your immune system, so overtraining can make you sick. Pushing through the pain, being a “tough guy”, or just ignoring the warning signs could overstress your body.
Remember that your growth hormones are secreted while you sleep, so a good 7-8 hour sleep at night is helping you grow those muscles.
After you drop your last weight, when you rack your last dumbbell, and when you towel off after you final set, you’re not done. Your post-workout routine works to rehydrate and refuel your tired body. Ideal nutrition comprising of complex carbs and a protein source after you exercise builds lean muscle mass and restocks your depleted energy stores.
Be sure to stretch and elongate the muscles you’ve trained to relieve stiffness and soreness. And remember to rest because this is when your body is in it’s rebuilding phase.
Finish well, and your next workout will be better than today’s.