Nutrition is essential for optimizing the physical performance of athletes. Without proper nutrition to supplement athletic training, the human body will struggle to recover from exercise, and anabolic function (the buildup of tissues, such as muscle fibers) will be inefficient.
There are many ways in which athletes (amateur and elite alike) can utilize nutrition intervention to support physical performance. We all exercise with varying intensity and with different outcomes in mind, so nutrition recommendations should reflect that wide spectrum of athleticism. In this blog, let’s discuss post-workout nutrition for the purpose of recovery and performance in athletes.
Our bodies are naturally in a constant state of catabolism (breakdown) and anabolism (buildup), which is escalated by the effect of physical activity. Simply put for the purposes of this blog, exercise has two major effects on our bodies:
(1) Glucose, or the simplest molecule broken down from the food we eat, is used up in the process of forming energy. When we use up all the non-stored glucose in our body, we begin to dip into the reserves we store in our liver and muscle.
Glucose, in its storage form, is called glycogen, and it is housed in our liver and muscles. Glycogen in our liver is primarily used to supply energy to our central nervous system, while glycogen in our muscles serves as fuel for the muscles themselves. 
It is important to restore this depleted glycogen after exercise for muscle tissue repair and future energy expenditure. Researchers have proposed that consumption of carbohydrate contributes to optimizing muscle tissue repair and improved recovery after exercise. 
(2) In a normal, resting state, the proteins that contribute to the structure of our bodies and muscles are constantly breaking down and demanding synthesis of new proteins to maintain structural quality and function. Exercise has an increased metabolic effect on our muscles. This means that as we lift weights or run a 10K, the body is in a heightened state of protein synthesis and breakdown, which is directly affected by the nutrients we choose to consume pre- and post-exercise. 
Our ability to build or lose muscle is dependent on a simple equation called net protein balance. If our ability to synthesize protein is greater than the breakdown of the existing protein in our bodies, we are in positive protein balance, and we can build more tissue (i.e. muscle gain). And in the opposite scenario, negative protein balance, protein breakdown exceeds synthesis, and we are unable to build tissue.
Now that we have a bit more background to understand the role of glucose, glycogen, and protein in our bodies, we may dig deeper into the importance of proper food and nutrition to best support this heightened process of muscle catabolism and anabolism. We require consumption of dietary carbohydrate and protein to support these metabolic processes. However, you can also consider the time frame for eating, how much to eat, and what to eat post-exercise.
How soon should I eat post-exercise?
The answer to this question varies, but ultimately, it’s important to recognize that after exercise, our bodies are in a state of protein and glycogen synthesis and breakdown. Research has demonstrated that protein synthesis after exercise can increase by 150%, while protein breakdown increases by about 50%. [3,4]
These metabolic shifts fluctuate for hours, up to days, post-exercise!  Without consumption of dietary protein during this metabolic state, you can actually deplete your protein stores!
Additionally, it is well known that glucose and glycogen are utilized as fuel during exercise, and should be replenished post-workout. Some research has noted that glycogen resynthesis reaches a peak within one hour after completing exercise, suggesting that there may be a window in which it may be most beneficial to replete these nutrients. 
In a review of post-exercise glycogen synthesis, researchers suggested that eating 1-1.85 g of carbs per kg of body weight was associated with increased glycogen synthesis when consumed immediately after completion of exercise. When delayed, even by just a few hours, glycogen synthesis was reduced by up to 50% in comparison to more immediate post-exercise replenishment. 
The available information on the effect of protein consumption post-exercise is a bit more liberal. Some studies have suggested a beneficial effect of small doses of protein throughout the day, indicating that consumption of protein post-workout is not as urgent as research suggests of carbohydrate.  So, let’s now dig deeper into the question, “how much should I eat post-exercise?” to determine how you can use carbs and protein to fuel your workouts.
How much should I eat post-exercise?
The recommended post-workout snack follows a 3:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio. Meaning that for every 3 grams of carbohydrates you eat, you should eat 1 gram of protein. Here’s why it’s still a sensible recommendation for post-workout snacks.
In reviewing the research available on post-exercise nutrition, a common recommendation for carbohydrate intake falls into a range of 1-1.85 gram of carbohydrate for every kg of body weight. This is because this amount of carbs was shown to increase glycogen buildup in our bodies. The protein piece is a bit more complicated.
Essentially, protein synthesis is limited by your ability to absorb the nutrients. So, just because you eat more protein, it does not mean that you will build more muscle. Multiple research studies have determined that the most efficient protein synthesis in muscles resulted from small doses of 20 gram protein, which equated to about 0.25-0.3 grams of protein needed per kg of body weight. [2,9]
While the timing of eating protein is less time sensitive, a smaller dose requirement suggests that protein should be consumed in multiple meals throughout the day. Roughly, these doses of carbohydrate and protein match that 3:1 carb to protein ratio!
Many of us do not train or perform to the degree of elite athletes, where every gram of nutrition consumed can mean an edge on the competition. So here are some tips for the average individual:
- Eat post-exercise as quickly as is comfortable for you – aim for within an hour of finishing your workout.
- Go for a carbohydrate-based snack with a little added protein – if you want to count grams and aim for the 3:1 ratio, great! But if that seems unreasonable, give it your best guess.
For day-to-day moderate workouts, the timing and nutrient ratio does not have to be perfect – give it your best try! There’s one more thing to consider to help optimize your post-workout recovery, and that is what to eat after exercise.
What should I eat after I exercise?
Keeping a 3:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio in mind, here are some easy snack ideas for you to try for a post-exercise snack!
- 4 rice cakes + small piece of fruit (i.e. apple, half a banana) + 2 tbsp nut butter
- Chocolate milk (Surprisingly, a serving of chocolate milk very closely hits the 3:1 ratio)
- 1 bagel thin or 2 slices whole wheat toast + 2 tablespoons light or whipped cream cheese
- 1 oz (about 28 nuts) almonds + 1 small piece of fruit
- ½ cup low fat cottage cheese + 2 small pieces of fruit
- 1 cup cooked oatmeal + 2 tsp honey + 1 scrambled or fried egg
Fuel yourself, and optimize your recovery with smart food choices. Your body will thank you, and you’ll feel ready to crush your next workout!
- Wasserman DH (January 2009). “Four grams of glucose”. American Journal of Physiology. Endocrinology and Metabolism. 296 (1): E11–21. doi:10.1152/ajpendo.90563.2008
- Moore, Daniel R. PhD Nutrition to Support Recovery from Endurance Exercise, Current Sports Medicine Reports: July/August 2015 – Volume 14 – Issue 4 – p 294-300 doi: 10.1249/JSR.0000000000000180
- Biolo, G. Maggi, S.P., Williams, B.D., Tipton, K.D., Wolfe, R.R. Increased rates of muscle protein turnover and amino acid transport after resistance exercise in humans. American Physiological Society 1995
- Burd, N.A., Tang, J.E., Moore, D.R., Phillips, S.M. Exercise training and protein metabolism: influences of contraction, protein intake, and sex-based differences. Journal of Applied Physiology 2009 106:5, 1692-1701
- Phillips, S. M., Tipton, K. D., Aarsland, A., Wolf, S. E., Wolfe, R. R. Mixed muscle protein synthesis and breakdown after resistance exercise in humans. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism 1997 273:1, E99-E107
- Jentjens R, Jeukendrup A. Determinants of post-exercise glycogen synthesis during short-term recovery. Sports Med. 2003;33(2):117-144. doi:10.2165/00007256-200333020-00004
- Moore DR. Maximizing Post-exercise Anabolism: The Case for Relative Protein Intakes. Front Nutr. 2019;6:147. Published 2019 Sep 10. doi:10.3389/fnut.2019.00147
- Moore, D.R., Robinson, M.J., Fry, J.L., Tang, J.E., Glover, E.I., et al. Ingested protein dose response of muscle and albumin protein synthesis after resistance exercise in young men, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 89, Issue 1, January 2009, Pages 161–168, https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2008.26401