Inadequate post-workout nutrition for the athlete

Circulating a lot lately is this idea that athletes (especially high-performance athletes), don't consume enough of, or the right amount, of nutrients after a workout. Most athletes, and average Joe's alike, are particularly worried about the amount of protein they consume post-workout, with the fear of "losing gains".

Different workouts tax different energy systems and energy stores throughout the body. For example, running a marathon will demand energy primarily from the aerobic (oxygen requiring) system, as well as glucose pulled from such sources as a) glucose circulating in the blood b) stored muscle glycogen (storage form of glucose), and c) stored liver glycogen. This is in opposition to a sprinter's race or workout, requiring energy primarily from the anaerobic (alactic and lactic systems) which draws on stored ATP-PCr for quick available energy use. As you can imagine, even with little knowledge of energy systems, a long aerobic marathon will drain glycogen storage much more than a sprint, but both may accumulate muscle damage from the various demands placed upon the muscle. While the following recommendations are general, non-specific to the type of exercise being performed, they could be better specialized and individualized to the sport of interest for a given athlete. Despite this, the following are probably good guidelines compared to what the average athlete or weekend warrior is following.

While I am by no means a Registered Dietician, and despite having only taken a handful of nutrition classes in my undergrad, and one graduate level nutrition course, this information came straight from the best. Our nutrition teacher was one of the head researchers in the field of Nutrition at the University of Calgary, and if she taught me anything, it is probably summarized below:

Recommendations for post-workout nutrition:

  • Replenish carbohydrates and protein post-workout otherwise you “will never obtain full value from your efforts”

  • Promote recovery to maximize gains (because of stimulation of muscular and cardiovascular adaptations, adequate micro and macro nutrients are needed, along with rest, and hydration) through proper nutrition (ie. the replenishment of carbohydrate and protein)

  • Intake carbohydrates and protein together: which is indeed more effective for the rapid replenishment of muscle glycogen after exercise than a carbohydrate supplement of equal carbohydrate or caloric content.

  • Consume nutrients within 30-60 minutes. This is true based on research (because re-synthesis of glycogen can be accelerated if they are consumed in this time period)

  • Consistent supplementation with a full spectrum of vitamin/mineral supplements along with antioxidants can be beneficial, BUT contrary to popular belief, not necessarily for the purpose of “maintaining the immune system and reducing recovery time”. Acute bouts of exercise can cause immune depression but no studies have found chronic immune depression in athletes due to high oxidative stresses. There is no real convincing evidence that oxidative stress does more bad than good, so it is hard to say that antioxidants can help something that we don’t even know for sure is detrimental.

  • Recommending carbohydrate intake should be based upon body size and length/intensity of the workout” guidelines. A 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein intake appears to be the best ratio agreed upon currently in the literature.

  • A recommendation for “pre workout” should include combining protein and carbohydrates before resistance exercise, as it can maximally stimulate protein synthesis

  • As a daily amount, usually 8-10gcarb/kg/day along with 0.2-0.5gprotein/kg/day are best to enhance glycogen re-synthesis

  • Creatine supplementation can facilitate even greater adaptations to resistance training or short sprint efforts.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly,

  • Muscle glycogen is likely only depleted during moderate and high intensity exercise but some people might not be doing enough to really need to be super concerned about replenishing it in a timely and thought-out manner. Don't worry too much about extra carbohydrate or protein supplementation if you workout recreationally and think that you need to start consuming massive amounts of carbohydrates and proteins "because you are lacking", and don't want to "lose gains". In the end, for the purpose of your health, just worry about quality of your overall nutrition.

  • Post-workout nutrition is important, but I would preach the importance of whole foods that are nutrient dense, and don't forget to recognize the complex amount of planning and strategic consumption of carbohydrate and protein consumption that can best optimize results. For more information on timing, ask me for a referral to a good Registered Dietician.

While nutrition is key to performance, so is strength, cardiovascular exercise, and movement in general! #VitalStrength

References Kerksick, C., Harvey, T., Stout, J., Campbell, B., Wilborn, C., Kreider, R., Kalman, D., Ziegenfuss, T., Lopez, H., Landis, J., Ivy, J., Antonio, J. (2008). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: Nutrient timing. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 5:17.

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