Updated: Nov 21
Most people who take their workouts seriously have heard of this “Window of Opportunity” following exercise. It is often stated that you have about an hour following your workout to refuel with a high-protein meal to maximize the benefits from your exercise (1). How accurate is this? What does an ideal post-workout meal look like? Should your post-workout meal be different if you want to improve strength vs endurance? Keep reading to discover the latest evidence-based recommendations when it comes to recovery nutrition.
Let’s first talk about what your body goes through when you exercise. When you workout, especially when you lift weights, your body experiences “micro-tears” in your muscle tissue (2). This may sound bad, but it is actually very important if you wish to become stronger and gain muscle mass. In order for your muscles to grow larger, they need to go through this remodeling phase in which the “damaged” muscle tissue adapts to the physical stress and not only repairs but REBUILDS (3). But here’s the kicker… your muscles will only rebuild after exercise when there are enough amino acids available. And where do we find amino acids? Protein! So in summary, you need to consume protein-rich foods to give your body the amino acids needed to build muscle. It is important to note that you WILL NOT build muscle by simply eating copious amounts of protein (ease up on the protein shakes); rather you need to combine the stimulus that is “working out” with the right amount of high-quality protein.
How much do you need?
Daily protein needs — In general, it is recommended to have anywhere from 0.5 – 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day (4). If you are a casual exerciser, aim for the lower end of that range. On the other hand, if you exercise nearly every day and are serious about gaining muscle mass, aim for the higher end of that range. For example, if you lift weights 5 days a week and weigh 150 pounds, I would recommend 100-120 grams of protein per day.
Protein needs per meal — Now it is important to spread out that protein intake throughout the day as evenly as possible. So, for your post-workout meal, it is recommended to have 20-40 grams of high-quality protein (4). Protein shakes are a fine option if you are in a hurry; however, I always recommend following a food-first philosophy! Getting your protein from meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, and legumes is going to be your best option. Below, you will find examples of balanced post-workout meal ideas.
In addition to building muscle, paying attention to what you eat following exercise can also help you to improve your endurance. Without diving too deep into the science, it is important to have a baseline understanding of what fuels your body during physical activity. Basically, as you begin to move, a number of metabolic pathways result in breaking down macronutrients (carbs, protein, and fat) into smaller compounds which can ultimately lead to the production of ATP — the body’s storage form of energy (5). When you perform an endurance-based activity, such as running, biking, or swimming, you are slowly but steadily depleting your body’s fuel reserves. At high intensities (think fast heart-rate), your body is primarily using carbohydrates for fuel. At low intensities (think low heart-rate), your body is primarily using fat for fuel. Now — your body has a limited amount of carbohydrates it can store in muscle and the liver (in the form of glycogen) — so if you are consistently training at a high intensity, you really want to pay attention to your consumption of carbohydrates (5).
Now you may think that this only means it is important to have carbs before you exercise; however, it is impossible to maximize your glycogen stores with just one pre-exercise meal. Aa a matter of fact, it can take about 24 hours to fully replenish your glycogen stores (5). So basically, If you exercise on a daily basis and are interested in improving your endurance, it is crucial to consume high-quality carbs after your workouts as well. Keep in mind, having high amounts of carbs after your workout is only recommended if you exercise on a consistent basis and wish to optimize your performance as an endurance athlete.
How much do you need?
Daily carbohydrate needs — Recommendations for total daily intake of carbohydrates depends on the frequency, duration, and intensity of physical activity. Use the following as a guide:
LIGHT: Low intensity or skill-based activity: 1-2 grams/lb of body weight/day
MODERATE: Moderate intensity exercise lasting ~1 hour/day: 2-3 grams/lb body weight/day
HIGH: Moderate to high intensity exercise lasting 1-3 hours/day: 3-4 grams/lb of body weight/day
VERY HIGH: Moderate to high intensity exercise lasting 4+ hours/day: 4-5 grams/lb of body weight/day
High-quality sources of carbohydrates: wheat bread, wheat pasta, brown rice, barley, farro, sorghum, quinoa, sweet potato, squash, zucchini, eggplant, and most fruits and vegetables
Carbohydrate needs per meal — Just as it is important to evenly spread out your protein throughout your day, the same is true for carbohydrates. Research shows that a post-workout meal should include approximately 0.5 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight (4). For example, a 150-pound individual should aim for at least 75 grams of carbohydrates with their post-workout meal. Below, you will find examples of balanced post-workout meal ideas.
BEST TIME TO HAVE A POST-WORKOUT MEAL
Is there really an anabolic window of opportunity? The short answer is… kind of. The truth is that it depends on the frequency and intensity of your exercise, in addition to your overall goals.
Exercise (especially weight training) stimulates muscle protein synthesis, the process that leads to building muscle. It does this to the greatest degree immediately after exercise (6). In order to take advantage of this, it will likely benefit you to have a high-protein meal within one hour after finishing your workout. However, recent research shows that muscle protein synthesis remains elevated for a full 24 hours after a workout; thus the more important recommendation is to have enough protein at some point during the rest of the day (6). So in summary, it is still a good idea to have a high protein meal (20-40 grams) as soon as possible after your workout, but at the same time it looks like the timing of intake is not as crucial as we once thought. If you are serious about wanting to build muscle, you might as well continue to focus on having a balanced meal high in protein soon after your weight-lifting session.
BUILDING A PERFECT POST-WORKOUT MEAL
As you can see, it is important to include both high-quality protein and carbohydrates with your post-workout meals. Whether your goal is to gain muscle or improve endurance, having a balanced meal following your exercise is highly recommended. Below, you will find a list of post-workout meals I recommend. Keep in mind, exact amounts will vary depending on your size, exercise regimen, and health goals.
Protein Pasta — whole grain pasta with tomato sauce, shrimp, and roasted vegetables
Salmon — baked salmon fillet with a sweet potato, roasted broccoli, and a glass of milk
Sandwich — turkey sandwich on wheat bread, loaded with vegetables, and a side of mixed nuts
Burrito Bowl — brown rice, beans, steak, mixed vegetables, greens, and avocado
Chicken — grilled chicken breast with roasted potatoes and a side of fresh fruit
Stir Fry — tofu, peppers, onions, egg, and cashews; served over brown rice
Coconut Curry — broccolini, peppers, chicken, curry powder, coconut milk; served over rice
Fish Tacos — tilapia fillet, corn tortillas, cabbage, avocado, cheese, pico de gallo
Falafel Burgers — chickpeas, lentils, onion, garlic, herbs and spices; served on a wheat bun
Homemade Pizza — wheat pizza crust, caramelized onion, fig, goat cheese, pesto, chicken
Tuna Salad — tuna, celery, walnuts, onions, grapes, mustard, lemon, yogurt; served on toast
Korean BBQ — chicken thighs, broccoli, peppers, onions, Gochujang sauce; served over rice
Chicken Fried Rice — brown rice, chicken thighs, onion, peppers, peas, eggs, cashews, soy sauce
Thai Turkey Wraps — ground turkey, brown rice, cucumber, cilantro, rice paper, peanut sauce
Chickpea Tabbouleh — bulgur, parsley, chickpeas, tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice
Grain Bowl — farro, chickpeas, tomatoes, cucumber, onion, cilantro, avocado, olive oil, vinegar
Ahi Tuna — ahi tuna steak, baked potato, avocado, homemade chimichurri sauce
Jack O’Connor, MS, RD
Performance Dietitian, Inc Nutrition
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van Loon, L. J. (2013). Role of dietary protein in post-exercise muscle reconditioning. In Nutritional Coaching Strategy to Modulate Training Efficiency (Vol. 75, pp. 73-83). Karger Publishers.
Alghannam, A. F., Gonzalez, J. T., & Betts, J. A. (2018). Restoration of muscle glycogen and functional capacity: role of post-exercise carbohydrate and protein co-ingestion. Nutrients, 10(2), 253.
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