The importance of protein intake post-workout

 

Protein is vital post-workout in order to kick-start the body’s recovery process. Here, Hilary Simmons explores the importance of timing and balance for health.

According to research published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (JISSN), the ability to build lean muscle mass is elevated for 24 to 48 hours after training. During this window – otherwise known as the anabolic phase – the body is greedy for nutrients, the muscles hungrily suck in glucose and your overall ability to process protein is significantly raised.

 

In practice, if you’re training most days, then your body is in a constant state of recovery and it’s therefore important to be consuming protein regularly across the day, especially if you’re trying to build lean muscle mass.

Accredited sports dietitian, Jessica Spendlove notes that building lean muscle mass is one of the better and more conclusively researched areas in the sports nutrition space, with two clear elements to consider if you’re aiming for muscle hypertrophy:

 

» Protein timing. Protein is required to build and repair muscle tissue. Not eating enough can hinder your gains, so this is where the timing, distribution and composition of your meals comes into play.

» Energy balance. While muscle hypertrophy requires a calorie surplus, shedding body fat requires an energy deficit – in other words, you need to consume less calories than you use.

Consuming enough protein will be vital to both goals: for the former, to ensure a surplus and, for the latter, to preserve muscle mass.

This doesn’t mean you need to freak out that the anabolic window of opportunity is going to close the minute your workout ends. While it’s wise to bookend your training with a balanced post-workout snack (think a banana with nut butter or a protein shake), you have one to two hours to reap the benefits of your body’s heightened nutrient-processing abilities.

Good post-workout nutrition will always have three key components:

» Slow release carbohydrate (such as oats, wholegrain sourdough, quinoa, sweet potato, brown rice and bananas) to replenish muscle glycogen stores.

» Good quality protein (such as Greek yoghurt, eggs, milk, chicken, turkey, tuna or protein powder) to support muscle recovery.

» Fluid. In fact, this goes for pre-, intra- and post-workout nutrition.

The post-workout period is also a great time for you to enjoy an açaí bowl, or loads and loads of vegies. According to Spendlove, many people go wrong by undereating on the days they have trained, when they can actually afford to eat more. In fact, their bodies will utilise the nutrients better.

“For example, a 60kg woman may be completing a mix of HIIT, LISS and weights every week night. She may eat really ‘clean’ throughout the week, focusing on lean protein, lots of vegetables and minimal carbohydrate intake,” says Spendlove.

“But on the weekends she may eat out most meals, have alcohol both nights and be more relaxed about portion sizes. What can easily happen here is a total mismatch of intake and output. Her high intake days are her lowest output days, and this is not ideal. Aim to match your intake to your output.”

In addition, if you undereat or under-nourish your body during your recovery phase, it can lead to appetite spikes later in the day – or into the next – often resulting in overeating.

“We all understand when we’re trying to lose weight that we need to be in an energy deficit, but weight loss and, more importantly, body fat loss is a lot more complex than that,” says Spendlove. “To most effectively lose body fat we need to strike the right balance between what we are eating and the training we are doing. One of the biggest mistakes I see women make is over-restricting on training days or around intense training sessions, but then end up over-eating on low output days. Post-workout nutrition is important, but you need to pay attention to pre-workout and intra-workout nutrition as well in order for it to succeed.”

By the same token, athletes and individuals who train most days have 50 to 100 per cent higher protein requirements than inactive or sedentary people. During periods of significant physical adaptation, such as when an individual is first beginning to workout, protein needs are greatly increased.

“When we talk about protein intake for muscle hypertrophy, the key elements are the type of protein, the timing of protein intake, and the distribution of protein intake across the day, as well as the total intake,” says Spendlove. “Most people are consuming enough total protein across the day, but they are possibly not consuming it at the right time or in the right amounts. You can make an enormous difference to your diet and fitness goals by focusing on distributing your intake more evenly.”