Why When You Eat Matters as Much as What You Eat When Fueling Muscles

Let’s list the things we DO know about nutrition:

  • Don’t eat too much sugar
  • Stay away from trans fats
  • Get enough protein
  • Drink lots of water     

That’s a good start. But when it comes to eating smart to fuel your muscles, there’s more to it. Your body is a complex machine and in order to get the most out of your workouts—especially your strength training—you need to know how to feed your muscles post-workout.

What you eat and when you eat can affect the results of your workout.

Like waves in the ocean, information on nutrition for athletes comes and goes quickly. We’ve had the era of carb loading for runners and bikers. We’ve been told all carbs should be dumped and exchanged for protein if you’re lifting weights. We’ve lived through “all fat is bad” to “some fat is good” to “you can’t burn fat if you don’t eat fat.” Since nutritional trends stick around about as long as the latest model of smartphones, let’s take a look at the actual science behind post workout fueling. What’s truly going on in your body and what does it need?

Dr. Jon Ivy, chairperson of the Department of Kinesiology of Health Education in the College of Education at The University of Texas, Austin, has done the legwork for us. After spending more than 30 years researching the best options for building strength, endurance and muscle mass he has discovered that it’s not just what you eat, but when you eat that plays a role in getting the most out of your workouts.

Ivy concentrated his study on the cellular level of the body and the changes happening deep within us as we move. “When you exercise,” says Ivy, “the muscles become very sensitive to certain hormones and training adaptations if you make sure the correct nutrients are present. This increased sensitivity of the muscles only lasts for a limited length of time, so the element of time becomes absolutely crucial.

If you miss this window of opportunity, there’s no way you can stimulate the muscle adaptations to that extent until after the next bout of exercise.”

If that sounds complicated, you aren’t alone. Information and knowledge are powerful, but sometimes the science can confuse us. So let me get to the point: when and what you eat post workout will absolutely affect your results.

When Do You Need to Eat?

This may surprise you, but you should eat right after your moderate to high-intensity workout. In his article, Ivy refers to something called the “Window of Opportunity.” This window refers to the 30 minutes following a workout when refueling your muscles with the right nutrients is crucial.

Think of your muscle fibers as sponges that are able to pack in energy immediately following exercise. At this point, the right carbohydrates and proteins will be used as fuel instead of storage. In other words, right after your workout your cells are searching for energy to burn. A combination of protein and carbohydrates will refuel you and reset you for the next workout.

Your muscles begin to lose that ability to absorb nutrients within an hour or two. If you wait too long to refuel, those calories may be stored instead of used.

  So as I said, fuel up right after your workout if you can or at the very least within the first two hours post workout. (By the way, I’m not talking about fueling a quick, 10-minute workout—I’m talking about more than 30 minutes of heart-pumping exercise.)

What Do You Need to Eat?

The Mayo Clinic suggests a combination of complex carbohydrates and protein in a 4:1 ratio is ideal, and Dr. Ivy agrees. The carbohydrates restore your fuel supplies or the energy it takes to work your muscles. The protein you consume helps repair muscle tissue and avoid the breakdown of protein synthesis. In other words, you don’t want to lose muscle after lifting weights to gain muscle!

Shoot for at least 10 grams of protein post-workout, though 20 grams would be optimal. Some good choices for a post-workout snack might be:

  • Apple slices dipped in nut butter
  • Greek yogurt with some nuts or fruit.
  • A protein shake made with fruit
  • Chicken and brown rice
  • An omelet made with vegetables
  • A healthy protein bar (meaning not loaded with chemicals).

And of course don’t forget the water. Adequate fluids before, during, and after exercise help prevent dehydration and enhance the muscle action.

The American Council on Exercise recommends the following guidelines for hydration and exercise:

  • Drink roughly 3 – 4 cups (17-20 oz.) of water during the two to three hours before your workout.
  • Drink about 1 cup (8 oz.) of water 20-30 minutes prior to exercise or during warm-up.
  • Drink 7-10 ounces of fluid every 10-20 minutes during exercise.
  • Drink an additional 8 ounces of fluid within 30 minutes after exercising.
  • Drink 16-24 ounces of fluid for every pound of body weight lost after exercise.

Now that you know what you need for proper refueling, think ahead to your next few workouts. What can you have ready within 30 minutes post-workout to replenish muscles with protein, restore energy with carbs, and set your metabolism on fire? Start planning today!

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