So you’ve just finished your workout and you’re literally wiped-out from exerting yourself over the last 90 minutes. You’ve set new personal records, squeezing out more repetitions on that last set of heavy squats than ever before. Satisfied, you are heading out of the gym. What now?
The Anabolic Window
Once upon a time, it was a given that you needed to get a high carb, high protein meal right away after your workout. In fact, this practice became so popular that it was given a name: the anabolic window. (“anabolic” means tissue building) The anabolic window is based on the idea that your body is in “primed” or “sensitized” to absorb a maximum amount of nutrients within 15–60 minutes after exercise. If you consume carbohydrates after a workout, it helps to maximize the amount of glycogen (stores of glucose used for energy) in your muscles. And if you consume protein after a workout, it helps to initiate muscle repair and growth by stimulating protein synthesis. Current research on the anabolic window is far from conclusive, although it is practiced by many professionals and fitness enthusiasts. I happen to be one of those who believe in the importance of the post-workout meal; but I happen to believe that the pre-workout meal is just as important, if not more. I believe that the benefits of the post-workout meal depend on the pre-workout meal. To illustrate, let’s look at two different examples.
In the first example, let’s suppose that you are waking up in the morning, eating no breakfast, tossing down a cup of coffee, and heading to the gym for a resistance training session (weight training.) Technically, you are in a fasted state. You are depending on your muscle glycogen to provide energy for lifting, as you’ve had no carbs with breakfast. During the workout, you are depleting glycogen stores in your muscles. Depending on how hard you work out, you are also using up available amino acids from the amino acid pool circulating in your bloodstream. If this is you, then the anabolic window definitely applies to you, in the sense that you are depleted of carbs and protein. Ingesting carbs within a short time after your workout will raise your blood sugar. Rising blood sugar triggers a release of insulin. Insulin contributes to stopping the catabolic (muscle breakdown) process in your body. Your quick post-workout carbs can be bananas, bagels, or a granola bar. If you have a protein with your carbs, you will also provide the amino acids necessary to replenish your amino acid pool and start the rebuilding process. A Lean Body protein shake is great at this time and is available in the cooler of your gym.
Now for the second example. Let’s suppose that you wake up an hour earlier in the morning. Instead of skipping breakfast and racing to the gym, you have a bowl of oatmeal (high in complex carbs), a banana (faster carbs), and 8 scrambled egg whites which you quickly made by pouring liquid egg whites into your skillet and cooking. You eat your breakfast while catching up on emails and get a jump start on your day. You then go to the gym, and an hour after eating, you perform the same workout.
So, What’s the Difference?
The difference is that this time, you have “broken fast” (breakfast) and the catabolic (muscle wasting) state of sleep is stopped. Once you get to the gym, your blood sugar is high from your breakfast (“pre-workout meal”), so you should have more immediate energy for training. And because carbohydrates are glycogen sparing, you do not deplete your muscle glycogen stores as severely as when you skip breakfast. Also, because you had egg whites, your body’s amino acid pool is already being replenished as the protein in the egg white is being digested and absorbed. What do you do after the workout this time, in regards to your post-workout meal timing? Research shows that in this case, your pre-workout meal is still at work AFTER your workout, so the urgency to get that post-workout meal during the traditional anabolic window is diminished.
In most cases, it’s OK to just go home and have a complete protein plus carbs meal within 90 minutes. The same thing applies if 1) your workout is in the afternoon or evening, when you’ve had several meals during the day; and 2) your pre-workout meal is no more than 90 minutes prior to your workout. Rules are made to be broken, and the exception to this one if you are an elite athlete, getting ready to compete in a physique contest or athletic event. If you’re like me, you leave nothing to chance.
• Having a complete whole food meal consisting of protein plus carbohydrates, 90 minutes before working out
• Drinking a protein shake along with a banana or bagel, right after your workout
• Eating another whole food meal 60-90 minutes later.
Enough about nutrient timing. Research shows that your total daily protein intake is the most important factor in recovering from exercise and feeding your muscles for growth. Make sure that you are getting at least 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight if you are training with weights. Try this approach to your pre and post-workout meals, and see if you don’t feel better and make faster improvements!
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Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only and is not meant as medical advice, nor is it to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Please consult your physician before starting or changing your diet or exercise program. Any use of this information is at the sole discretion and responsibility of the user.