How Important Is Meal Timing Post-Workout?
By Jake Boly
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Over the last few years, meal timing and post-workout nutrition has been a hot topic for fitness enthusiasts. The idea of there being an “anabolic window” following a workout was and still is popular among beginners and advanced gym-goers alike. But how important is meal timing, really?
There are a few ways to approach the question of post-workout meal timing. In this article, we’re going to cover whether or not meal timing actually matters, when meal timing is and isn’t important, and the best ways to structure post-workout meals.
When it comes to the importance of meal timing, there’s not a true one-size-fits-all answer. For example, when to eat post-workout may matter more for one fitness enthusiast compared to another, and will be based on the contextual differences of each individual’s daily life.
The main goals of meal timing revolve around the idea of restoring energy and nutrients in a vital time frame when the body can use them most, like after a strenuous workout. During and following vigorous exercise, glycogen stores become depleted, hydration levels tend to decrease, and muscles are in a period of needing repair.
Thus, eating after a workout is said to help with restoring what the body has lost, to improve energy levels and to support the process of recovery by increasing muscle protein synthesis, which is how the body utilizes protein to recover from exercise.
Meal timing is never a black and white issue and should be approached from multiple points of view. Factors such as pre-workout nutrition, workout time frame, and fitness regimens can all play a role in the importance of meal timing for various individuals.
To keep things relatively simple, here are two occasions when meal timing might matter slightly more for some individuals.
The first scenario includes the population that enjoys working out in the morning on an empty stomach. In the morning, the body is typically in need of some form of nutrition and macronutrient, as it’s just fasted for a full night.
In the morning, the body has yet to receive any form of food to begin breaking down for energy, so after a fasted workout, macronutrients become slightly more important in order to recover and replenish the body’s energy levels. Outside of the potential of these nutrients improving recovery, it’s usually more important to have a post-workout meal for daily energy levels.
Another time when meal timing tends to be important is when athletes are partaking in multiple strenuous bouts of activity during a single day. Athletes doing two-a-days have a much higher need to obtain nutrients to replenish energy levels and to facilitate recovery for their high energy demands.
As mentioned above, meal timing can and may be important for a couple populations and scenarios, but for the vast majority of the population, meal timing isn’t incredibly pertinent for overall success.
Meals eaten throughout one’s day take ample time to digest, which leaves the body in the constant process of breaking down macronutrients into fuel and tools for recovery. Thus, if one has eaten a meal pre-workout, then there’s a good chance that the same meal will still be broken down post-workout.
In this case, meal timing and post-workout nutrition are not as important due to the body already being in the process of utilizing food for recovery and fuel. Additionally, the body can only digest so much during one period, so the idea that more is not always the best case with post-workout nutrition.
As a general rule of thumb, a normal “anabolic window” is said to be anywhere from 4-6 hours for the general population, so rushing for a snack post-workout is once again, not always pertinent for success.
Once it’s understood that meal timing often isn’t a make or break factor for success, then post-workout nutrition can be built for one’s lifestyle.
There are multiple ways to structure post-workout meals, and most of the time, a post-workout meal’s composition will depend on one’s preference and the context of their workouts. One way to think about perfect post-workout meals is to consider them recovery formulas. These recovery formulas are timed meals designed to support recovery, energy and personal goals.
When it comes to pre- and post-workout meals, there are a few general guidelines that one can keep in mind to ensure they’re making the most of their nutritional choices. For starters, these meals should be structured around one’s body composition goals and workout needs.
Consume a quality protein. More than likely, a pre-workout meal will still be in the process of being digested following a workout, so consuming a quality protein can be useful for recovery purposes.
Example Meal: A great option for a pre-workout meal for recreational lifters and serious athletes could be oatmeal with protein powder. This meal will deliver a slow-digesting carbohydrate with a protein rich in amino acids.
Spread meals out. If you’re part of the population that enjoys eating a meal before their workout, then spreading meals evenly throughout the day can be useful to provide the body with energy at all times, especially prior to a workout.
Example Meal: A late day meal usually fares best when it contains a balance of macronutrients based on one’s workout plans. For example, if someone has already lifted during the day and they want to consume less carbohydrates for the evening and more protein, then eating something like a casein pudding with almond butter can be a good option.
Plan carbohydrates around workouts and energy needs. Carbs are best thought of as energy, so considering their consumption heavily around pre- and post-workout can be useful to ensure one has ample energy for workouts, and to ensure they’re pursuing their body composition goals thoughtfully.
Example Meal: Let’s say the goal is body fat loss and someone is only consuming carbs around their workout, then consuming something like cereal or a carbohydrate supplement pre- or post-workout can be a useful way to ensure glycogen levels are being restored.
At the end of the day, meal timing is only truly important for a very small portion of the population. However, many enjoy catering their pre- and post-workout meals to support their body composition goals and energy needs. If you choose to do this, then find meals that agree with your body best, and remember that the anabolic window is probably not as important as most tend to perceive it.
- Aragon, A., & Schoenfeld, B. (2013). Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window?. Journal Of The International Society Of Sports Nutrition, 10(1). doi:10.1186/1550-2783-10-5
- Nutritional needs of elite endurance athletes. Part I: Carbohydrate and fluid requirements. (2019). European Journal Of Sport Science. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17461390500076741