Kristen Ziesmer, Sports Dietitian - Post-Workout Fueling for Recovery

Post-Workout Fueling for Recovery

“Do I need a protein shake following a workout?”

Sigh, if I had a dollar for every time I was asked this question, I might be a millionaire by now!

This is one of the top questions I get asked most frequently, and for a good reason. Every time we enter the gym or look in a fitness magazine we’re bombarded with protein, supplements, powders and pills! Necessary? Probably not. Helpful? Possibly.

The answer to the question of what to eat following a workout lies in the answers to the questions below:

  1. Are you exercising just for general fitness, to lose weight or “get in shape?”
  2. Are you training for a marathon/triathlon or some other endurance event?
  3. Are you trying to build muscle/put on weight and have a hard time getting in enough calories?
  4. Are you participating in heavy resistance training/lifting? Meaning, you can only perform 1-4 reps of the exercises you’re doing?
  5. Are you training for a sport such as martial arts, bodybuilding, wrestling or football?

If you answered “yes” to questions 1-2, you do not need a protein shake.

It is wise for everyone across the board to eat a snack within 30-60 minutes following a workout. When I say workout, I mean working up a sweat for 45-60 minutes or longer; not taking a leisurely stroll. The sooner you can eat something, the better. The reason for this is because our muscles are most like a sponge following exercise and can soak up more nutrients, including protein and carbohydrates, more easily and rapidly.

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Exercising just for general fitness, to lose weight

If you are exercising for general fitness, weight loss or to “get in shape” and will be going home after the gym for dinner or some other meal, you don’t need to eat anything after the gym. This will only cause you to eat an excess of calories and may lead to weight gain. In addition, many protein shakes and powders contain upwards of 50 grams of protein. For most of us, our bodies can only utilize about 25-35 grams of protein at a time. The excess gets turned into fat.

Your best bet: Go home and eat a well-balanced meal of lean protein, whole grains, healthy fats and fruits and/or vegetables. If you won’t be able to eat a meal for several hours, bring a small snack with you for after the gym. Try an apple with peanut butter or low-fat string cheese and a couple whole grain crackers, like Triscuits. Don’t forget to drink plenty of water!

Training for a marathon/triathlon or some other endurance event

If you are training for a marathon/triathlon or some other endurance event, consuming more protein at the expense of carbs can actually be detrimental to your training! Your body’s primary fuel source is carbohydrates- both consumed carbs and stored carbs, called glycogen. During exercise, your body will first burn off the carbs you recently ate. Once depleted, your body will then turn to your stored carbs, glycogen, to keep you going. Protein provides very little energy and is used to build and repair muscle and tissue, plus create hormones and enzymes in our bodies. When an endurance athlete consumes too much protein and not enough carbs, their bodies can’t store enough glycogen and performance starts to suffer. This can easily snowball over the season and lead to poor performance, lack of energy and injuries.
Your best bet: Consume a 3-4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein. Research has shown this is the optimum ratio to help build back glycogen stores and build/repair damaged muscle and tissue. A few examples include 8 oz low-fat chocolate milk, 6 oz yogurt with ½ c. berries or a half of a peanut butter and low-sugar preserves sandwich. Again, re-hydrate!! This is very important for endurance athletes, especially when exercising in the heat!

If you answered yes to questions 3-5, then a protein shake may be helpful.

Athletes who are trying to put on weight or muscle and want to bulk up will need a lot of calories, particularly protein. Sometimes this can be difficult and drinking calories and protein tends to be easier and more palatable. For my clients that just can’t stomach another big meal, shakes and smoothies are the way to go.

Protein shake after workoutHowever, there is a cap to how much protein you can take in at a time. As mentioned earlier, most individuals can only utilize 25-35 grams protein at a time. However in this case, it’s okay to have a little more. According to research, 40 grams of essential amino acids 5-6 times per day is ideal- about every 2-3 hours. Your best sources are whey and casein; not soy or other vegetarian sources of protein. Whey gets absorbed and utilized more quickly, whereas casein gets absorbed and utilized more slowly. It is best to consume a combination of the two. It is particularly important for those looking to bulk up to consume calories, protein and some carbs immediately (or as soon as possible) after exercise/training for the best effect.

Your best bet: Whip up a delicious smoothie that contains a combination of ~40 grams total whey and casein protein powders with some fruit and milk! Either pack one in a cooler and bring it with you to the gym or visit your gym’s smoothie bar. Make sure to eat a well-balanced meal within 2-3 hours following your smoothie.

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