Post-workout nutrition is one of the biggest conversations in the health and wellness community; it is also the one that’s often overcomplicated. The reason for this boils down to one major factor… everyone is different depending on the goal they are after. So, without further ado, let’s dig into what is important with post-workout nutrition.
Factor in your overall goal and start there –
If your goal is weight loss rather than weight gain as is in many cases, your focus will be different from adding in fuel on top of recovery nutrition. If your goal is weight loss, you are working with a caloric deficit to achieve this, meaning that you are exerting more than you are putting in to attain the weight loss goal you are after.
If you are wanting to maintain or grow, you will be more likely to progress more to a caloric surplus so that you are providing the environment for growth. This is a very simple explanation but important to get out of the way before we get into macros and micros.
Understand the importance of Macro Nutrition
Macronutrients are our:
The three main factors that make up our daily nutrition coming in. They each play their own roles in the body. Such as:
Protein – provides the body with a combination of essential and non-essential amino acids to support muscle protein synthesis and cell turnover, recovery, and repair. Protein is the fundamental structure involved in every single cell of the body; we need it for optimal health. Without it, our health can deteriorate very quickly.
Carbohydrates – Carbohydrates provide the consistent and reliable fuel for the body, not just for muscles and training, but throughout the day too in aspects like thinking/cognition, organ function, and our central nervous system just to name a few.
Fats – fat can also be used as a critical fuel source too like carbohydrates; however, they also have other involvements around insulating, protecting, and structural support, assisting in regulating and signaling, absorption, transportation, and bioavailability. Not to mention supporting the brain’s unique fatty acid composition, which is up to 60% fatty acids in makeup . Our bodies cannot produce essential fatty acids like polyunsaturated, Linoleic acid, and alpha-linolenic acid so these need to come from our diet.
Micronutrients are found within the Macros
Except for Vitamin D which can be obtained through UV exposure and diet, the rest of our Micronutrients need to come from our diet and are encapsulated within the macronutrients we eat daily.
Micronutrients are your vitamins and minerals that are required in much smaller quantities, but play major roles in energy production, enzymatic processes, detoxification, conjugation, mineralization of bone, fluid balance, immune function, blood clotting, and many many more critical functions.
So, what should you eat post-workout?
Well, during training you utilise glycogen. Glycogen is the stored fuel from carbohydrate metabolism to glucose. When we use what we need to supply the energy we need from available glucose in the blood, it can be stored as glycogen in mostly the muscle cells and liver. The body can store enough glycogen, more than 80g, to maintain the 4g blood glucose level balance, which when not replenished, can be depleted through training before accessing fat or muscle tissue to convert to fuel.
Glycogen is a multibranched polysaccharide (meaning many sugars) stored in the body, and when called upon to supply demand, glycogen is broken down by key enzymes in response to demand signaling from the epinephrine/adrenaline trigger. Muscular activity or the anticipation for muscular activity triggers this cascade and storage conversion to fuel. 
You also want to look at buffering protein breakdown, training and exercise create damage to used muscles and protein as we know, aids in growth and repair of this tissue. So, three main areas that you should be focusing on with your post-workout nutrition are:
- Replenishing glycogen stores.
- Decreasing protein breakdown.
- Increase protein synthesis.
In simple terms, you want to aim to replenish those energy stores, improve muscle repair and growth capacity for future performance and recovery through protein intake too.
How much should I Ingest?
Well, this comes down again to your goal – if you are in a surplus or deficit, energy in and energy out is a factor for how much you consume in the end. That being said, muscle protein synthesis occurs after protein turnover happens and you are in a positive protein balance. Training and everyday use of muscle breaks down old damaged proteins and constructs new proteins, when we train such as resistance training for example; muscle protein synthesis occurs in slight amounts, but the breakdown of protein occurs more rapidly.
In essence, we break down more than we build from this strain on the body. When we establish a positive protein ratio from the diet, we see the benefits of muscle hypertrophy (growth). In a nutshell, we make sure we have more than we lose so we don’t fall behind. the minimum intake for individuals is estimated at 1.6g of protein per kg of body weight, however, if you are in a caloric deficit and wanting to maintain muscle mass and muscle protein synthesis, you are wanting to aim for around 2.3-3.1g/kg of body weight as a guide. 
Providing the elements of restoration and repair through ingestion of carbohydrates usually around 1.2-1.5g per kg of body weight, which converts to glucose to help insulin transport nutrients, and replenishes glycogen stores and amino acids from protein. Allowing the body to be in a beneficial state of repair and recovery when it needs these nutrients while buffering the breakdown of more muscle tissue in the process.
If you are in a caloric deficit or caloric surplus, you should equate the total amounts for post-workout nutrition based on these goals and your subsequent expected energy expenditure. If your goal is weight loss, your focus will generally lean more towards protein intake importance, but be mindful that too much protein can be converted to glucose and act as fuel, however, this is very hard to reach this stage.  If your goal is growth, there will be a heavy focus on glycogen replenishment through carbohydrate ingestion as well as a positive protein balance through intake of protein-rich foods.
What about fats in post-workout nutrition?
There are many misconceptions around ingesting fat after training some of which include:
- Slowing down digestion and hindering insulin and carbohydrate efficiency.
- Has no anabolic properties for growth and repair.
- Slows the shift of hormones centralised around insulin-like growth factor (IGF1) and mTOR1.
These are all fundamentally unfounded , fat is important even if it doesn’t spike insulin or provide protein. However, that being said, dietary fat is a great way to induce feelings of fullness and satiety. So, ensuring that you are putting a focus on getting enough intake on protein and carbohydrates – the addition of fat in amongst that, won’t hinder your recovery.
It just may make it harder to get it all in if you don’t have the appetite to do so as protein also induces satiety, and it’s more important in post-workout nutrition than fat. It’s also easier to obtain fat intake throughout the day dietary-wise than protein if you are monitoring macronutrient intake.
Take home message?
Post-workout nutrition is important, as long as you are getting the fundamentals right during this phase and throughout the day, you can then add in optimisation tactics too such as individual amino acids like creatine, multivitamins to fill in nutritional gaps, etc. Diet should always come first in this regard; you have to get the basics right and then add in the tweaks. Otherwise, you can overburden yourself with complications and not have a clue where to change and what is and isn’t working.
If you want a specific plan on macronutrients around diet and training towards a goal, you are best to work with a coach who can monitor and set this for you.
- Chang CY, Ke DS, Chen JY. Essential fatty acids and human brain. Acta Neurol Taiwan. 2009 Dec;18(4):231-41. PMID: 20329590.
- Four grams of glucose. Wasserman DH Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2009 Jan; 296(1):E11-21.
- Berg JM, Tymoczko JL, Stryer L. Biochemistry. 5th edition. New York: W H Freeman; 2002. Section 21.3, Epinephrine and Glucagon Signal the Need for Glycogen Breakdown.Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK22429/
- Schutz Y. Protein turnover, ureagenesis and gluconeogenesis. Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 2011 Mar;81(2-3):101-7. doi: 10.1024/0300-9831/a000064. PMID: 22139560.
- Fox AK, Kaufman AE, Horowitz JF. Adding fat calories to meals after exercise does not alter glucose tolerance. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2004 Jul;97(1):11-6. DOI: 10.1152/japplphysiol.01398.2003. Epub 2004 Feb 20. PMID: 14978010.
- A systematic review of dietary protein during caloric restriction in resistance trained lean athletes: a case for higher intakes. Helms ER, Zinn C, Rowlands DS, Brown SRInt J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2014 Apr; 24(2):127-38.
- Postexercise muscle glycogen resynthesis in humans.