Nutrient Timing Surrounding Exercise
You may have heard that it’s best to have a protein shake as soon as possible following a workout. Many fitness articles, diet blogs, magazines, etc. recommend this strategy, claiming that it “speeds up” recovery, and maximizes “gains”. It is often suggested that the sooner you get it in, the better, in order to take advantage of that precious ‘metabolic window’. Back in my college days, I used to make my post-workout shake with hydrolyzed whey and milk prior to my workout so that I could start consuming it literally within a minute of the end of my workout. For some of us, this may sound familiar.
While having nutrients in your body after exercise is important for facilitating recovery and maintaining a healthy figure, that post-workout protein shake is not the most important thing when it comes to nutrition to support your workouts or better health.
In fact, unless you’re an elite level athlete, or a highly-active individual who needs as much energy as you can fit into your day, you can most likely meet your nutrition needs and still lose fat or gain muscle by focusing on the basics of good nutrition:
1. Consume wholesome, nutrient dense foods
2. Portion your macronutrients (Carbohydrates, Fats, Proteins) according to your body’s unique make-up
3. Have the appropriate amount of nutrients in your body around times of high energy expenditure. This includes before, during, and after exercise, not just after.
While your body will utilize the nutrients from a post-workout shake for recovery, it’s important to consider that your body is constantly rebuilding and restoring tissues. Recovery doesn't just happen within the 1 hour after your workout, or even overnight. Therefore, it is more important to ensure that you already have some nutrients ready to go by the time you exercise, finish exercising, and continue your life thereafter.
Additionally, your body has a limit to how much protein, fats, and carbs it can metabolize for energy or building muscle. This is because digestion and metabolism takes time! There is always a minimum time-delay between when nutrients are consumed, digested and broken down into usable compounds, and then physically utilized for burning energy or tissue repair. Your body can only absorb about 60g of carbs per hour, and if you've consumed some protein as well, then that rate is even lower. The approximate rate of absorption for whey protein is about 8-10g per hour. And whey is supposed to be absorbed the fastest out of all proteins! So if you’re one of those people pounding down a large weight-gainer shake 30 minutes after your gym session, only a small portion of it is actually being used within that metabolic window. Whatever isn't utilized will be converted into fats and carbs, or removed from the body via your urine.
A more effective approach is to eat a regular, nutritionally solid, meal 1-2 hours prior to your workout, and the same 1-2 hours following your workout. That way, by the time your body needs nutrients, your meal will have already been broken down into usable energy and muscle building compounds (also, note that since you’re eating “real food”, you’re getting very high quality nutrients!). And as your body requires nutrients in the hours thereafter, you will have those ready to go as well.
If your goal is to enter a figure competition, where cutting fat into a lower-than-normal range is your goal (yes, bodybuilders and fitness models have a bodyweight percentage that is NOT optimal for a regular healthy individual), then including an easily digestible protein shake or BCAA’s (branched-chain-amino acids) during your workout may be something to consider. Or if you’re a high level athlete, who is exercising for long bouts over 2 hours or multiple times a day, then you may also consider a shake or BCAA’s intra-exercise.
However, for the vast majority of us, our needs will be plenty met by following a good overall nutrition foundation. Just make sure to stay hydrated during exercise. Again:
Consume wholesome, nutrient dense foods
Portion your macronutrients (Carbohydrates, Fats, Proteins) according to your body’s unique make-up
Have the appropriate amount of nutrients in your body around times of high energy expenditure. This includes before, during, and after exercise, not just after.