There is a lot of confusion when it comes to post-workout nutrition. But what happens if you skip your post-workout meal? In this article, I will look at the ins and outs of post-workout nutrition.
Provided you eat enough protein and calories during the day, it doesn’t matter whether you eat a specific post-workout meal or not. The only time that a post-workout meal may be necessary is if you train late at night. A protein shake or high-protein snack may be beneficial if this is the case.
In this article, we will look at what happens if you skip your post-workout meal, and why it probably doesn’t matter. I’ll also give you some good post-workout ideas in case you are ever in need of them.
The idea that your muscles will waste away if you don’t immediately eat after a workout is a myth that just won’t die. It represents short-term thinking, rather than looking at the big picture.
The theory behind it is that your body burns a lot of calories during a workout, particularly glycogen and that this needs to be replenished before your body can begin to repair and rebuild muscle fibres.
There is truth there. If you don’t eat food then your muscles will not be built. However, unless you are starving yourself, you will probably have eaten before your workout, and you are likely to eat after your workout.
The issue therefore is about timing. Many people believe that there is an anabolic window, a short period of time when you can use food to replenish your muscles. The belief is that if you don’t eat in this period you will lose any chance to grow your muscles.
It can be argued that the anabolic window does exist, but the window is much larger than most people believe, lasting several hours. Also, if you have eaten a particularly big meal beforehand, your body can use the calories from this to fuel muscle growth.
In other words, you need food to build muscles, but you don’t need that food to be consumed immediately after a workout. If you eat enough calories throughout the day (and ensure that your protein intake is sufficient) then when you eat isn’t that important.
I may not be a fan of intermittent fasting, but it is a great example of the anabolic window not being that big of a deal. Many bodybuilders who follow it won’t have a post-workout meal for several hours and yet they still have significantly bigger muscles than the vast majority of the general public.
The anabolic window is a term used, primarily in bodybuilding, to describe the period after a workout where your body is supposed to require fuel from food and drink. The belief is that this is a window of opportunity to refuel and replenish your muscles.
Now, I don’t want you to get the impression that eating food after a workout is a bad idea, it isn’t. But the idea that missing this window will harm your progress and even lead to muscle loss is incorrect.
In a 2013 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, Alan Aragon breaks down exactly why the discussion around nutrient timing is misguided .
The problem is that most studies that deal with post-workout nutrition assume that the person exercising is in a fasted state. In other words, you have woken up and gone straight to the gym without eating breakfast.
If this is the case then you would indeed need to consume a high-protein meal shortly afterwards. But most people do not train in a fasted state, often training during the afternoon or evening. And the people who do train first thing in the morning usually eat breakfast afterwards. So there is no need for a specific post-workout meal.
The easiest way to avoid muscle breakdown is to eat regular meal times. I’ve mentioned before that you can still prevent muscle breakdown while following intermittent fasting, but I don’t believe that this route is optimal.
Here is a typical meal plan for someone who trains early in the morning:
Nice and simple, and you can ensure that you are getting enough calories and protein in your main meals. Use my article on calorie counting to find out how!
Here is a typical meal plan for someone who trains in the afternoon:
If you want, you could have your dinner a little earlier, or you could add in a post-workout snack to keep you going. But a good pre-workout meal means that this is not necessary.
Here is a typical meal plan for someone who trains late at night:
This is the only scenario where a post-workout meal is necessary, this is because you won’t be eating again until the following day. However, a high-protein dinner should provide you with enough calories and protein to prevent muscle breakdown even if you do skip a snack afterwards.
Do you see how each of the meal plans can be changed to prevent the need for a traditional post-workout meal? Eating breakfast earlier or later, eating your dinner at 6 pm rather than 7 pm when training in the evening etc.
This is what nutrient timing should be about, not carrying a tub of whey protein with you to the gym as you are scared about losing muscle mass.
One of the biggest factors on nutrient timing is whether you are looking to build muscle or burn fat. If you are struggling to hit your calorie target each day, then a post-workout meal may actually be beneficial.
Whereas, if you are currently trying to burn calories and struggling to stay within your calorie target, then post-workout meals may be a bad idea.
This is not an issue for regular gym goers, as the calorie targets are unlikely to be extreme. But for bodybuilders, athletes, or for people trying to make huge changes to their physique, nutrient timing and workout timing are actually very important.
If you are bulking, then you are going to be consuming more calories than you are used to. This means eating larger meals, but it can also mean increasing the frequency of your meals. Some people find eating 4-5 medium-sized meals preferable to eating 3 massive meals.
In this scenario, a post-workout meal might be a good idea, but it still isn’t necessary as you could time your workout to finish just before your main meal. A typical day on a bulking diet may look something like this:
There are lots of ways that you could change this to suit your lifestyle and/or workout time. But it should give you an indication of how to set up your meals for pre and post-workout nutrition.
If you are cutting then you need to make every calorie count, and therefore post-workout meals are not a great idea. In this instance, you should be timing your workouts so that you can use a main meal as your defacto post-workout meal.
As with bulking, you can of course change things to suit your lifestyle. You can have a post-workout snack if that fits your day better, but you would have to lower calories elsewhere to compensate. Here is an example of using nutrient timing while cutting:
While you don’t need a post-workout snack in most scenarios, that doesn’t mean you can’t have one! Here are five very quick and easy post-workout snacks that you can have.
The classic post-workout snack option, a protein shake can deliver between 20 and 40 grams of protein per serving. It is quick and easy to make, easy to transport, and the cost is very low. This is a no-brainer solution if your time is limited and you need something quickly.
Meal replacement shakes are rarely thought of as good post-workout snacks, but if you are bulking they are ideal. Not only will they contain a lot of protein, but they also contain good-quality carbohydrates which can help you to restore glycogen levels. Not a great option if you are dieting, as they are 400 calories, but perfect for muscle building.
Protein bars are not as healthy as we like to pretend, but they are still a delicious high-protein snack with good-quality carbohydrates. Adding a piece of fruit such as a banana or apple can also help to improve the nutritional quality of this snack.
Proper Greek yoghurt, rather than Greek-style yoghurt, is high in protein, low in fat, and when combined with fruit it is an excellent source of carbohydrates. This snack option is not the cheapest, nor is it easy to transport, but if you are going home after the gym then it makes a really good snack option. Combine it with protein powder and you’ve got yourself an even better snack!
Post-workout carbohydrates are very important for fuelling muscle protein synthesis, and a bowl of cereal is a decent option. It is not high in protein, but it tastes nice and serves a purpose. Add some protein from another source to improve the snack if you want.
For most people, absolutely nothing bad will occur if you skip a post-workout meal. But there aren’t really any benefits to doing so. The best option for most people is to time your workouts so that they are within a couple of hours of your next main meal. Failing that, a large pre-workout meal can also help.
Matt Smith is the owner of Beer N Biceps. He has a degree in Sports Science, 10 years of experience working in the fitness industry, and has written for hundreds of fitness websites. He is a lover of good quality beer and believes that drinking in moderation can form part of a healthy lifestyle.