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What (and when) to eat to get the best results from your workout

I've seen it time and again. Women who want to lose weight doing tough workouts and skipping a post-workout snack because, surely, the fewer calories they take on the more weight they'll lose...right? I'm afraid this is a commonly held belief that couldn’t be much further from the truth, particularly for women. Whilst exercise is, of course, much more than a tool for fat loss, in talking about the efficacy of post-workout nutrition I'll be focussing mainly on that. The fact is, when it comes supporting weight loss and lean muscle gain, exercise simply won't work without the appropriate nutrition to support it.

Skipping a meal after your workout could actually be having the opposite to the desired effect. Delaying food doesn’t increase your fat burning potential. Rather, it reduces it. In the absence of recovery fuel your body fights to conserve the energy (or calories) it’s lost. It increases fat storage because, having worked so hard and not got anything back to aid recovery, your body believes it’s in a state of famine. Not only does fat loss become harder, but you’re also unlikely to build any lean muscle. You may still get stronger and be able to lift more over time, but in terms of achieving that elusive “toned” look (which actually comes from the acquisition of lean muscle)? Without adequate energy intake, it ain’t happening.

Let's look at what’s going on with your body after exercise to help us understand why that post-workout meal or snack is so important…

After exercise, your insulin levels peak, opening up metabolic pathways which expedite glycogen storage and the muscle repair process. This is known as the recovery window or the “golden window”. During this time your body is primed for both the carbohydrates and the BCAAS (branched chain amino acids aka the building blocks of proteins) to go straight to your muscles to build and repair them.

As women our recovery window is shorter than that of men - men have up to 3 hours whilst we have between just 30 and 45 minutes. After that time our insulin sensitivity decreases, meaning it’ll take longer for our muscles to absorb glucose from our blood stream. That's especially relevant for women in the perimenopausal transition who may already be more insulin resistant due the hormonal changes that are going on in their body.

So what do we need to eat in that 30-45 minutes post-workout?

1. Prioritize protein.

We need protein post workout even more than men do because the female sex hormone progesterone increases muscle breakdown in women. This is especially true during the luteal phase of our cycle (the second part of our monthly cycle when progesterone is higher). Ideally we want to consume between 25-30g protein within 30 minutes of completing a hard workout.

25-30g to protein examples:

  • A medium chicken breast

  • A fillet of salmon

  • 250g greek yoghurt

  • Scoop of whey protein

2. Pair protein with carbohydrate.

The two work together to increase your glycogen storage rates and higher glycogen storage rates means better performance. Research has also shown that eating carbs and protein together after exercise can reduce inflammation and boost immunity.

Examples of good post workout carbs:

  • Oats

  • Banana

  • Bread

  • Rice

My personal favourite (as I tend to train first thing in the morning) is 40g porridge oats cooked with oat milk, then I mix in half a scoop of whey and top with a bit of greek yoghurt, berries and pumpkin seeds.

Key takeaways for eating to get the best results from your workout:

  1. Don’t skip your postworkout meal or snack

  2. Eat within 30-45 minutes of finishing a hard workout

  3. Prioritize protein and pair it with some carbohydrates

And, as always, if you need any extra support or guidance with your training or your nutrition...

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