The Truth About Post-Workout Carbs

January 8, 2013 | Mike Samuels

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Debate rages on in the nutrition world over the best type of diet for athletes. However, one thing that is universally agreed upon is that consuming carbs post-workout is critical for supercharging your results.

Carbs are a much-maligned macronutrient, often blamed for the obesity crisis, increased incidence of heart disease and diabetes, and lapses in performance. Even those who don't completely neglect carbs argue about the best sources, how much you should eat and when to eat carbs for better health and performance.

Carbs are not evil. They are the major source of energy for fueling performance. In particular, consuming carbs post-workout should be a major aspect of your training and nutrition plan. If you want to maximize your gain, you cannot ignore carbs.

Why Carbs Post-Workout?

When you train, your body uses stored carbohydrate, known as glycogen, to provide you with energy. When you're in a glycogen-depleted state, your performance tends to suffer. You often experience a decline in strength, speed and concentration, especially near the end of a long workout, practice or game. Refilling your glycogen stores by consuming carbohydrate provides a much-needed energy boost.

Carbs have a powerful effect on recovery by raising insulin levels. Too much insulin can be a bad thing, because it produces peaks and troughs in blood sugar levels, which can lead to metabolic dysfunction. However, a post-workout insulin spike helps shuttle nutrients into muscle cells, kickstarting the recovery process and stimulating strength and size gains.

After a workout is when your body is most sensitive to carbohydrate. You don't use much glycogen to perform everyday tasks, so taking in extra carbohydrate is unnecessary. Your body has no need for it, so it merely floats around in your bloodstream until it eventually turns into fat tissue. But carbs consumed post-workout are more likely to be used for good, and they are less likely to be turned into fat.

Post-Workout Timing

The phrase "post-workout window" is often found in bodybuilding magazines and supplement ads. It refers to the time following a workout when the body is in an optimal state for taking in nutrients. It's generally agreed that athletes should aim to ingest a good portion of their daily carbs within 60 minutes of finishing activity.

You shouldn't sweat it too much if you don't consume some carbs immediately after you re-rack the barbell on your last set; but eating something carb-based within an hour after finishing is a smart idea.

What about days when you have a game? Check out this game-day meal plan.

Types of Carbs

Generally, the type of carb you eat post-workout doesn't matter much. A sports drink may digest slightly quicker than a solid source, but the digestive system doesn't have an on/off switch. It takes hours for food to digest, so you're probably still processing the carbs you ate a few hours earlier. This negates the absolute necessity for fast-digesting carbs, although they are preferred. Some good carb-dense options include:

  • Oats
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Rice cakes
  • Fruit
Check out a few more solid post-workout carb options.

Amount of Carbs

The amount of post-workout carbs you need depends on many factors, including your body fat percentage, body type, training experience, goals and the nature of the session you just completed. It's more important to monitor the total amount of carbs you eat throughout the day.

A good rule of thumb is to eat around 30 percent of your daily intake within the post-workout window. If  your total carb intake for the day is 200 grams, eat 60 grams post-workout.

Additional Considerations

  • Combine your carbs with a protein source to increase muscle protein synthesis, recovery and growth.
  • Keep fat relatively low in your post-workout meal. It doesn't need to be zero, but fat has little effect on post-workout recovery, and it may slow the process of carbohydrate digestion.
  • To learn what works best for you, make a note of what carbs you ate after each workout and how quickly you recovered.

Learn more through STACK's Carb Guide.

Mike Samuels
- Mike Samuels is a UK-based personal trainer, diet coach, writer, sports massage therapist and corrective exercise specialist. He has a Level 3 Personal Trainer certification...
Mike Samuels
- Mike Samuels is a UK-based personal trainer, diet coach, writer, sports massage therapist and corrective exercise specialist. He has a Level 3 Personal Trainer certification...
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