Nothing like some well-earned carbs after a workout, right? Pretzels, cookies, a cold soda: You need them all right now to kick-start recovery … right? Alas, it’s not that simple.
Conventional gym wisdom says that if there’s a perfect time to eat carbohydrates by the carton, it’s right after a workout, when your muscles act like sponges and quickly absorb nutrients. But stuffing your face with cookies or gummy bears post-workout might not be the best strategy.
Yes, carbohydrates play a major role in replenishing glycogen, the carbs stored in your liver and muscles. But because our bodies use stored muscle glycogen so well during a workout, it’s easy to get way too much of a good thing.
Here’s how to dial in your intake to get all that you need without going overboard.
How Many Twizzlers Per Hour Do You Burn?
The average person stores around 100 grams of carbs in their liver and 400 grams in their muscle. Research has shown that even after a hard workout, the same person burns only about 25 percent of that muscle glycogen. Similar research into both high-volume resistance training and high-intensity interval training shows about the same level of depletion.[2,3]
You might think something like 5 sets of back squats, front squats, leg presses, and leg extensions to failure would give you the green light to demolish an entire box of Twizzlers. But at 10 grams of carbs per stick, it wouldn’t take more than a handful to replace that 100 grams of carbohydrates you just used up.
Carbs Aren’t Your Only Source Of Fuel
This is due at least partly to the fact that your body uses stored fat along with stored carbs, especially during higher-intensity exercise. One study noted that a group of bodybuilders performing heavy resistance exercises burned an average of 28 percent of their muscle glycogen, but burned slightly more—30 percent—from fat.
It takes your body about 24 hours to replenish muscle glycogen stores from a normal diet—that’s one without post-workout carbs. If you need to replace only about 100 grams a day—assuming you work out once a day, and even less if you have a lighter workout—then you’ve got all the time in the world to do it.
So the good news is that your body will be fine if you don’t carb binge right after a workout. And by spreading out your carb intake throughout the day, you can have more pre-workout carbs on board, maintain steady energy levels, and feel fuller between meals.
What’s An Ideal Post-Workout Carb Intake?
Given all of the above, you might ask how much carbohydrates to eat post-workout to optimize muscle recovery. Well, that depends on your size, nutrition goals, training goals, program, and schedule. If you crank out two-a-day workouts, you follow an ambitious CrossFit protocol, or you do one or two daily cardio sessions plus lifting a la Kris Gethin, there’s definitely a case to be made for some targeted post-workout carbs. But one thing is for sure: You don’t need to devour a pizza or bag of chips to get them.
Assuming you do just one hardcore workout a day, you can replace the carbs you burned up exercising by consuming 0.25-0.50 grams of carbs per pound of body weight after your workout. But if you do more than one workout per day, consume the carbs within about an hour of the end of your workout. That way, your body will have a chance to digest them before you exercise again that day. So if you weigh 150 pounds, you’ll need 38-75 grams. On the low end, that’s about a large banana. On the high end, a banana and a couple of handfuls of pretzels or a scoop of carb powder in your protein shake. If you’re at 200 pounds, you’re looking at more like 50-100 grams. If your daily workout is on the lighter side, you need far less.
The upshot for you? Definitely get what you need, particularly if you’re training hard and often. But if you’re that serious about the training life, don’t just stuff yourself with sweets under the guise of “post-workout carbs.” Know the reasoning, and then enjoy the results!
- Tesch, P. A., Colliander, E. B., & Kaiser, P. 1986. Muscle metabolism during intense, heavy- resistance exercise. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 55, 362-6.
- Gaitanos, G. C., Williams, C., Boobis, L. H., & Brooks, S. (1993). Human muscle metabolism during intermittent maximal exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology, 75(2), 712-719.
- Robergs, R. A., Pearson, D. R., Costil, D. L., Fink, D. D., Pascoe, M. A., Benedict, C. P., Lambert, C. P., and Zachweija, J. J. (1991). Muscle glycogenolysis during differing intensities of weight-resistance exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology, 70, 1700-1706.
- Essen-Gustavsson, B. & Tesch, P. A. 1990. Glycogen and triglyceride utilization in relation to muscle metabolic characteristics in men performing heavy-resistance exercise. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 61, 5-10.
- Ivy, J. L. (1991). Muscle glycogen synthesis before and after exercise. Sports Medicine, 11(1), 6-19.
- Jentjens, R. L., Van Loon, L. J., Mann, C. H., Wagenmakers, A. J., & Jeukendrup, A. E. (2001). Addition of protein and amino acids to carbohydrates does not enhance postexercise muscle glycogen synthesis. Journal of Applied Physiology, 91(2), 839-846.