You must have seen many avid gym-goers running to grab their shakers and drink up their protein shake after their workout, even before their sweat has dried up! You must have also seen people drinking BCAA during workout. But are these really necessary for you, and more so if you are a beginner?
Note: The person in the picture attached is not drinking BCAA
Let us try to understand what you can eat/drink during (intra) and after (post) workout to capitalize on your fitness goals.
Intra Workout Nutrition:
There is a whole new trend of taking BCAA (Branched Chain Amino Acids) intra workout. It claims to prevent muscle breakdown for energy during extreme workouts. Let’s first try to understand, is BCAA really necessary?
My answer would undoubtedly be a NO. Your daily protein intake has enough fuel in it to provide the BCAAs needed by your body. Your body doesn’t magically go into a catabolic state until and unless you are working out for 5-6 hours continuously.
As a beginner, then, what should my intra-workout nutrition consist of?
To be honest, no intra-workout nutrition is required if you are a beginner. The whole workout nutrition concept is largely a scam and the studies done on it are mostly sponsored by supplement companies. However, if your diet allows carbohydrates, you may add a dextrose monohydrate-based drink as an intra-workout drink.
How does that help?
After a certain level of muscle glycogen depletion and circulating blood glucose, your brain will be short of glycogen too. Our body is one smart machine. If it perceives that you are trying to lose something, it will try to retain it as much as possible. That’s true for energy too. Once our muscle glycogen is depleted to an extent, the body tries to not lose any further amounts of it, and that’s where fatigue sets in – primarily because of the loss in energy. At this juncture, therefore, ingesting some carbohydrates will help in keeping your ‘brain’ happy and also provides you more ‘instant energy’ to push yourself harder in your workout.
But the smart reader will ask, have I not contradicted my own statement now? From saying that ‘no intra-workout nutrition is required,’ to now saying that some carbohydrates intra-workout could be good?
The choice, you see, remains with each individual, and his/her dietary requirements. I would suggest, if you are on a high carbohydrate diet and trying to fill your carb macros, you may add some dextrose intra workout, and if you are on a low carbohydrate diet, you will do just as well without any intra workout nutrition at all.
Please remember, though, that any intra workout nutrition is incomplete without constantly sipping on water. If you are feeling thirsty during your workout, it is an indication that you are dehydrated. Always make sure to drink enough water during the workout so that you never feel thirsty at all.
Post Workout Nutrition:
Now that you are done and dusted with your intense workout, the next question that arises is, what to eat next?
Do you really need to take carbs post workout?
Often people tend to take carbs post workout because of the preconception that an excess insulin spike will help to build muscle more efficiently. However, researches have shown that even if the insulin levels post workout were 30 times higher than usual, it did not create any positive effect on protein synthesis [Ref 2]. Protein itself is enough for protein synthesis. You do not really need the insulin to be raised with additional carbs.
Also, post exercise, a mechanism called “non-insulin-mediated glucose uptake” comes into effect in the body, which allows the amino acids in proteins to replenish glycogen by themselves; and our liver has enough glycogen to sustain us for 48 hours [Ref 1]. To sum it all, if you want to have a post workout protein shake, you may. But remember, there is no need of taking carbs along with it.
Does having carbs post workout replenish your glycogen levels?
Again, this is not true. You don’t need to eat carbohydrates immediately after your workout – you can take your own sweet time and eat your carbs. As per one research, there was no change in the glycogen levels recorded at 8 hours post workout and at 24 hours post exercise, the comparison was performed between an individual who ingested carbs immediately, and another who ingested carbs with a 2-hour delay [Ref 3]. What this proves is that adding carbs post workout doesn’t have any positive effect on protein balance.
Moreover, it is said that you don’t fully deplete your glycogen levels during any kind of workout – you deplete only a part of it. A full-body workout consisting of 9 exercises for 3 sets each at 80% 1RM (something only a beginner can do) only depletes about a third of the body’s glycogen and 9 sets for a specific muscle result in 36% depletion in that muscle. After performing sets of 6 leg extensions at 70% 1RM until absolute failure occurred, and not consuming anything afterwards, 75% of glycogen was restored within 6 hours [Ref 5] post workout.
That means, even after your regular workout, you never fully deplete your glycogen stores. So, when the tank itself is not empty, what is the need to refill it immediately post workout?
In effect, while you may apply the carb back-loading principle and load carbs post workout, but it’s not required to be done immediately.
The myth of the ‘anabolic window’ – How soon should post workout protein be taken?
Another theory is that; you need to ingest protein shake to take advantage of the ‘anabolic window’. First of all, the anabolic window is a myth. The protein synthesis of muscles goes on for 24-48 hours post workout. Thus, make sure to eat your protein within that time. There shouldn’t be any hurry to drink your protein shake soon post workout. [Ref 4]
So what are the final takeaways regarding intra and post workout nutrition?
- Always try to finish your daily macros on the same day itself. That’s the most vital part as a beginner. It will not only help you physically but also help you psychologically to get into a healthy lifestyle.
- During your workouts, it is completely fine to just drink water.
- Also, there is no hard and fast rule that you need have your protein shake immediately after workout. Obviously, there is no harm taking your shake immediately post workout, but there is no advantage either.
- If you are on a diet which doesn’t allow any carbohydrates, then simply do not worry about any of it.
Author Credits – Matin Sheikh
Ref 1: Robert T. Morrison, Robert N. Boyd, and Robert K. Boyd, Organic Chemistry, 6th edition (Benjamin Cummings, 1992,