Rachel Luong, MS, RDN, LDN
Written by a Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association Registered Dietitian (RD). To learn more about sports nutrition and CPSDA, go to www.sportsrd.org.
Do carbohydrates post-training optimize your recovery and gains?
Do athletes ever come up to you and ask you what they should eat after their workout? What do you tell them? A lot of protein? Muscles are made of protein so that is all we need right? What about carbohydrates? Does that help you at all? Sometimes, athletes do not know what the “right” thing to eat after a workout to optimize their recovery and gains, so they come to you, their strength and conditioning coach, because they trust you, and value your opinion. So, in the heat of the moment, when your sports dietitian is not there to answer, what should you say? In general, after a workout, an athlete should have a mix of carbohydrates, protein, color (fruits and vegetables), and some hydrating fluids. That is a lot of information to cover so this article will help you understand the importance of carbohydrates for post-training.
In the past, carbohydrates have been criminalized as this “bad” and “unhealthy” food group because people think it will make them gain all the “bad” weight in the world. Once carbohydrates got to social media, whew, the reputation for carbohydrates took a turn for the worse. It is common for people to fear carbohydrates and not want to eat them, especially if the athletes have a goal to lose weight or fat mass. But this is to tell you, do not be afraid of carbohydrates! Carbohydrates are such an important aspect to recovery and can help reach your goals if you eat them according to your individual needs and goals. Read on to learn more about the power of carbohydrates post-training.
Refuel Your Glycogen Stores
Your main source of energy during exercise is carbohydrates. They are stored in your muscle as glycogen. They are the most readily available of your energy sources for quick and powerful movements such as those movements during weightlifting. During exercise, your body can deplete up to 90% of your glycogen stores depending on time and intensity of exercise.1
That is a lot of energy used so it is important to replenish your glycogen stores to help you last the rest of the day and more. And the only way to replenish your stores is by eating carbohydrates.
Recommendations, Timing & Examples
Ideally an athlete should talk to their sports dietitian to get their individualized nutrition plan. Each athlete has different wants and needs, and different amounts of carbohydrates needed to replenish their glycogen stores, so there is no “cookie cutter” plan that can fit them all. An easy way to look at portions of food without having to calculate the macronutrients and grams for each food, is to use the plate method. Visualizing what you’re eating onto a plate can help you determine if you are eating the correct amount of carbs. An athlete’s plate should be ¼ – ½ carbohydrates (based on intensity and an athlete’s goals), ¼ protein, and the rest of the plate should be color. Portions vary so talk to a sports dietitian for an athlete’s individualized meal plan. Having a plate with all these food groups will allow athletes to replenish their energy through carbohydrates, repair and rebuild their muscle with protein, and include vitamins and minerals from fruits/vegetables that can aid in recovery. An example meal can include a turkey sandwich with tomatoes, lettuce, and cheese with a side of fruit and 8 ounces of chocolate milk. Another example could be 2 cups of cooked pasta with marinara, chicken, and broccoli. Both of these meals would have around 100 grams of carbohydrate, a perfect amount to start replenishing glycogen for a 175 pound athlete.
Current literature states that a post-training meal should be consumed within 2 hours to optimally replenish glycogen stores. One thing to note is that it can take anywhere from 5-48 hours to replenish glycogen stores depending on depletion of stores and carb intake.1,2 It may be possible that some athletes may never fully replenish their glycogen stores because they are constantly being active and/or not fueling enough. Recovery can start with a post-training meal, but it does not stop there, so remind your athletes that it is crucial to continue consuming carbohydrates every couple hours up to 4-8 hours post-training!3,4 This is especially critical for 2-a-day training sessions, or if the one training was exhaustive. If an athlete cannot get a full meal within 2 hours, they should instead have (a) post-training snack(s) with carbohydrates and protein to hold them over until they can eat a meal. An example can be protein bars or shakes containing carbohydrates, PB&J sandwiches, or a mix of snacks such as fruit-flavored Greek yogurt, or cheese sticks with bananas.
All athletes’ post-training snacks/meals will look different based on their situation, but in the end, all athletes should be eating foods with carbohydrates to replenish glycogen stores (and protein to repair muscles, but that is an article for another time).
Possible Muscle Protein Synthesis from Carbohydrates?
In the past decade, there has been an ongoing discussion on carb intake, whether alone or co-ingested with protein affects muscle protein synthesis. It has been well-researched that the intake of protein/amino acids is essential for muscle protein synthesis.5 Insulin/carbohydrates were thought to be a factor in promoting muscle protein synthesis, but evidence suggests it does not have a critical role as believed before.5,6 However, carbohydrate ingestion can be helpful in the reduction of muscle protein breakdown and when it’s combined with protein intake, it could be more efficient.6,7 So not only do carbohydrates help replenish our glycogen stores aka our energy source, it can also help reduce muscle protein breakdown!
Carbohydrates are an essential component in an athlete’s recovery, especially post-training. It’s our energy source used every single day, so it is vital to consume carbohydrates consistently to keep our energy steady throughout the day. The next time you hear an athlete talk about carbohydrates, post-training meals, or food in general, remind them of the importance of carbohydrates in fueling and recovering their bodies!