Post Workout Recovery: Your Anabolic Ignition Switch

By George L. Redmon Ph.D. N.D.

All of the body’s important recovery and adaptive processes require specific nutrients to proceed

optimally. For this reason, the period immediately following a workout is the most important

in an athlete’s day from a nutritional perspective. Failure to consume adequate amounts of the

right nutrients in a timely manner after exercise will compromise your recovery.

-Drs. John Ivy & Robert Portman

The Performance Zone

 Based on the comments above by renowned sports medicine researcher Dr. John Ivy at the University of Texas, and well-known researcher Dr. Robert Portman, post-workout recovery is the key to stimulating growth. The reason cited by these researchers is that the body machinery necessary for rebuilding and replenishing energy stores and repairing damaged muscle becomes over-whelmed. However, sports nutrition researchers now know that what is so important about recovery from a nutritional standpoint centers on what they refer to as the  arnold-backanabolic window of opportunity. What is critical here is the fact that this window of opportunity apparently closes within 30 to 45 minutes. In fact, current data indicates that the muscle cells potential to initiate rebuilding and replenishment peaks about 15 minutes following a workout and declines by as much as 40% within 60 minutes. The reason, intense exercise training causes muscle fatigue, soreness, dehydration, muscle structural damage, free radical damage, lactic acid buildup, neutrophilia( increase in white blood cells that fight infection/harmful bacteria), muscle swelling, central nervous system fatigue, catabolism of nutrient stores, counter-regulatory hormones,   increased metabolic instability and destruction of carbohydrate, fat and protein. Also occurring during this impending catabolic time-frame is depletion of muscle glycogen, release of amino acids from muscle, stimulated liver gluconeogenesis, and negative nitrogen balance. As a note here, gluconeogenesis is the production of glucose, especially in the liver, from amino acids, fats, and other substances that are not carbohydrates. In this case amino acids and other nutrients are not being used for growth and repair, which is not what should be occurring at post-workout. Correspondingly, negative nitrogen balance physiologically diminishes your ability to sustain muscle growth. Equally, researchers state that post-exercise muscle recovery, repair, and growth, ultimately determines the benefits of exercise to the development of lean body mass, but is reliant on glucose, amino acids, and energy availability for optimal rates of muscle glycogen and protein synthesis. Some other things your nutritional recovery plan should focus on are reducing muscle soreness, re-building and re-pairing muscle, re-establishing immune function, protecting the skeletal matrix to minimizing fat-storage. What is important to remember here is that your work out in practical terms acts like a priming pump, converting your body into a giant sponge, heightening your capability to soak up nutrients quickly and efficiently? Nonetheless, as cited, you’ve got about 30 minutes nutritionally before the force of this pump’s action begins to dissipate.

The goal here is to present a nutritional recovery plan based on current data that focuses on re-establishing some of the physiological parameters cited above.

post-workout-recovery-360x240 A Basic Nutritional Recovery Plan of Action

1. Decreased Protein Breakdown– Paradoxically, as cited by researchers at the University of Nottingham, acute bouts of resistance exercise can increase the rate of muscle protein synthesis about two- to fivefold after exercise and this effect can persist for up to 48hrs. However, at the other end of the spectrum protein breakdown continues to increase dramatically. Relatedly, in a study appearing in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition Exercise and Metabolism researchers noted that the consumption of 20g of protein, or an equivalent of 9g of essential amino acids has the ability to maximize muscle protein-synthesis rates during the first hours of post-exercise recovery. As a note here, whey protein is a faster acting protein and speeds recovery faster than other protein sources as it releases amino acids quickly in about 20 minutes or so. Furthermore, whey is abundant in leucine, the key amino acid that signals the Mammalian Target of Rapamycin (mTOR) anabolic pathway to increase protein synthesis. However, new data indicates that a single individual dose of leucine is more efficient at signaling this anabolic pathway.

*Suggested Action-20-25g/Whey/27g of leucine at post workout.

 2. The Carbohydrate Glycogen Axis-   Once consumed carbohydrates breakdown into glucose and serve as a critical source of energy your muscles use to sustain your muscle’s contractile power. How long this energy supply lasts depends on the length and intensity of exercise and can range anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes. For example, Dr. Susan M. Kleiner the well-known nutritionist who has worked as a nutritional consultant for the Cleveland Browns reminds us that during high-intensity strength training reps lasting only 1 to 3 minutes, that muscle glycogen supplies about 95% of the fuel (energy) needed to complete this set. To avoid running out of energy during your workout this is why it is important to start your routine with full glycogen stores, and via carb intake replenishing them during your training. In fact as cited by Dr. Ivy and Dr. Portman the greatest performance benefits have been found to occur when 50-70g of carbs are consumed per hour of exercise to restore diminished glycogen stores.

                            Glycogen Storage Capacity and Replenishment

Any glucose not needed right away gets stored in the muscles and the liver in the form of glycogen serving as your muscle’s primary back-up fuel source. Once these glycogen stores are filled up any extra gets stored as fat. Although every person is unique, and their individual carbohydrate storage capacity differs, as cited by Dr. Dan Benardot, a professor at Georgia State University and the author of Advanced Sports Nutrition, humans can store approximately 350g of glycogen in the muscles, an additional 90g in the liver, and about 5g in circulating blood. Furthermore, researchers at the University of Texas remind us that if you are involved with multiply training sessions, that restoring depleted glycogen stores is even more crucial. For instance, they reported that compared to waiting 2 hours to ingest a carbohydrate drink, results indicated that immediate consumption resulted in a 300% increase in muscle glycogen at 2 hours and a 135% increase at 4 hours. This is partly why refueling lost glycogen is critical to sustain your next training session, as well as why researchers suggest consuming ¼ of your daily carbohydrate requirements at post-workout. 

 The other aspect of this biological axiom although not highly publicized shows that combining protein with carbs within 30 minutes before exercise increases glycogen storage. However, the ratio must be 4:1, (4g of carbs to 1g of protein). Current data indicates that when carbs and protein are consumed in the above ratio’s before training that there is a significantly greater storage of glycogen than consuming carbs alone.

Suggested Action: Consume carbs with protein in the ratios cited above to better facilitate glycogen storage 30 minutes before workouts. Conversely, Dr. Edmund R. Burke at the University of Colorado states that during your workout routine, to minimize glycogen depletion you should drink a sports beverage that contains 70 to 100 calories of carbs per serving.

                                     Carbs Beyond Glycogen Storage

Carbohydrates have other specific functions in the body including fueling the central nervous system and the brain. Dr. Nathan Smith, M.D. of the University of Washington, the author of Food For Sport some time ago (1976) noted that the constant supply of carbs to the brain was essential for an optimal sense of awareness, and quick reflexes to support athletic performance. However, more importantly, Dr. Smith from his research found that an inadequate supply of glucose, particularly to the central nervous system, caused feelings of weakness and hunger. Today, sports medicine researchers know that muscle fatigue first starts in the central nervous system (CNS) even before you feel muscular fatigue. Research on central nervous fatigue has shown a direct correlation between the brain chemicals serotonin (5-HT), dopamine and acetylcholine and the onset of CNS fatigue.

By the way, acetylcholine is released in the peripheral nervous systems to activate muscle fibers. Correspondingly, decreased levels of acetylcholine leads to noticeable muscle fatigue and a decrease in muscle strength. Current data shows that  carbohydrates and branched chain amino acids( BCAA’s)  have a direct impact on the brain chemicals  serotonin and dopamine, by delaying the onset of central nervous system fatigue due to their influence on amino acids such as tryptophan, which directly affect the levels of serotonin and dopamine in the brain.

Also, it is now common practice at post-workout to consume a protein/carbohydrate combo to spike insulin which in turn drives nutrients into the cells at a faster rate to speed muscle recovery.


Suggested Action: Consume about 1/4 of your required carbs within 15-30 minutes, at post-workout. Overall, consume 4 to 7g of carbs per kilogram (2.2) times your body weight daily.

                                   Simple vs Complex Carbs and the Insulin Spike

According to researchers at the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences of the University of Birmingham in Edgbaston, Birmingham, the United Kingdom, exercise signals what scientist call glucose transporter carrier protein-4 to the cell surface. This leads to an increased permeability of the muscle membrane to accept glucose. However, when this small window of opportunity following a workout that up-regulates this phase of glycogen synthesis closes, muscle glycogen synthesis occurs at a much slower rate, meaning several hours. As you know insulin escorts nutrients into cells and for some time researchers believed that simple carbs (low- glycemic) that break-down quickly and rapidly were best suited to elicit an insulin spike. However, researchers now know that high glycemic carbs which break-down at a slower pace and don’t initiate huge spikes of insulin at post workout are just as effective. As a note here, one of the negatives of constant high spikes of insulin via simple carbs is an increase in fat storage as insulin acts like a key that locks fat in the cells.

While insulin does escorts amino acids nutrients into the cell it also increases net protein balance by reducing muscle protein degradation. In their book, The Performance Zone, Drs. Ivy and Portman stated that insulin within the anabolic window also stimulates enzymes necessary for protein synthesis by as much as 67%, while suppressing cortisol production and increasing muscle blood flow. This apparently speeds the flow of nutrients to weak and tired muscles as well as enhanced removal of waste (lactic acid, carbon dioxide), and puts the brakes on muscle wasting.

3. First Meal at Post-Workout-Once your workout is complete, you should have a whole food meal within an hour or two. Vince Andrich, the author of No Mistakes: Nutritional Guide to Building Your Best Body Ever, states that a 40% protein, 40% carb, 20% fat intake can yield phenomenal results. He also states that the best thing about this nutrient ratio is that it can serve as a primary base eating plan all the time. Conversely, some researchers suggest a smaller ratio of fat for this meal as excess fat during this time may slow the delivery of nutrients into the muscle cells. As a reminder here, this post meal completes the priming of your workout routine and previous quick (15 -30mins) dose of nutrients following your workout. Essentially, this meals helps your body use the all of the circulating free fatting acids that have been pumped out into the bloodstream. Unless these fats are transported to the liver and muscle for final utilization, they can be arbitrarily re-converted back into triglycerides and re-deposited back into fat tissues.

This nutritional aspect of recovery also brings to light how your nutritional recovery plan amplifies the anabolic priming capabilities of your workout routine.

4. Some Post-Workout Supplements to Consider- based on current data there are a number of supplements that can also help amplify the recovery process. Many of these supplements are well-known and highly utilized. They are: Beta- alanine, BCAA’s, Creatine, Glutamine and Nitric Oxide Precursors (Arginine, Citrulline, and Glycine Propionyl-L-carnitine).


Your growth potential increases exponentially as your ability to recover from your workout improves. However, although refueling with water and key electrolytes are important, this isn’t enough fire-power to re-establish internal anabolic dominance. The key variable in this equation that insures you maintain anabolic equilibrium centers how well you nourish systems before and during your workouts, but more importantly, right after all the major catabolic damage has been done, namely, at post-workout. This is when that anabolic switch needs to be ignited versus being doused and crashing to a slow burn. Always remember that the main mission of that post workout meal is to speed up the recovery process, so that your body is prepared to minimize the catabolic rigors of your next training session. In fact, as cited by the well-known sports nutrition researchers Dr. Frederick Hatfield and Martin Zucker, you shouldn’t be eating for what you just did, but instead for the calorie expenditure ahead.


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Article submitted by: George L. Redmon Ph.D. N.D.

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