You just gave your workout everything you’ve got, powered through sweat-drenched final reps, and are ready for recovery.
But what’s the best post-workout combination?
And how is workout nutrition impacted by your overall diet?
This article will answer these questions for strength and power athletes, providing real-life evidence and science-based tips. You’ll finish knowing how to reach your anabolic potential safely for maximal gains in performance.
The Three Aspects of Training Nutrition
A common pitfall of nutritional programs is they just focus on one aspect. In fact, nutrition for strength athletes should incorporate these three features:
1) Fueling for sport-specific practice and strength training.
Nutrition should optimize storage of glycogen and high-energy phosphates in order to delay metabolic fatigue when competing in strength and power sports. In addition, reducing metabolic acidosis will decrease fatigue and extend peak strength and power capacity.
2) Recovery from training.
Recovery nutrition should be twofold: Be geared at achieving fast and complete restoration of muscle glycogen stores and provide nutrients that accelerate the removal of waste products, minimizing muscle damage.
3) The promotion of training adaptations, particularly muscle growth.
Adequate dietary protein and particularly the amino acid leucine can stimulate protein synthesis in trained muscle, leading to significantly greater muscle growth over time.
The Two Benefits of Carbohydrates
Many people think that protein is king for strength and power athletes and carbs aren’t that important. In fact, protein and carbs are equally important but for different reasons.
Most strength and power sports rely largely on the glycolytic energy system, which is fueled by carbs (glycogen) that are stored in the muscle. For peak performance, athletes need to ensure they enter training and competition with full glycogen stores.
This is best achieved with a higher carb diet and the consumption of complex carbs in a pre-workout meal about 4 hours before training. Glycogen synthesis takes time and any carbs that are eaten closer to the workout will either be in the bloodstream or still be in your stomach.
Post-workout is also prime time for refilling glycogen stores because the muscles are hypersensitive to insulin. In studies, a single weight training session can result in reductions of muscle glycogen of as much as 40 percent. In real life out of the lab, higher intensities and durations may be reached, leading to an even greater degree of depletion.
A general recommendation to restore glycogen post-workout is to consume 0.8 g/kg of bodyweight in addition to 20 grams of protein (the protein reduces the dose necessary for glycogen replenishment down from 1.2 g/kg bw). Liquid carbs are only necessary when you need to replenish glycogen stores quickly in order to be able to train or compete again in the next few hours.
Training that causes muscle damage will impair glycogen resynthesis so carb needs may be higher for intense training.
The second benefit of carbs is to improve hormonal balance for faster recovery. When carbs are consumed, insulin is elevated, leading to a rapid decrease in the stress hormone cortisol and a more anabolic environment.
In addition, the increase in insulin has a protective antioxidant effect on muscle because insulin helps suppress inflammatory products that you produce during training.
It should be noted that although the insulin spike from carbs is useful, it’s not necessary for maximal protein synthesis. As you’ll see in the section on protein, all that is necessary for protein synthesis is the consumption of protein that contains at least 6 grams of branched-chain amino acids of which at least 40 percent is leucine.
The Three Laws of Protein
The goal for strength and power athletes regarding protein is threefold:
- Achieve a threshold dose of protein at every meal
- Distribute protein throughout the day and surrounding training sessions
- Eat the highest quality, most digestible protein
First, You might be interested to know that the body actually recycles a portion of amino acids that are liberated during muscle protein breakdown. However, this recycling isn’t 100 percent, making it is necessary to consume protein in the range of 1.6 to 1.8 g/kg (.73 to .82 g/lb) a day. This amount will maximally stimulate protein synthesis without elevated levels of protein loss.
Exceeding this amount of protein is unlikely to increase gains because the rate of protein breakdown increases to offset protein synthesis.
Second, distributing protein intake through the day will continually replenish the pool of amino acid building blocks available to be used for protein synthesis. The branched chain amino acids initiate enzyme activity that “switch on” the machinery responsible for protein synthesis. They can actually enhance genetic pathways involved in building muscle by 70 percent more than if an athlete had trained in the fasted state.
For example, a new study in The Journal of Nutrition showed that when participants ate 30 grams of protein at each meal, protein synthesis levels were 25 percent higher than when people skewed their consumption by loading up on protein at dinner. Spiking protein synthesis throughout the day gives your body more opportunity to add muscle.
You might not know that strength training doesn’t lead to an increase in protein turnover until after your workout is completed. This is the reason that post-workout is touted as prime time for protein supplementation. In practice this is most beneficial for experienced athletes who are encouraged to consume 20 grams fast-digesting, protein that is high in leucine immediately after training.
Finally, choose the highest quality proteins that are easily digested. These are overwhelmingly animal proteins, with whey protein topping the list as a superior supplemental protein source and eggs, beef, and chicken leading the way for whole food proteins.
Although it certainly is possible for a recreational trainee to be a vegetarian and build muscle, athletes simply aren’t able to get optimal levels of leucine to trigger protein synthesis for maximal adaptations.
Don’t Be Afraid of Fat
Adequate fat intake from a variety of sources is critical for strength and power athletes for optimal hormone levels and to provide calories when energy needs are high. Low-fat diets are discouraged because fat is necessary for robust testosterone levels.
For example, reducing fat intake from 40 to 20 percent of the diet has resulted in significantly lower testosterone levels. Therefore, strength and power athletes should get between 30 and 50 percent of their calories from fat.
The majority of fat should come from saturated animal fats and monounsaturated fats from seeds, nuts, and other plant foods like olives and avocados. A small intake of polyunsaturated fats is ideal, particularly the omega-3 fats from fish oil, because they may fight inflammation and improve protein synthesis rates.
Superior Foods & Supplements For Strength & Power
Creatine—one of the safest, most effective supplements ever
Besides protein, creatine is the only supplement that has consistently been found to enhance muscle development and performance in strength athletes.
Creatine can increase work capacity at high intensities because it increases the pool of high-energy phosphates available in the body. It can also be used as an energy source for the brain and has been found to improve precision and reaction time in athletes.
Supplementing with between 5 and 20 grams of creatine has been shown to double muscle gains (one review found an extra 2 to 4 pounds of muscle mass gained during up to 12 weeks of training in athletes).
Caffeine—reduces DOMS, spares carbs, and improves motivation to train
Caffeine can also help athletes get more out of workouts because it reduces pain, boosts neurotransmitter production for greater drive, and reduces muscle soreness and strength loss. Between 3 and 5 mg/kg taken 30 to 90 minutes before training is indicated by the research.
Blueberries & Cherries—reduce DOMS and improve sleep.
Though antioxidant supplementation of vitamins C and E has been found to degrade performance, food-based supplementation of antioxidant-rich blueberries and tart cherries can reduce muscle soreness and speed recovery.
For example, after trainees did 300 muscle destroying eccentric leg extensions and then drank blueberry juice, they performed better on strength tests on the two recovery days after training. They also had less oxidative stress. Tart cherry juice has similar benefits, and it raises melatonin for better sleep.
Beta Alanine—prolongs all-out athletic efforts
Beta alanine stabilizes muscle pH by eliminating buffering hydrogen ions produced during energy metabolism. The result is less fatigue and greater work capacity, particularly in sports that require continued full body sports production such as combat sports.
Water & Electrolytes
Moderate dehydration significantly impairs strength capacity and may lead to reductions in testosterone. Additionally, dehydration leads to reduced protein synthesis rates and greater protein breakdown for an all-around catabolic state.
Most coaches think this can be avoided simply by drinking adequate water, and although water is part of the equation, it does nothing for you if you don’t have sufficient electrolytes present to “hold” the water. Sodium and chloride enable intracellular hydration, and without these two minerals, additional water intake will lead to low sodium and poor hydration for impaired performance and other negative health complications.
Athletes who consume processed foods likely get more than enough sodium, however, those that eat whole food diets can salt their food for adequate sodium balance. In very hot, humid weather or when training twice-a-day at high intensities, 0.3 to 0.7 g of salt per liter of water should be consumed. Electrolyte packets can also be used to avoid dangerously low sodium (hyponaetremia).