Workout recovery: why carbs matter

First of, they clearly matter. I’m not asking you; I’m telling you. No matter what your goal (even if fat loss) carbs matter (I know carb-phobic people are rolling their eyes right about now BUT fat burns in a carb flame).


By not including carbs in your post-workout meal you are selling yourself short.


Why Your Post-Workout Meal Matters:

You can work out all you want, unless you recover properly and fuel your muscles properly you won’t reach your full potential.

–> Your post-workout meal makes a difference!*

*(unless you have consumed a proper pre-workout meal. More below.)

Based on your training (type & intensity) you taxed your body, tore some fibers and used up some of the stored glycogen in your muscles.

  • If you worked out hard enough that talking was difficult, you used up more glycogen (storage form of sugar in your muscle) than if you worked out less intense.
  • Let’s say, on a workout intensity scale of 1 -10 (1 = easy, 10 = breathless, near death); the closer and longer you worked out to a 10, the more glycogen you used (but DON’T read this as not having burned any fat)
  • If you worked out heavily with weight, engaged in intense (!) sprint or plyometric training you also tore a few muscle fibers and you also used up mainly glycogen
  • If you just spent an hour leisurely on the stair master (hunched over the railing) or leisurely used the elliptical or stationary bike without breaking much of a sweat, without getting out of breath still being able to either yap away on the phone or read a book you don’t really need to focus on post-workout recover. Just consume a normal healthy meal as part of your daily eating habits within 2 hours, drink plenty of water (hydrate!) and remain active & balanced throughout the rest of your day. 

How much glycogen you depleted (as part of your workout) is partially contingent on your pre-workout snack, your glycogen stores and of course, as already mentioned, your type, duration, and intensity of exercise.


Interestingly, 2 weeks of HIT training has been reported to increase insulin sensitivity and exercise-mediated glycogen breakdown in skeletal muscles may contribute to the increased insulin sensitivity.


carbohydrate needs, recommended carb intake, exercise, performance


Do You Really Need to

Eat Within 30 Minutes Post-Training?

Well, the answer isn’t cut-throat.

Yes, after training it’s the best time to not only replenish what you lost during training (glycogen as well as minerals) but also provide your body with the nutrients needed to repair tissue……


If you nourished yourself prior to your workout, hence, you ate a suitable snack (protein & carbs) you don’t really need to consume a post-workout snack as quickly as possible.

More, unless you are a hard core athlete, engage in multiple events on the same day or work out twice per day, the urgency of glycogen resynthesis is greatly diminished. 


Where Does The 30 Minute Window Come From?

It is based on working out at fasted state & your insulin sensitivity.

Within 30 -45 minutes immediately following your workout, your insulin sensitivity is at its highest.

When insulin is administrated immediately after contraction or exercise, there is an additive increase in glucose uptake. Meaning, your muscles (and liver) take up glucose more quickly and store it as glycogen compared to any other times.

This window, however, is highly overrated [1]. It is believed that your window of opportunity is actually much longer, up to 2 hours. And after these 2 hours, the speed of nutrient uptake by your cells decreases but does not stop.

Keep in mind though, we over-estimate just how much glycogen we actually use during a workout. After all, most of us are NOT hard-core athletes.


High-intensity resistance training with moderate volume (6-9 sets per muscle group) has only been shown to reduce glycogen stores by 36-39% [1]


But, well-trained subjects can oxidize 180 g carbohydrate during 1 h of intense exercise. [2]


What Does This Mean to You?

After your workout, your body will soak up anything you consume like a sponge and use it to transport nutrients to your cells (mainly muscle and liver cells).

Your body is right now busy trying to repair and refuel your cells.

Food you eat now is not stored as fat. (Caveat: This is not an invite to eat crap- unhealthy, high fatty food).

If you don’t consume proper, healthy food choices within your window of opportunity (at least within 90 minutes to 2 hours post workout): it

  • takes longer for you to recover from your workout
  • decreases the benefit of the workout (you worked so hard…..don’t diminish your efforts by not refueling properly)
  • diminishes or makes it harder for you to achieve your desired body composition
  • increases metabolic stress
  • affects your next workouts
  • and your energy level for the rest of the day

it’s more crucial for trained individuals compared to untrained individuals but nonetheless, even untrained benefit.


BUT…keep in mind, it’s contingent on type, intensity, and duration of exercises as well as having not consumed a pre-workout meal!


By the way, of course there are individual difference. I won’t go into detail, just understand that insulin sensitivity is individual. More, the leaner you become the stronger your insulin sensitivity. Meaning, the closer you get to your lean body fat percentage goal the greater and more powerful the anabolic effect of carbohydrate.


Does It Matter What You Eat?


You want to eat something your body is able to absorb easily and quickly.

Meaning, don’t eat anything too fatty. Fat takes a WHILE to digest and break down (actually, fat takes the longest time to break down!). A smidge is fine but don’t overdue it!

This also means don’t eat anything too high in fiber. Instead,

–> Eat protein and carbs – two things your body can soak up easily, especially carbs (more carbs than protein). Suggested ratio is 4:1 (carbs:protein), but don’t focus on numbers or details.

–> Hydrate & focus on nutrients (which you might have lost due to sweat). Here is a great article about fluids, dehydration, and working out.

  • based on your level of fitness and sweat you have definitely lost sodium and small amounts of chloride, potassium, and magnesium
    • Which natural foods contain these items?
      • Chicken broth & table salt (btw, bread, dairy products, and veggies juices are also high in sodium!)
      • Bananas & cantaloupe
      • Tomatoes & potatoes
      • Rye & whole grains
      • Yogurt, milk, & orange juice…just to name a few!


1.Why carbohydrates?

Carbs (only carbs!) replenish our glycogen storage in muscle and liver (the main two places where glycogen is stored) [3].

  • a human liver holds approx 80-100g of glycogen
  • muscles hold approx 400 -500g of glycogen (BUT, how much you can store is contingent on your muscle mass)

How quickly glucose is absorbed by your muscle depends on two factors:

1. Glucose availability (how many carbohydrates and what kind of carbohydrates are you consuming)


2. Insulin concentrations

Full glycogen storage = full recovery and more energy. Plus, carbs provide energy (since this article is about carbs I’ll not go into the role of protein or fat in energy production).

Bottom line, depending on your training goals (esp endurance athletes): carbs matter. 

Carbohydrates, not fat, are the predominant fuel for working muscles and

carbohydrate, not fat, availability becomes rate limiting for performance.

(I’m talking about real workouts, not leisurely strolls!)


Does it matter if you consume simple or complex carbs?

(Simple think quick digesting, heavily processed, white such as sugar, fruit, white bread, rice, and pasta. Complex think whole grain, high fiber, less processed such as whole wheat, brown rice, rye, quinoa, spelt,….)

Yes & No.

It’s contingent on your goals, health, & workout. Simple carbs are absorbed much faster than complex carbs.

It matters especially for „real“ athletes and hard-core fitness people, not recreational fitness people or people who train at moderate intensity.

BUT, if you want to consume simple carbs, this (right after your workout) is THE BEST time of day to consume them!

  • If you work out intensely and heavily and need to recover as quickly as possible, consume simple carbs [4].
  • If you just work out 2-3 times per week at medium intensity, you can stick with consuming complex carbs, unless you crave these.

Do you love white bread and jam or white rice or animal crackers and do you want to consume these at the „best possible time“ without creating havoc to your health and weight goals? Then enjoy them (in moderation without feeling guilty) post workout as part of your recovery meal.


How many grams of carbohydrates should you consume?

Lots of research exists and I won’t bore you with details.

  • an intake of more than 0.5 g/kg body weight (per hour) is necessary to maximize post- exercise glycogen synthesis if supplements are administered at 2-h intervals [5]
  • glycogen synthesis (glycogen uptake and storage) can be increased further IF carbohydrates are ingested more frequently (every 30 minutes) and in higher rates (more grams/kg body weight) (0.8g/kg – 1.2g/kg), the more the better  [6, 7]
  • HIGHEST glycogen uptake occurs IF combined with protein [6, 8, 9]
    • BUT…NOT all studies agree: as long as plenty (1.2g/kg) of carbohydrates are consumed post exercise, added protein will not enhance glycogen uptake [10]

BUT, there is such thing as too many carbs:

Healthy humans have large capacity to store glucose as lipid.

Acheson et al. (1988) overfed people for 7 days in a calorimeter and found that healthy humans were able to convert 475 g carbohydrate to 150 g lipid per day.


Bottom line: Nutrition is individual. Everyone reacts differently to carbohydrates and some of us tend to overdue it with carbohydrates. Hence, limiting your carb intake might be wise BUT NOT right after your workout! Instead, limit it for dinner. Plus, keep in mind, reducing carbs leads initially to water loss, not fat loss.


2.Why Protein?

1. Protein is the building blocks of our cells.

2. Protein  supports the absorption rate of glycogen and prevents muscle breakdown.

3. Protein & carbohydrates, in combination, elevate insulin levels to a greater extent than carbohydrates alone (insulin „prevents“ catabolism; it has anabolic or anti-catabolic properties)

By the way,

  • muscle breakdown (catabolism) occurs if the body requires energy BUT doesn’t get fed properly.
  • muscle breakdown occurs in a fasted state post exercise [1]

Hence, our body, if not fed, will use our muscles as source of energy. Do you really want to lose muscle mass?


How many grams of protein should you consume?

10-20 grams of easy to digest protein is ideal

No, the more is not better unless you are older! Our body can only absorb maximum of 25g of protein in one meal, younger people require less than older people. For older men, it seems to avoid catabolism (muscle breakdown) a bit more protein is better. How much more?

 To maximize acute  anabolic response, approximately 20–40 g, depending on age, are optimal.

post workout protein choices


Keep in mind, you don’t just consume an egg or a plain yogurt. Combine it with fruit, some bread with jam and you easily get enough nutrients to recover quickly and fully!

Do you work out hard enough to require a special post-workout meal?
For most of us, our normal meal (part of our daily meals) will suffice.

Hence, you don’t need any special supplements!


Now, above I said unless you have consumed a

proper pre-workout meal.

Let’s look how a PRE-WORKOUT MEAL CHANGES or influences OUR NEED need for a post-workout meal.

2 things happen when we consume a pre-workout meal:

1.Post-workout, our insulin sensitivity (carbohydrate and amino acids in bloodstream) is still peaking from the pre (and during) workout nutrition.

Even though we worked out, our body isn’t starving or breaking down muscle. Based on our pre-workout nutrition (and eating habits throughout the day), our body is using the nutrition we ate prior to (or during) workout to replenish and repair.

2.As our body is using the nutrients from the pre-workout meal, there is no need to, additionally, replenish our glycogen stores. Our pre-workout meal takes care of that – as long as it was a balanced, healthy meal! Hence, there is no rush to scarf down a meal/shake as quickly as possible after we finish a workout.

BUT what our body might require is an enhanced (quicker) protein uptake. Simple carbs can speed up this protein uptake.

BUT caveat, we only need a small amount of simple carbohydrates to support protein uptake.

  • based on weight approx. 25-50g of carbs
  • and yes, we need carbs to increase our protein uptake (our body uses protein more efficiently if combined with carbohydrates)



If your last meal has been 3-4 hours ago OR you train in the morning on an empty stomach: 

  • the classical recommendation to consume protein (at least 25 g) & carbohydrates as soon as possible seems warranted in order to reverse the catabolic state, which in turn could expedite muscular recovery and growth. (catabolic think muscle break down)

If you know you will not be able to consume a post-workout meal as quickly as possible, a minor pre-exercise nutritional interventions can and should be consumed to spare muscle and aid in recovery.

Which brings me to pre-workout snacksingesting 20 g whey (any high quality protein will do, dairy, kefir, soy, and co!) pre-exercise elevates muscular uptake of amino acids to 4.4 times pre-exercise resting levels during exercise, and does not return to baseline levels until 3 hours post-exercise.

–> high-quality protein taken immediately before resistance training is capable of sustaining amino acid delivery into the post-exercise period

–> thus, it is NOT necessary to also consume an immediate post-exercise (30 minute window) protein and carb meal


pre- and post-exercise meals should not be separated by more than 4 hours, unless the pre-workout snack was a meal (1-2 hours before exercise) then the meals can be spread out to maximally 6 hours

If you are lifting heavy weights and aren’t focused as heavily on endurance, protein intake is more important than carbohydrate replacement.


  • for lifting weights timing of carbohydrates is less important
  • for endurance training, carbohydrates are crucial for recovery


Nutrition is a complicated science. It does NOT follow a one size fits all scheme.

Nutrition is individual and will change throughout our life.

Hence, figure out what works for you.

Get to know your body, experiment and be patient and be kind to yourself!

Thank you for reading. Feel free to ask questions, comment, and or share.


Another article that might be of interest to you:

Working out and hydration – what you need to know about fluid intake













If interested this is a good article:


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