What is the Anabolic Window?
When some people talk about their post-workout meals, often times they refer to the 30-45 minutes period immediately after their workout, which is commonly called the Post-Workout Anabolic Window. The Anabolic Window is the critical time following your workout when your body is ready to accept nutrients in order to direct them towards building muscle mass.
It's commonly believed that this time-window lasts in between 30 minutes to 2 hours after your training session. However, a study from the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition revisited 23 previous case studies on protein intake and timing, and the results were interesting. According to this study, the immediate consumption of protein after exercise didn't matter too much. The groups who had an immediate intake of protein after their workouts did insignificantly better than the groups who consumed the same amount of protein during the day.
What does that mean?
That means that what truly matters is the total protein intake and not necessarily the immediate protein intake. According to this review, it is indicated that the anabolic window for protein intake does exist, but it doesn't last only 30 minutes to 2 hours. It can last as long as 4 - 6 hours after your training session.
But, we can all agree that while it may not be an immediate necessity, the anabolic window is indeed critical for maximized muscular adaptations and damaged tissues repairs. But is there a difference in the anabolic window for experienced and inexperienced athletes?
Because glycogen is an important compound in mediating muscle protein breakdown, and it is also essential for an optimal training performance, one of the main purposes of the post-workout nutrient timing is to replenish glycogen stores. Athletes usually do that by consuming high-carbs post-workout meals.
Training enhances insulin-stimulated glucose, and it induces an increase in glycogen synthase, which depletes your glycogen stores. This allows glycogen stores to be replenished immediately after a training session. So, eating carbs immediately after your training session will result in a super-compensation of glycogen stores. Even more, evidence shows that adding protein to your post-workout carbs meal can enhance your glycogen re-synthesis process.
Studies have shown that consuming a protein-carbohydrate supplement in the 2-hour window after 60 minutes of cycling resulted in significantly greater glycogen re-synthesis, compared to eating an all-carbohydrate meal alone. So it looks like a protein-carbs meal immediately after your workout will enhance your glycogen repletion. However, this is not a rule for everyone. This mostly applies to those who do long and intense resistance training.
A post-workout carbs meal is great for elevating insulin levels. But what about adding protein your meal? Insulin has an anti-catabolic impact post-exercise, which means that insulin reduces protein breakdown. Muscle protein breakdown is only slightly higher immediately after exercise and it raises rapidly thereafter.
In a fasted state, protein breakdown is heightened at 195 minutes after a resistance training, and that results in a negative protein balance. These values can increase up to 50% in 3 hours, and elevated protein breakdown can last for as long as 24 hours after training. A decrease in protein breakdown can facilitate greater hypertrophy.
So it's safe to say that eating a protein-carbohydrate meal after a training session will reduce protein breakdown, elevate insulin levels and promote greater gains, than just a carbs meal on its own would. The goal of a post-workout meal is to speed up the anabolic process in order to promote recovery and growth. However, a post-workout meal may not be necessary for those who have a well constructed pre-workout meal, unless they are looking to maintain steady gains.
While the anabolic window does exist, it's not a rule or a necessity. For example, if you are going to wake up and work out, it only makes sense that you would eat a nutrient dense meal immediately after your session. Working out in a fasted state means that you will have to provide immediate nutrition intervention.
Remember that your goal is to convert the catabolic state into an anabolic one by consuming a combination of protein and carbohydrate. The protein-carbs combo promotes muscle protein synthesis and reduces muscular protein breakdown, which in time leads to a significant increase in gains and muscle mass.
In conclusion, if you have a very well constructed pre-workout meal, you will not need an immediate post-exercise meal. The post-workout anabolic window changes the way we look at our pre-workout meals. Only have an immediate post-exercise meal if you’ve been working out in a fasted state, or if your pre-exercise meal consisted of one or two bites of food. Focus on either your pre-workout meal or your post-workout meal. This way you can control your eating and ensure the appropriate fuel for your session.
Which meal is the most important for you? The one before your workout or the one after?
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