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Post-Workout Drink

Part One: Carbs, Protein, and Fat

by Gary F. Zeolla

Note: Part One of this article was significantly revised and included as a chapter in my book Starting and Progressing in Powerlifting.


The consumption of nutrients immediately post-workout is absolutely essential. It helps the body recover from a grueling workout, replenish glycogen stores, repair muscle tissue, reduces post-workout soreness, raises testosterone and growth hormone levels, and reduces cortisol levels.

And the sooner nutrients are consumed and absorbed, the sooner the body can go from a catabolic (muscle destroying) state to an anabolic (muscle building) state. It is for this reason that a liquid meal is preferred to solid food. With a drink, one can put the dry ingredients into a bottle, and mix it with water and drink it immediately after a workout. And a liquid meal is digested and absorbed quicker than a solid foods meal.

But what should the post-workout drink contain? There are many commercial "recovery" drinks available. But I have never found one that I particularly like. So I have spent a lot of time researching and experimenting on myself as to what ingredients are best for the post-workout drink. So in this two-part article, I will discuss what I have found works best.

Carbohydrate Source

The body's main priority post-workout is to replenish glycogen stores. The body stores glycogen in two places: in the liver and in muscle tissue. Of these two, the muscles can store a far greater amount, 250 to 400 grams, while the liver can only store about 100 grams. Moreover, it is primarily muscle glycogen that is depleted during a workout.

So the goal post-workout more specifically is to restore muscle glycogen. The body will even break down muscle tissue for this purpose if carbohydrates are not available. For this reason, it is vital to include carbohydrates in the post-workout drink. But what form of carbs is best for this purpose?

Post-workout is the one time that high-glycemic carbs are preferred. This term refers to carbs that are high on the glycemic index. This is a measure of how quickly a food raises blood sugar and hence insulin levels. Normally, it is best to eat lower glycemic foods so as not to initiate an insulin spike. But post-workout, the exact opposite is true. The elevated insulin levels will help to drive nutrients into the muscle cells.

Moreover, speed is of the essence. It is vital to get the carbs to the muscle cells as quickly as possible. And again, high-glycemic carbs are preferred to lower glycemic carbs for this purpose.

Usually, when one thinks of high-glycemic carbs one thinks of simple sugars. However, most simple sugars would not be beneficial to consume post-workout. Non-beneficial sugars would include fructose, sucrose, and lactose.

As for the first, fructose ("fruit sugar") is very low-glycemic as compared to other sugars. So it is not digested quickly and does not significantly raise insulin levels. Moreover, fructose cannot be used by the body to restore muscle glycogen. What this means is that fruit juice is not a good source of carbs for the post-workout drink.

As for sucrose ("table sugar"), it is a disaccharide consisting of one molecule of fructose and one of glucose. So sucrose is half fructose. And again, fructose cannot be used to restore muscle glycogen. And half of your carbs from fructose would not be beneficial.

So foods high in sugar (sucrose) content or high in high fructose corn syrup content like soda would not be beneficial post-workout. So the need for high glycemic carbs post-workout does not give the exerciser an excuse to consume junk food post-workout. You won't be doing your body any good, nor will you be giving it what it needs.

As for lactose ("milk sugar"), its glycemic rating is moderate, higher than fructose but lower than sucrose. It is also a disaccharide constituting of one molecule of galactose and one of glucose. So it is half galactose. And again, galactose can be used by the body to restore liver glycogen but not muscle glycogen. So again, in small amounts it might be okay, but it should not be the primary carb. What this means is that milk would not be a good source of carbs post-workout.

So what would be good sources? Complex carbs like those found in breads and cereals can be used to restore muscle glycogen. And at other times, complex carbs are the best source of carbs. However, post-workout, healthy carb containing foods like whole grain breads and cereals would not be good.

The fiber in such foods would delay digestion. For this reason, the glycemic rating of unrefined complex carb foods is usually low to moderate. And even refined breads and cereals, with their moderate glycemic rating, would take too long to digest. And again, a liquid post-workout drink would be better than solid foods.

So what that leaves as the main options are dextrose and maltodextrin. Dextrose is simply the name for glucose that has been derived from corn. Glucose is the body's primary energy source, and the form in which carbs must be converted into to be used to create glycogen.

Moreover, dextrose can be absorbed directly through the gut into the bloodstream. And with this rapid absorption, it raises blood sugar and insulin levels faster than any other carb. And since it is already in the form the body requires, it can be used immediately for glycogen replenishment.

Maltodextrin, on the other hand, is actually a complex carb. But its molecular chain is shorter than other complex carbs. Moreover, it is consists of loosely bonded glucose molecules. And like dextrose, maltodextrin is absorbed directly through the gut. So it raises blood sugar and insulin levels as much as dextrose does.

However, before maltodextrin can be utilized, it must first pass through the liver for the bonds between the glucose molecules to be broken down. So the rate at which it is used for glycogen replenishment is slower than with dextrose. However, because it is metabolized slower, there will not be as quick of a drop of insulin and blood sugar levels as with dextrose.

My Experience with Different Carbs

As for myself, when I first started lifting weights again I used orange juice in my post-workout drink. My reason for doing so was because I normally try to avoid foods high in "empty calorie" sugar. So I figured that along with carbs, at least the OJ also contained some helpful nutrients like potassium and vitamin C.

But then I did research like the above showing that fructose was not good at restoring muscle glycogen, so I switched to maltodextrin. And after a few workouts I found I was able to get through my workouts a lot faster, and I wasn't as tired post-workout. So what I believed was happening was my body was now able to store greater amounts of glycogen. As a result, I was not dragging through my workouts like I had been.

As evidence of this, in the first couple of weeks of using the maltodextrin I gained a little over a pound, but then my weight leveled off. Since glycogen holds three times its weight in water, this made sense. Greater glycogen stores meant my body was retaining more water. But once the glycogen stores were saturated, the weight gain stopped. So the weight gain was not due to an increase in fat and was actually a good thing.

But then I read on a Web page that it was best to use a 50/50 mixture of dextrose and maltodextrin. So I tried that for about a month. During that time, I gained a couple of pounds. But this time it didn't look like the weight gain was stopping.

I also noticed that I simply could not eat as much as I was always feeling "stuffed." So I was eating less but still gaining weight. And with the way my clothes were fitting, it was obvious that this weight gain was due to fat, not muscle or glycogen. It just seemed like my metabolism had slowed down. Meanwhile, I began dragging through my workouts again.

So I stopped using the dextrose and went back to using just maltodextrin. And after just one workout I could just "feel" my metabolism increase. I was hungry for the first time in weeks and began eating more, but at the same time I began losing weight. My energy levels during my workouts increased once again, and it only took a couple of weeks to lose the two pounds I had gained.

I'm not exactly sure what happened. All I can figure is that the dextrose was getting into my system too quickly. My body simply could not create glycogen that quickly, so the dextrose was being stored as fat. Moreover, the rapid raise and then drop in blood sugar and insulin levels was stopping the fat burning effect of my workouts and putting me into a "fat-storing" mode. It is for this very reason that simple sugars as a rule should be avoided. The resultant blood sugar and insulin "roller coaster" increases fat storage.

Meanwhile, maltodextrin raises blood sugar and insulin levels quickly, but since it needs to pass through the liver before being utilized, the levels do not drop so quickly. They remain elevated for a longer period of time. Moreover, as the bonds are broken between the glucose molecules, the glucose is released at a slow enough pace by the liver for the glucose to be fully used for muscle glycogen replacement.

At least, that's the best that I can figure it out. But whatever was happening, one thing is certain; I will stick with maltodextrin and avoid dextrose post-workout. So my basic recommendation is now to use maltodextrin for the carb source in a post-workout drink.

For further details and another option for the carb source, see the article Carbs and Glycogen.

Protein Source

After carbs, the next most important ingredient to include in a post-workout drink is protein, for a couple of reasons. First off, the consumption of protein with the carbs actually increases the rate of glycogen formation. And secondly, the body's second priority post-workout is to begin to repair the muscle tissue that was torn down during the workout. And for this, the body needs amino acids.

And again, the quicker the protein can be deliver to the muscles cells the sooner this repair process can begin. So again, whole food sources of protein would not be ideal. It simply takes too long for the body to break down foods like meat or chicken. So the ideal protein source would be a protein powder. Mixed with water, this liquid protein source will be digested quickly.

However, different types of protein powders are digested at different rates. Casein is digested at a very slow rate, while egg and soy proteins are digested at a moderately slow rate. So none of these would be ideal. However, whey protein is digested at a very fast rate. So whey is the ideal protein to be used post-workout. That's simple enough.

However, there are different kinds of whey. And each is digested at a different rate. Whey concentrate is the slowest, whey isolate is next, while hydrolyzed whey is digested the quickest. So hydrolyzed whey would sound like it would be the best to use. And yes, it would be wise to include some hydrolyzed whey to start the repair process as a quickly as possible. However, using all hydrolyzed whey would not be so wise.

The reason would be similar to my experience with the dextrose above. The amino acids would get into the system all at once and thus too quickly to be fully utilized. So a mixture of hydrolyzed whey, whey isolate, and whey concentrate would be best. In this way, some protein would get into the system very quickly, but then more would be relapsed over a period of time.

Specifically, hydrolyzed whey is digested within 10-30 minutes; whey isolates are digested within about 30-50 minutes, and whey concentrate in about 50-80 minutes.

My Experience with Different Proteins

At one time I used Jarrow Formulas American Whey in my post-workout drink. And I do think it is a high quality whey protein. However, it is solely whey concentrate. Also, I always felt a little bit "bloated" when I used it. So I switched to Optimum's 100% Whey. It is a mixture of hydrolyzed whey, two kinds of whey isolates, and whey concentrate. It also contains digestive enzymes. And I have found that this protein seems to digest more easily than the pure whey concentrate did. So I plan on sticking with it.

But it should be noted that Optimum makes two kinds of 100% Whey, the original version and a natural version. The former uses the artificial sweetener acesulfame and artificial flavorings and colorings while the latter uses fructose and only natural flavorings. Personally, I try to avoid artificial food ingredients as much as possible, so I prefer the natural version.

As indicated above, fructose is not a good carb for replenishing muscle glycogen stores. But it can be used to replenish liver glycogen. So the couple of grams of fructose in the natural version is not problematic and might even be beneficial. But any more fructose than this should be avoided.

Amounts and Ratio of Carbs and Protein

So how much carbs and proteins should be included in a post-workout drink? Below are three different recommendations I have seen:

Carbs: 0.4-0.8 grams/ kilogram of bodyweight
Protein: 0.2-0.4 grams/ kilogram of bodyweight

Carbs: 5 grams/ 10 pounds of bodyweight
Protein: 5 grams/ 20 pounds of bodyweight

Carbs: 0.25-0.50g/lb of lean body mass
Protein: 0.25-0.30g/lb of lean body mass

Lean body mass is equal to bodyweight minus (bodyweight times %body fat). A rough estimate of your body fat percent can be found out by using a Tanita Body Fat Scale.

That said, once one does the calculations, the amount of recommended carbs and protein for these three formulas are not that different. And the ratio of carbs to protein is between 1:1 to 2:1. But it should be noted that these recommendations are for strength athletes. For endurance athletes, the recommended ratio of carbs to protein is generally higher, up to 4:1.

Fat Source

Most authorities recommend that only carbs and protein should be consumed post-workout; fat should be avoided. The reason for this recommendation is that fat can slow digestion, but the body needs the carbs and protein as soon as possible.

However, this recommendation ignores one simple fact--fat is needed by the body to produce testosterone and other hormones. And post-workout, the body is scrambling to keep testosterone levels from dropping too low due to the rise in cortisol levels (the two hormones exist in a see-saw fashion; as one rises the other drops, and vice-a-versa). So providing fat to the body post-workout will aid in keeping testosterone levels from dropping too much and cortisol levels from rising too much.

But not just any kind of fat will do. Only saturated fatty acids (SFA) and monounsaturated fats acids (MUFA) raise testosterone levels. Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) do not. Also, as with carbs and protein, fat in a liquid form will be easier to digest than fat in solid form. So the best form of fat to consume post-workout would be one in liquid form that contains SFA and/ or MUFA, but a minimum of PUFA.

Heavy whipping cream would fit this bill. It contains about twice as much SFA as MUFA and only negligible amounts of PUFA. Olive oil would be another possibility. It contains mostly MUFA and only small amounts of SFA and PUFA.

Similar to this is high oleic safflower oil and high oleic sunflower oil. Both are also mostly MUFA. But be sure they are the high oleic versions. More commonly available for both (especially sunflower oil) are the high linoleic versions, which are mostly PUFA. Canola oil and peanut oil would be two additional possibilities. Both also contain mostly MUFA, but they contain somewhat higher levels of both SFA and PUFA than olive oil. Almond oil, hazelnut oil, macadamia nut oil, and avocado oil are other possibilities. These are mostly MUFA, but these are hard to find and more expensive.

So which of these is best? The heavy whipping cream contains fat almost solely in the forms that aid in testosterone production. And without a doubt, it tastes the best in a post-workout drink. Using it makes the post-workout drink taste like a milkshake. However, despite being beneficial for testosterone levels, SFA have a major drawback; excessive amounts can raise the risk of heart disease.

Olive oil would be almost as good as cream for raising testosterone levels. Its levels of PUFA is only slightly higher than that of cream. And its high MUFA means it reduces the risk of heart disease. However, olive oil does not taste good in a post-workout drink, unless you can "cover-up" the taste with the other ingredients. Both canola oil and peanut oil taste pretty good in a post-workout drink But their higher amounts of PUFA leaves them less desirable for raising testosterone levels. But canola oil is high in Omega 3 fatty acids, which reduce cortisol levels. This indirectly can lead to higher testosterone levels.

Almond, hazelnut, macadamia nut, and avocado oil are all good, but as indicated, expensive and hard to find. The high oleic versions of safflower and sunflower oil would work well, if you can find them. Moreover, any of these oils would have an advantage over cream in that they do not require refrigeration.

Another good option is Nature’s Way MacNut Oil. This is macadamia nut oil. It is higher in healthy, testosterone-raising monounsaturated fats than any of the other oils listed above. Plus it is unrefined. This means it still contains all of the naturally occurring antioxidants in the oil. This will further aid in recovery. And it is organic to boot. Unfortunately, unrefined nut oils tend to be rather expensive.

A different option would be Medium Chain Triglyceride (MCT) oil. MCTs are saturated fats, but they are metabolized differently than regular Long Chain Triglyceride saturated fats. There is much controversy in this regard, as I detail in my God-given Foods Eating Plan book. But I can say by experience that MCTs are more easily digested than other fats, so MCT oil would be a good option. I would recommend Ultimate Nutrition's Premium MCT Gold.

Another option would be to use natural peanut or almond butter. But this requires the use of a blender or Vitamix. So if you can only use a shaker cup, then one of the above oils will have to do.

Conclusion to Part One

Liquid forms of carbs, protein, and fat are the "essential" ingredients to include in a post-workout drink. But there are many "optional" ingredients one might want to include as well. These will be discussed in part two of this article. In the meantime, maltodextrin is available from various Web sites. Optimum's 100% Whey is available from Bodybuidling.com. Tanita Body Fat Scales are available from Diet Power.

References:
Information for the above article was gleaned from various Web sites, books, and magazines, including but not limited to articles from the following:
AbcBodybuilding
Bodybuilding.com
Monster Muscle magazine
Natural Hormonal Enhancement, by Rob Faigin
Parillo Performance Press magazine
Physical magazine
PhilKalplan.com
Powerlifting USA magazine
Pro Trainer Online
PubMed (abstracts for various scientific studies).

Note: All company and product names are registered trademarks of the respective companies.

Post-Workout Drink - Part Two: Optional Ingredients

For comments on this article, see Pre-/ Post-workout Drink Emails.

Post-Workout Drink. Copyright 2004-2006 by Gary F. Zeolla.

The above article first appeared in the free FitTips for One and All newsletter.
It was posted on this site June 22, 2004.
It was last updated August 21, 2006.

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