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If I Have a Protein Shake After My Workout, When Should I Eat My Meal?

author image Andrea Cespedes
Andrea Cespedes is a professionally trained chef who has focused studies in nutrition. With more than 20 years of experience in the fitness industry, she coaches cycling and running and teaches Pilates and yoga. She is an American Council on Exercise-certified personal trainer, RYT-200 and has degrees from Princeton and Columbia University.
If I Have a Protein Shake After My Workout, When Should I Eat My Meal?
A protein shake is just the first step in post-workout nutrition. Photo Credit: CareyHope/iStock/Getty Images

You consume a protein shake right after your workout to help with recovery and muscle growth. If you've worked hard, though, this shake isn't going to hold you for long. Your body craves and needs more energy in the form of calories. Your next full meal shouldn't be too far behind that shake, especially if you've exercised at a high intensity or for a long period of time.

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Why Meal Timing Matters

Right after a tough workout, whether it's muscle-building or endurance-based, your body has a window in which it optimally uses nutrients to repair muscles and refill your energy stores. The exact length of time of this window is debatable, but the American Academy of Dietitians puts it between 15 and 60 minutes. A shake is most convenient in this short window because it's more portable than whole foods, doesn't necessarily require refrigeration, is easily tolerated even when you have a low appetite and digests quickly. Make sure that your shake contains 10 to 20 grams of protein and 0.45 to 0.68 grams of carbohydrates per pound of your body weight for optimal recovery.

Meal Time

When you've exercised hard, follow up your protein shake with a whole-food meal within an hour or two. The meal should include carbohydrates, which continue to help you replace glycogen, the energy stores in your muscles, as well as another serving of protein. A paper in a 2010 issue of the "International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism" notes that consuming small amounts of protein, equal to about 20 grams, five to six times daily may support the processes that contribute to muscle growth throughout the day. The combination of carbohydrates with this protein in the immediate hours after your workout positively affects your future exercise performance -- especially if you'll be working out or competing again the same or next day.

Meal Ideas

You may have had whey or soy protein blended with juice or milk and fruit after your workout, but the meal you have an hour or two later calls for whole, unprocessed food. Options include brown rice with chicken breast and broccoli; salmon with a sweet potato and steamed spinach; flank steak with corn tortillas, bell peppers, avocado and salsa; beans and quinoa with roasted squash; or a whole-wheat pita with turkey and romaine lettuce, pretzels and an orange. Along with protein and carbs, whole foods like these provide vitamins and minerals, healthy fats and fiber that an athletic body needs.

Nutrition Principles to Abide By

Include some water or a sports drink as part of your post-workout meal, as well as right after exercise with your shake. Avoid consuming alcohol with your post-exercise meal, too. Alcohol likely interferes with the ability of your muscles to grow stronger and rebuild, explains the Australian Sports Commission. If you're trying to avoid weight gain, also be wary of your food choices at your post-exercise meal. You may think you "earned" a plate of nachos or an ice cream sundae after a hard training session, but these foods don't help you achieve your overall goals of recovery, athletic improvement and weight management. It's quite easy to consume far more calories than you burned off when you go for junk or fast food.

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