Do you need to eat straight after training, or does the “anabolic window” belong in bodybuilding history?
Is the anabolic window real?
For decades, bodybuilders and gym-goers have been faithfully chugging down a protein shake as they head out of the gym. Got to get that protein in, right? The anabolic window is closing.
But what do we mean when we talk about the “anabolic window”? Did it ever exist? And if not, what’s the truth about nutrient timing before and after a training session?
What is the anabolic window
“Anabolic” refers to the metabolic activity that stimulates anabolism – i.e. the process by which the body forms cellular structures that act as building blocks. In other words, anabolism is a state of growth that will help your body repair and grow muscle.
When people talk about the anabolic window, they’re referring to a period of time immediately after training in which you should eat to support muscle growth. Whilst there’s a grain of truth here, the idea of the anabolic window has been taken to extremes. And that’s when people start stressing about getting a protein shake in before they have a post-workout shower.
Do you need to eat straight after training?
On the face of it, the idea of the anabolic window makes sense. You’ve just done a 45+ minute workout, burned calories, lifted weights, and now your body needs to recover. And we know that the body needs building blocks of nutrition to repair, regain energy, and get stronger. But is it really important to eat so soon after training?
Latest research on nutrient timing
The best bit of recent research on this topic was back in 2013, by the legends Alan Aragon and Brad Schoenfeld. Their paper on nutrient timing and the post-exercise anabolic window was published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
The respected researchers looked at recent evidence that challenges the long-held myth of an anabolic window, and concluded that eating immediately after a workout only really matters if the workout was fasted (makes sense). When we look at post-workout nutrition in the context of a full day of eating, what matters more is protein and carbohydrates in the hours before and after training.
How soon after training should you eat?
Unless you train fasted, you don’t need to rush your post-workout protein shake or meal. It’s better to eat a meal of high-quality protein (0.4-0.5g per 1kg of lean body mass) and carbohydrate 1-2 hours before your workout. That way, the nutrients will act as pre- and post-training nutrition. And you won't need to worry about eating a protein/carb combination quickly after your workout. Good news if you’ve got work calls or a long drive straight after the gym!
It's good practice to be in the habit of eating meals that have enough good-quality protein every 3-4 hours during the day. Add some carbohydrate in the meals before and after training, and you can’t go wrong.
What do you need to eat after a workout?
Here’s another myth about the anabolic window – that it’s all about protein. Traditionally, people were so worried about getting some protein in after training that they forgot about carbohydrates. Carbs are just as important as protein after training, especially if your session has been long or intense. Don’t forget, nutrition needs to replace lost energy as well as repair and build muscle.
Protein or carbs after training?
The best way to approach optimal nutrient timing on training days is to look at the bigger picture. Make sure you’re eating good-quality protein (and enough of it) every 3-4 hours. That way, you could eat 1 hour before training, do an hour’s workout, and still have 60-90 minutes after training to get your next meal in. Plenty of time.
Whilst it is important to fuel your body with nutrients for training and recovery, it’s more important to make sure your entire eating strategy sets you up for success.
Eat enough quality protein every 3-4 hours during the day
Be sure to include some carbohydrate before and after training
Stay hydrated all day and focus on hydration during workouts
For long or intense workouts, consider a carb/protein drink during training