I often get asked about having a “diet plan”.
Social media, celebrity diets and crash diets promising weight loss or some sort of magical effects have had such an effect on what athletes and clients believe they need.
I always say, there are plenty of diet plans one can download for free, from literally one day with limited foods which is meant to be followed each day, to weeks of plans for different days. The latter does give a routine and structure, with hopefully some sort of variation.
But, how can these plans possibly meet the needs of an athlete who is an individual, has an individual body composition, individual training and racing goals and day-to-day demands?
Answer: they can’t.
So herein lies my answer to “do we need carbohydrates and protein after training?”: It entirely depends on what your focuses and your needs are.
As a general rule: yes, we do require carbohydrates alongside protein post-training to help refuel and replenish glycogen stores, especially if you have another training session within the next 3-4 hours. It has been suggested that protein may help to restore glycogen stores more effectively, but some of the data from studies are mixed.
So if you have another session pretty soon afterwards then this may help with the acute stages of recovery or getting ready for the next exercise bout or session. If this is the case, and there are less than 8 hours between two sessions requiring carbohydrates, then having at least 1-1.2g carbohydrates per kg of body weight in the 1-4 hrs after training is important from a repeated performance perspective.
Complete glycogen restoration may take up to 24hrs; restoring liver glycogen initially. The rate of glycogen is only re-synthesized at 5% per hour (1) so getting carbohydrates in the post-session ready for the next is more important than protein.
Whether you require carbohydrates after a training session would also depend on whether you require carbohydrates for a next full session, or if you have planned to complete a carbohydrate depleted session. Training in a carbohydrate-depleted state or fasted training is a whole other topic!
That said; if you do decide to incorporate a fasted session; one strategy to do this is, for example, might be a high-intensity turbo in the morning followed by a low carbohydrate lunch then a long aerobic run in the afternoon. There are many ways to train in a depleted state but remember that it would not be advisable in terms of performance, stress on the body and risk or injury and the immune system to always train in a depleted state; that is for another blog!
So actually do we need protein in the acute recovery phase! Rather than it necessarily really being the focus in the acute few hours after exercise for decreasing the damage on muscle tissues; it will help with satiety after training as part of a post-training meal, may help with improving glycogen replenishment. Protein in the post-training phase may enhance muscle protein synthesis (2) but may not have an impact on performance per se.
In summary, what an athlete needs after training will be dependent on their goals, training schedule and their performance focus. In most cases, it would be prudent to include protein and carbohydrate post exercise..
Burke LM, Kiens B, Ivy JL. Carbohydrates and fat for training and recovery. J Sports Sci. 2004;22(1):15-30
Tipton KD, Elliott TA, Cree MG, Aarsland AA, Sanford AP, Wolfe RR. Stimulation of net muscle protein synthesis by whey protein ingestion before and after exercise. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2007;292(1):E71-E76.