Carb-to-protein ratio: There’s a lot of confusion about what best boosts recovery from a workout. Most of us understand that carbohydrates and protein, along with fat, are central to recovery. We need them to replenish energy, build up our bodies, and continue boosting performance. But we can still be left wondering whether what we’re eating is enough to refuel and repair the muscles that just took a Captain Marvel–sized pounding in our workout.
After all, science has been doling out a lot of mixed messages relating to macronutrients over the decades. Back in the ’70s, we were advised to step away from fat. The belief was that all fat caused weight gain, and that it also reduced the benefits of protein and carb consumption after a workout.
In addition, not too long ago, word was that a sports drinks supplemented with sugars and electrolytes were the ideal post workout supplements to replace fluids and boost blood sugar levels. This makes sense if you’re training double days or getting in shape for a major race or sporting event. But recovering after a chatty 45-minute barre class? Not so much.
And of course, the recent demon in our midst has become carbohydrates—blamed for all health ills from weight gain to energy loss to uncontrollable 3 a.m. doughnut cravings. But don’t we need it along with protein to restore glycogen and so increase or maintain muscle tissue? Is it any wonder that our heads are in a spin as to what post workout nutrition we need?
“What we must understand before anything else,” says Anne L’Heureux, head of Spartan Nutrition and a registered dietitian nutritionist as well as a Spartan SGX coach, “Is that none of the macronutrients—carbohydrates, proteins, and fats—are inherently the enemy.”
Nutrient-Dense versus Nutrient-Poor Foods
Rather than fixate first on a carb-to-protein ratio, L’Heureux suggests our starting point should be figuring out which foods are nutrient-dense and nutrient-poor.
“Carbohydrates get a bad rap because everyone puts them in the same bucket and uses the generalized term ‘carbs,’” she says. “Even the media and the medical field do it. But remember, vegetables and fruit are ‘carbs’ too. And our bodies really benefit from these carbohydrates. These provide us with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and hydration because of the water content.”
“So let’s stop thinking anything called a carbohydrate is bad,” L’Heureux suggests, “and instead get clear on the difference between nutrient-dense and nutrient-poor carbohydrates and other macronutrients, as well as whole-food carbohydrates and highly processed carbohydrates.”
There’s No “One Size Fits All”
Secondly, L’Heureux says we’ve got to accept that when it comes to what to eat post-workout, people are different. “I get it,” she says. “People like quick answers. But there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ regimen.” Instead, there is a series of questions that individual athletes need to ask themselves. “It really comes down to three components and knowing what the goal of your workout is,” L’Heureux claims.
For starters, ask yourself what kind of training you are going to do. Is it cardio or strength? Follow that with, what’s the duration? Is it a 30-minute aerobics class three times a week or a two- to three-hour run every day? And finally—what’s the intensity? “An easy two- to three-hour run where I can talk throughout is a very different intensity from a two- to three-hour run up a mountain when I’m training for a race. For that latter workout, my body is going to use a lot more carbohydrates than the steady-paced run. Or it’s going to burn more of my stored fat as energy.”
Truth is, those of us who typically work out quite moderately will not need to restore muscle and liver glycogen with carbs immediately after exercising. Nor will we need to eat something sugary to “spike” our insulin levels. “In fact, we have about 24 hours to replenish,” L’Heureux claims. “And if you don’t have another workout scheduled in that time frame, you can get those carbohydrates in the meals you’re having throughout the rest of the day.” In other words, it might be time to stop scoffing back that banana and Rxbar directly after spin class.
“When you know what the goal of your training is—and that can change from day to day—and then you ask yourself these questions,” L’Heureux says, “you’re better placed to know what food you need to support that training.”
The Window Is Wider than We Think
This leads to another brain-inscribed belief that we may need to let go of: the idea that regardless of the kind of workout we’ve done, we only ever have a 30-minute window afterward to recover protein.
L’Heureux acknowledges that it’s good for even amateur gym-goers to aim to replenish within a short time of finishing their workouts, particularly if they’re focusing on strength routines. Eating protein after a workout can help prevent protein breakdown and so speed up muscle recovery. However, she does stress that refuelling within a strict 30-minute window is more pertinent to professional athletes or those involved in intense training for an event. “If you can organize a meal that includes a protein component within an hour or so of working out, you’re good,” she says. “You don’t have to worry that you’re not replenishing if you don’t have a protein drink immediately after training.”
The point is that if we eat well throughout our day, paying particular attention to consuming a sufficient amount of all three macronutrients—carbs, proteins, and fats—then we don’t have to supplement with additional food during and directly after our workouts. “Most of us tend to overestimate calories burned and underestimate calories consumed,” she says. “So rather than being caught up in eating protein or carbs after exercise, it’s more beneficial to focus on becoming more aware of what we’re actually doing, and how we’re moving, during our workouts. Then we’ll know exactly what foods we need to support that activity.”
Ideal Carb-to-Protein Ratio
But, of course, all that said, L’Heureux does note that there are general recommendations surrounding carb-to-protein ratio that many athletes follow.
For example, she says, “If your focus is on strength then you may find a one-to-one ratio of carbs to protein to be appropriate.” When it comes to post workout meals, this means that for every gram of carbohydrates you have a gram of protein. A workout geared more toward cardio typically calls for a two-to-one ratio of carbs to protein. Athletes who undertake intense long-duration cardio exercise often follow a three-to-one carb-to-protein ratio.
Still, L’Heureux is keen to point out that these remain general carb-to-protein ratio guidelines and will not work for everyone. Some people’s bodies are more metabolically efficient than others, such as those successfully following a ketogenic lifestyle. “People leading a ketogenic lifestyle may be better at burning stored energy,” L’Heureux says, “And therefore they’ll likely get away with fueling less with carbs. So again, it comes down to an individualized approach to the carb-to-protein ratio you may need.”
“It’s not the quick answer people might be looking for. But it’s a much better answer instead. It’s also very Spartan,” she adds, “because as a Spartan the best way to get this right is to stop trying to follow the masses or what everyone else is saying. Instead, educate yourself and figure out the plan that works for you and your goals. That really is the way to figure out the appropriate intake of post-workout carbs and protein—for you.”