One of the main questions I get asked on a consistent basis centers on individual food choices and timing of such meals before a workout. For the most part, my recommendation remains the same: eat whatever you prefer.
While this may seem intuitive, conflicting information online combined with the extreme rigidity promoted in the fitness has created more harm than good in the minds of a lot people. The reason being, a lot of people become obsessed with what to eat at specific times, instead of shifting their attention to their daily nutritional intake, which is by far the most important factor on the results you obtain.
If you’re feeling this way, there’s no need to feel bad about what you’ve learned in the past. Ultimately with most myths, there is some truth in the premise of the idea, it’s simply become exaggerated to a greater degree which creates panic in the minds of listeners. And when it comes to peri-workout nutrition, this is exactly the same case.
With that being said, there are a few recommendations and strategies available that can help you eat to optimize your performance in the gym, then maximize your recovery efforts following your workout. Let’s take a dive into each of them down below, and hopefully you’ll takeaway some practical advice for your own nutritional choices.
Overall, the topic of peri-workout nutrition is highly sensationalized. Meal timing should not be a priority for the general population, and instead shift your focus on maximizing daily nutritional needs.
In order to maximize pre-workout nutrition, focus on these four key nutrients: carbs, water, sodium, and caffeine.
If you’re looking to maximize post-workout nutrition, a basic protein and carb-rich meal is sufficient for supporting muscle protein synthesis.
In my opinion, your pre-workout nutrition should be based on 4 different nutrients: carbs, water, sodium, and caffeine.
Let’s start off by talking about carbohydrates. We know that carbohydrates are your body’s primary source of energy, already making them a crucial component of an individual’s regimen. But on top of that, carbs contribute to performance benefits in relation to both aerobic and anaerobic exercise, making them a useful nutrient for consumption around your workouts. Specifically, research has shown that carbohydrates are in fact effective at enhancing performance when consumed before a workout (Ormsbee et al 2014).
Therefore if you’re not taking in a substantial feeding of carbohydrates prior to your training session, you’re missing out on a lot of training benefits that could help push additional progression in the gym.
But how many carbs should I eat before my workout? And how long before I train?
The individual amount and timing of carbohydrates is dependent on an individual’s body size, training goals, and individual preferences when it comes to food digestion.
If you’re looking for a general recommendation, research has shown than ~30-40g of carbohydrates eaten ~30 minutes before a workout will provide additional training benefits (Haff et al 2003). Just for some food ideas that fall into that range, consider 1 banana, 2 apples, or 2 slices of medium-sized bread as carbohydrate options that meet that criteria. This is where the whole idea of consuming some “quick carbs” before your workout has some scientific validity.
But as I said before, everybody has different preferences when it comes to how much they like to eat before a workout. If you think you can stomach a meal/snack before training, the benefits are evident. However if you feel that you need some time to digest before you begin your training session, feel free to space out your feeding farther in advance. Ultimately, your body breaks down food over the course of several hours, so plenty of nutrients will still be readily available.
If you’re a more competitive athlete, especially an individual that trains multiple times per day, there are additional timing strategies with carbohydrates for consideration if you’re truly looking to maximize overall athletic performance.
Let’s first consider the case of extreme endurance athletes, who typically train multiple times per day. This includes most notably competitive long-distance runners, but even sport-specific athletes and the general population who trains multiple times per day could benefit from the same recommendations. Overall, it appears that the consumption of both glucose and fructose following an intense workout provides recovery benefits to such athletes (Currell and Jeukendrup 2008).
If you fall under this category, there are glucose and fructose supplements available on the market, but I’d opt for consuming whole foods instead. Foods such as fruit and honey are very high in glucose and fructose, while also providing additional micronutrients. And no, you don’t have to pound back a ton of simple sugars after your workout, but consuming a moderate amount of your choice can certainly be effective in your body’s recovery prior to your next session.
And while the explanation for recovery improvements was not explicably stated, one can assume that this is due to the preservation of glycogen stores in your body, following a bout of exercise that may have depleted previous stored levels. Just for a quick explanation, glycogen is a type of carbohydrate from the body typically used for fuel in resistance training workouts. Therefore, the consumption of such nutrients following a workout promotes an increase in your body’s blood glucose levels, thereby preserving the glycogen stored in your muscles (Haff et al 2003).
On the other hand, elite-level athletes require different carbohydrate needs, particularly in regards to the timing of such nutrients. Current recommendations from accredited organizations tend to focus more on pre-event nutrient timing, rather than surrounding individual workouts. The reason being, elite-level athletes are at different training levels throughout their calendar year, particularly if they are in-season or in their off-season. Nevertheless, focusing one’s attention on their carbohydrate consumption prior to a game or sporting event can provide tremendous benefits in overall performance.
According to the International Society for Sports Nutrition (ISSN), athletes should consider a pre-event meal containing 1-2g/kg BW, 3-4 out of the event (ISSN, 2010), in order to maximize the training benefits from the delivery of such nutrients. As an example, a 180-pound soccer player should consume ~80-160g of carbohydrates before their main event. Practically, that’s going to be a lot of food for most individuals, which is why it’s recommended to spread that out a few hours in advance.
For most of you, this information isn’t necessarily applicable, but it can be worth considering if you ever decide to train for a competitive event. Nevertheless, focus on consuming a moderate amount of carbohydrates before your training session, and reap the performance benefits of the additional energy.
We know that water is essential to human life, but it is especially a good idea to have a lot of before an intense workout. When you exercise, you are losing water with each movement performed, even if you are not sweating profusely. Drinking water before, during, and after a workout can make a huge difference in both your energy and overall ability to feel recovered in between each session. Water recommendations for individuals vary across different organizations, which is why I simply advise people to just drink to thirst. It’s definitely a good idea to bring a water bottle with you to the gym, in case you forget to drink or your gym simply does not have a water fountain available. Whatever strategy works for you, make sure you’re properly hydrated to keep your body fueled at its highest capacity before a workout.
Sodium is another nutrient that is often limited for perceived health benefits, but this mineral is critical for various functions in our body, particularly in relation to its use in exercise. A lot of people don’t realize that sodium consumption is actually a very good idea prior to a workout. When you exercise, especially in the heat, your body loses fluids (water and electrolytes) through your sweat, and therefore some sodium intake pre-workout can help prevent sodium losses during prolonged exercise (Anastasiou et al 2009). Combined with a lack of water, people often report losing energy in their exercise sessions for the simple fact that they have not taken in enough sodium throughout the day.
Some practical advice: try adding salt or any salt-included seasoning to your pre-workout meal of choice. It can make a big difference in preserving the sodium levels in your body, and keeping you energized throughout your session. Also, combined with a sufficient amount of water and carbohydrates, the consumption of sodium before a workout can create a sufficient “pump” in the gym that so many lifters are looking for.
Caffeine has shown several benefits when consumed in moderate consumption. It can be consumed in a variety of different forms, including coffee, pre-workout, energy drinks, tea or pills. Acute caffeine supplementation can enhance both overall power output and anaerobic running capacity in athletes (Schneider et al 2006). Meaning that it is an effective source for improvements in both anaerobic (resistance) training, as well as aerobic (cardiovascular) training. Caffeine is particularly infamous for being an excellent pre-workout choice, and for good reason. Research has shown caffeine to be effective at increasing energy performance and reducing subjective fatigued in trained individuals (Spradley et al 2012).
So whether you’re a coffee addict or prefer a pre-workout supplement to get your caffeine in, timing it before your workout can undoubtedly provide benefits to your performance. Too much caffeine can definitely be a bad thing, but opting for a serving prior to your workout can be an excellent supplementation strategy.
Your post-workout nutrition strategy should be altered to maximize your recovery efforts. Protein post-workout is highly publicized as the most important factor in your muscle and strength gains, but for the large part this idea is highly sensationalized.
Though a protein rich-meal has shown to stimulate post-workout protein synthesis, the infamous “anabolic window of opportunity” is far from definitive (Aragon and Schoenfeld 2013). Interestingly, preworkout vs. postworkout protein consumption has shown to have similar effects on muscle hypertrophy (Schoenfeld et al 2017), making this postworkout period far less important than people expect. In general, the same protein recommendation of 3-4 meals spear throughout the day (Phillips et al 2013) should be more than enough to maximize your protein timing on your muscle and strength gains.
Practically, this means that if you’ve already had a meal 1-2 hours before your workout, you do not by any means have to slam down a protein shake right after your workout. In fact, this won’t necessarily provide any additional benefit to your training recovery. As long as your daily protein needs are equal, and you’re reasonably spreading out your intake over the course of the day, you will practically see no differences in your overall muscle and strength gains.
I also highly recommend the consumption of water and some form of carbohydrates if you prefer post-workout. Drinking water after a workout is a good idea to replenish fluid levels and maintain satiety for energy purposes. If you’re leaving your workouts feeling excessively hungry an lethargic, take a look at the amount of water you’re drinking surrounding your workouts, as too little may be causing these significant dips in energy.
And as we learned from before, carbohydrate consumption has shown to replenish higher glycogen levels that were tapped into during your workout (Kerksick et al 2017). The idea that simple sugars are necessary post-workout to help spike your insulin and promote muscle gains is largely a myth. But as touched on previously, for endurance and elite-level athletes needing to maximize their recovery efforts for multiple bouts of exercise per day, a combination of proteins and carbs per workout is an ideal strategy to help maximize your recovery efforts.
Personal presence plays a big role in how much you eat both pre and post-workout. Some people do better with bigger meals, while others prefer to eat lightly and save the remainder of their calories for the rest of the day. No individual amount is necessary, but in general consuming a smaller or bigger meal packed with nutrients may be more beneficial to maximize your exercise and recovery efforts.
Yes the strategies I outlined above can help enhance your training, but in general there are far more important factors to having a good training session and maximizing your recovery efforts. These include a balanced training program tailored with proper progression, quality nutrition that supports your individual needs, and adequate sleep and rest to help you prepare for intense bouts of exercise. Be sure to focus on these efforts first, and from there you can utilize some of these more advanced strategies that can help take your training to the next level.
Thank you guys for reading through this post today, I’m hopeful you were able to find great value. Please let me know in the comments below any more questions you have about this subject, and I’ll talk to you all soon!