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Pre and Post-Workout Nutrition

What should I eat before my workout?

What about after my workout?

Do I need to eat something during my workout too?

Nutrient timing can be one of the most confusing areas of nutrition, and for good reason — the answers to the questions above depend a lot on context.

For example: What type of training are you doing? What are your goals? What time of day are you training?

But fortunately, there are some general pre- and post-workout nutrition principles that can be applied to most people in most situations, and that’s what we’re going to outline today.

One key thing to keep in mind is that although nutrient timing around workouts can certainly make a difference in your performance and recovery, the total amount of food you eat over the course of the day is more important for body composition and performance than nutrient timing strategies. [1] So make sure to have a solid plan in place for your overall nutrition strategy before diving into pre- and post-workout nutrition.

Pre-Workout Nutrition

Before your workout, you want nutrition that helps you feel energized, boosts your performance, keeps you hydrated, preserves muscle mass and speeds up your recovery.  

That’s not too much to ask, is it?

Ideally, we want to eat our pre-workout meal one to three hours before training to allow for adequate digestion.

Here’s what to include in your meal:

  • Protein. Exercise damages muscle tissue, but protein can reduce markers of damage — which means you recover faster! It can also help you maintain or increase muscle size, which is important for anyone who wants to improve their body composition or athletic performance. [2] A protein shake is an easy go-to option, but whole foods (such as lean meat or low-fat Greek yogurt) are also fine as long as your digestive system can handle them. Aim for around 40–60 grams of protein for men and 20–30 grams for women as a good starting point  [3,4]

  • Carbs. Whether you’re an endurance athlete going for a long run or a CrossFit athlete preparing for a high-intensity WOD, carbs can improve your performance and help increase muscle retention and growth. [5]

How many grams of carbs should you consume? This is specific to each individual, but something to keep in mind is that the maximum amount of carbohydrates that can be digested and absorbed during exercise is 60–80 grams per hour. [6]

  • Fat. Fat slows digestion, which can help keep blood glucose levels even during your workout. Fats do not seem to improve athletic performance (carbs are better for this), but they are important for vitamins, minerals and feel satiated throughout the day — and they taste great! [7]

Special considerations:

  • For competitive athletes or those with specific body composition goals, a more detailed, individual plan might be required (including, possibly, intra-workout nutrition).

For example, if you are an endurance athlete doing a long 15-mile training run, or if you are trying to gain significant muscle and struggling to do so, you may need intra-workout carbs. This is something you can discuss specifically with a WAG coach.

  • What about early-morning training? Some people wake up and train first thing in the morning, which makes it impossible to eat one to three hours before their session. In this case, consuming essential amino acids in the form of a drink/supplement before and during training can be helpful.[8] For these athletes, what they eat at nighttime before bed can also help fuel them during an early-morning session.

  • What about sports drinks? Many people wonder about the benefits of sports drinks. For exercise lasting less than two hours, sports drinks don’t offer many additional benefits if you have already consumed a solid pre-workout meal, following the guidelines above.

Post-Workout Nutrition

With post-workout nutrition, our goals are to kickstart recovery, rehydrate and refuel.

Try to eat within two hours of finishing training for optimal recovery. This depends, however, on what you ate pre-workout. If you didn’t eat much pre-workout or you ate it several hours before your workout, your post-workout nutrition becomes more important.

What do you need to include in your post-workout meal?

  • Protein: Protein post-exercise prevents protein breakdown and stimulates synthesis, which can lead to increased or maintained muscle tissue.

Many people have heard the recommendation that fast-digesting protein like whey hydrolysate is the best bet because the amino acids get into your muscles quickly. More recent research suggests, however, that these proteins may actually get into our systems too quickly.[9] But this doesn’t mean that a post-workout shake is a bad choice — you could pair a protein shake with other foods that slow down the digestion of the protein, such as the carb and fat sources listed below.

  • Carbs: We are looking for a blend of minimally processed whole-food carbs post-workout, such as oats, sweet potato, rice and/or fruit like bananas or apples. However, if you completed a particularly intense session or you train multiple times per day, you may need faster glycogen replenishment. [10]

  • Fats: The amount of fat you should consume post-workout can be higher than your pre-workout meal, as research suggests that this will not negatively impact muscle growth or muscle glycogen synthesis. [11,12] Try experimenting with 1530 percent of your meals’ calories coming from fat and pay attention to how your digestive system feels. If you notice discomfort or the food feels heavy in your stomach, consider reducing the amount of fat.  

In summary:

  • Before, during and after training, we want a combination of protein, high-quality carbohydrates, and healthy fats. The amount of each macronutrient will vary depending on your needs and personal preferences. Before training, aim to make your meal consist of easier-to-digest carbs plus protein, with minimal fat. After training, consume complex carbs and protein, and it’s safe to add more fat to this meal.  
  • Ideally, we want to eat one to three hours before training as well as within two hours after training for maximal benefit. For early-morning exercisers who cannot eat one to three hours before their session, consider using essential amino acids and/or consuming a bigger nighttime meal.
  • Do not forget that the total amount of protein and carbs consumed over the course of your day is still more important than any specific nutrient timing strategy.

The key thing to remember with all nutrition advice is that what works best for you will vary depending on your goals, body size, digestive system and the duration and intensity of your activity. This is where a WAG coach can help you customize your plan and adjust it based on what works and what doesn’t. Happy training!


References:

  1. Aragon AA, Schoenfeld BJ. Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window? J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013 Jan 29;10(1):5.
  2. Cribb PJ, Hayes A. Effects of supplement timing and resistance exercise on skeletal muscle hypertrophy. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2006 Nov;38(11):1918-25.
  3.     Moore DR, et al. Ingested protein dose response of muscle and albumin protein synthesis after resistance exercise in young men. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Jan;89(1):161-8.
  4.     Schoenfeld BJ, Aragon AA, Krieger JW. The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013 Dec 3;10(1):53.
  5. Berardi JM, et al. Postexercise muscle glycogen recovery enhanced with a carbohydrate-protein supplement. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2006 Jun;38(6):1106-13.
  6. Jeukendrup AE. Carbohydrate during exercise and performance. Nutrition. 2004 Jul-Aug;20(7-8):669-77.
  7. Fox AK, et al.  Adding fat calories to meals after exercise does not alter glucose tolerance.  J Appl Physiol.  2004 Jul;97(1):11-6.
  8. Bird SP, et al. Liquid carbohydrates/essential amino acid ingestion during a short-term bout of resistance exercise suppresses myofibrillar protein degradation. Metabolism. 2006 May;55(5):570-7.
  9.     LaCroix M, et al. Compared with casein or total milk protein, digestion of milk soluble proteins is too rapid to sustain the anabolic postprandial amino acid requirement. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006 Nov;84(5):1070-9.
  10.  Stevenson E.  Improved recovery from prolonged exercise following the consumption of low glycemic index carbohydrate meals. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2005 Aug;15(4):333-49.
  11. Elliot, T. A., Cree, M. G., Sanford, A. P., Wolfe, R. R., & Tipton, K. D. (2006). Milk Ingestion Stimulates Net Muscle Protein Synthesis following Resistance Exercise. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 38(4), 667-674. doi:10.1249/01.mss.0000210190.64458.25.
  12. Fox, A. K., Kaufman, A. E., & Horowitz, J. F. (2004). Adding fat calories to meals after exercise does not alter glucose tolerance. Journal of Applied Physiology, 97(1), 11-16. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.01398.2003

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