Proper nutrition is the difference between feeling exhausted and getting the most out of a workout.
“Peri-workout nutrition” is a science-y term for the food you eat before, during, and after your training sessions.
Enhancing this aspect of your diet can have the following benefits:
In this article, I will consider three different time windows – pre, post, and intra-workout – and cover when to eat, what to eat, and why to eat it whether you are an endurance athlete or a physique trainee.
For both types of athlete, carbohydrate and protein are going to be the most important macronutrients to consider.
An important caveat is that the overall quantity of both carbohydrate and protein consumed within a 24-hour window is going to affect your performance far more than individual meals. So ensure that this is always your first priority.
With that said, let’s dive into today’s hot topic.
When and Why
Ideally, you would want to eat something at least three to four hours before training.
The further away from your sessions you eat, the more fibre and dietary fats the meal can contain. These two nutrients take the longest to digest, so you want to give your body at least a couple of hours to do so.
On the other hand, if you only have about an hour, you want to limit the size of your meal and focus primarily on low-fibre carbohydrate and lean protein.
The lack of excess fibre and fats will make this meal much more digestible, so you won’t feel like puking after your warm-up set of deadlifts or within your first mile of running.
If you lift weights and can’t eat before training because you can only hit the gym early in the morning before work, you can try to have a protein shake made with whey protein, one of the fastest-digesting varieties of protein powder.
If you really don’t enjoy or can’t have a protein shake, you can safely train without eating (fasted). It might not be ideal, but your body will adapt to fasted exercise over time, so this is unlikely to prevent you from seeing the results you want over the long haul.
Nevertheless, whenever possible, having 20 to 40gr of protein as a minimum amount of food and nutrients prior to your resistance training sessions is a reasonable idea.
As an endurance athlete, carbohydrates might be more important than protein in the context of peri-workout nutrition, as they constitute the primary fuel for your performance.
When eating before training isn’t an option, make sure your last meal the day before the session is rich in fibrous carbohydrates, so that you will have plenty of glycogen – the reservoir of carbs stored in your muscles and liver – available to you the next day.
Stocking up on protein in this meal is also important to achieve your protein target for the whole day.
Finally, you might want to consider intra-workout carbohydrates to replenish glycogen stores throughout a session, as I will describe later in the article.
You don’t have to over-complicate this part.
A bigger meal two to four hours before training could comprise vegetables or fruit; a source of lean protein; a source of carbohydrates; and a source of dietary fat if desired.
Some examples include:
For a smaller meal to be eaten one to two hours before your session, you want to think about a snack-sized option that focuses primarily on protein and fast-digesting carbs, such as:
When and Why
Intra-workout nutrition covers what you eat or drink during a workout.
In general, if you do need anything during a training session, it will be sugar, the simplest form of carbs, which will therefore be digested and absorbed as fast as possible.
The purpose of this is to delay the emptying of your glycogen stores, the reservoir of carbs in your muscles and liver, which your body utilises during resistance training and high-intensity endurance training.
The truth is, many lifters overestimate the importance of this aspect of the diet.
Unless you train twice a day multiple times per week, or your sessions last longer than an hour and a half, then you are unlikely to get a lot of benefits from intra-workout nutrition.
Personally, I have had good lifting sessions that were up to two hours’ long and never felt the need to eat or drink anything but water.
Nevertheless, individuality plays a role in nutrition, so, if you find yourself feeling better, physically or mentally, when you have something half-way through a session, go for it.
Endurance training is likely to benefit from intra-workout carbs more than resistance training.
The reason for this is that long-duration and high-intensity endurance work will deplete your glycogen stores, whereas resistance work seem to only cause moderate glycogen losses in comparison.
So, as an endurance athlete training for longer than an hour and a half, some easily digestible carbs taken as a drink, sachet, or gel might be beneficial to ensure the maintenance of good performance.
Make sure you experiment with different types of intra-workout carbs long before an official event. You don’t want to try a brand new product and find out mid-marathon that it gives you diarrhoea.
A key factor to remember is that even fast-digesting sugars can take fifteen to thirty minutes to be absorbed into the bloodstream, so you will want to accurately time the ingestion of your intra-workout food or drink. Rather than eating or drinking it when you start to feel sluggish, do so before you know you are going to hit a wall.
The best advice would be to eat or drink whatever you can stomach without compromising the rest of your training session.
For this reason, drinks tend to be a safe bet. They also help counter fluid and electrolyte losses through sweat and breathing. Electrolytes are minerals like salt, the balance of which in turn affects fluid balance and is important for health and performance.
To avoid an electrolyte imbalance caused by excessive losses, you may want to purchase a sports drink that already contains electrolytes, or you can make your own at home by diluting fruit juice with water and adding a teaspoon of salt.
As mentioned in the previous paragraph, endurance athletes may want to experiment with a variety of intra-workout sports supplements, such as:
In general, when a bout of endurance training lasts between one and half and two hours and a half, then you may look to consume 30 to 60gr of carbs during the session.
For longer workouts, you may increase this up to around 90gr of carbs, depending on individual needs.
When and Why
Lifters might remember the old recommendation for protein to be consumed straight after a training session.
This was based on the concept of the “anabolic window” – a period of time following your session, in which your muscles are primed for maximal growth, provided you feed them enough protein.
At the time, the sooner you got your protein in, the better. If you had to drive home first and could only eat after half an hour… Well, too bad, so sad.
Today we know that we don’t have to eat as soon as possible in order to maximise our gains.
Nevertheless, training creates micro-tears in the muscles and increases muscle protein breakdown (MPB). In order to grow more muscle mass, your body needs to spend more time in the day creating protein – through a process called muscle protein synthesis (MPS) – than breaking it down.
For this reason, eating some protein after your sessions, which is going to raise the MPS rate, is probably a good idea.
But it doesn’t have to be within half an hour from training.
In fact, it seems like you can get similar benefits if you eat around 20 to 40gr of protein within two to four hours from your session.
In general, your primary goal should be to eat enough protein over a 24-hour period, as this will maximise muscle growth above all other protein-related strategies you may want to use.
So, if you are chugging your post-workout shake the moment you rerack the bar for the last time, but you aren’t eating enough protein for the remainder of the day, you need to take a good look at your priorities.
The second most important component of your diet if you lift is carbohydrate.
Within the context of post-workout nutrition, we used to think that we needed to eat carbs along with our protein immediately after training in order to replenish glycogen stores.
More recently, research has showed that a bout of resistance training only depletes glycogen stores by 30 to 40%. So, if you eat enough carbohydrate in a day, you will be able to top up your glycogen stores by the time you have another session.
If you train twice per day, eating enough carbohydrate before and after your first session will be paramount to ensure you have enough available to you to perform well during the second session, too.
However, if you only train once a day three to six days per week, you can have some post-workout carbs if you like, but you don’t have to go berserk.
As an endurance athlete, you may need to pay more attention to post-workout carbs.
As previously mentioned, endurance activity depletes glycogen stores to a greater degree than resistance training. The higher the intensity of the session, the more glycogen you are going to use.
Long-duration training sessions – such as if you are preparing for a marathon – are likely to empty your glycogen stores before the end of the workout, hence why carbohydrates may be as necessary during as post-workout.
Lastly, if you are an endurance athlete training twice per day, then post-workout and possibly intra-workout carbs will be paramount to ensure recovery and good performance in every session.
For the reasons mentioned in the previous section, your priorities after training are going to be carbohydrate and protein.
Much like in the case of pre-workout nutrition, the closer to the session you eat, the less fat you may want to consume, so that the nutrients in your food and drinks can be digested, absorbed, and shuttled to your muscles as soon as possible.
In regards to your specific food choices, once again your lifestyle and individual preferences are going to be important factors to consider.
For example, if you don’t have much time for a standard meal, or maybe you don’t feel like eating straight after working out, then a whey protein shake or a protein bar and a piece of fruit might be a good option – with more carb-containing sources, like dates or other dried fruit, if you are an endurance athlete.
On the other hand, if you have more time and work up a big appetite after training, then something like bagels, jam, and protein yogurt, or rice, chicken breast, and a salad for those who like savoury foods, might be more appropriate choices.
Experiment with different options and see which ones suit you best.
We can break down peri-workout nutrition into four practical applications:
If you have any questions on this article, please let me know and I will do my best to answer.
How do you approach your peri-workout nutrition?
A personal trainer who likes superheroes, bread, lifting weights, and studying “fitness stuff”.
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