We all know that exercise is important. But what we're less clear about is what we should be eating to fuel it.
Eating the right foods before and after training can have a huge impact on your performance, your body composition and overall health. There's a lot of myths about what we should and shouldn't be eating around our workouts, so I thought it was about time we take a closer look to clear things up!
Those of you that know me from my last post know I like to take a science-backed approach to any suggestions I make! So with that in mind, today we will take a look at an evidence approved template for pre and post workout nutrition.
Ready? Here goes!
When you hear “pre-workout”, you generally think about that scoop of powder people put in their shaker about 15 minutes before they, well, workout. You probably also think about all the gym memes showing some poor soul with their eyes popping out of their head with the caption “when the pre-workout kicks in!”. This is not what I mean when I talk about pre workout.
WARNING: I am going to be using the classic and completely overused “your body is like a car” analogy for the remainder of this article. It is simple and easy to understand for everybody. Don't say I didn't warn you...
To get the most out of your workout, you need fuel. You need to fill your gas tank with fuel and get moving because you can’t drive a mile on empty! If you want to bring the intensity to your workouts, which is a key factor in the success of each one, you need to prepare properly. Here are the three fuel types you need:
When we exercise, our body’s temperature rises as muscles contract and use energy. Our body deals with this increased temperature through a few different methods, one of which is very prominent is sweating. If we exercise when in a dehydrated state, we run a greater risk of hypohydration during exercise. This will not only affect your performance, or stop it all together, it is extremely dangerous.
You need to be well hydrated before you hit the gym or go wherever you are going to workout. You also need to remain hydrated during your workouts. For extra sweaty sessions, I recommend drinking coconut water and / or adding a pinch of Himalayan salt to your bottle during training. Hydration is the simplest thing but it is the one most often forgotten!
Next on the list is our FRIEND, not foe, carbohydrates. We store carbohydrates in the form of something called glycogen in our body, specifically in the liver and muscles. Without getting too sciencey on you, think of glycogen as your gas and its storage sites as the tanks in your body. When you exercise, especially at higher intensities, we use that glycogen and use it more and more as intensity increases.
Even if you are not going at high intensities (i.e. long distance running or swimming), glycogen is still being utilized. One of the biggest reasons for fatigue when we exercise is glycogen depletion which is one of the reasons that you can jog for hours but sprint for seconds. Thus, it would make sense to have our tank topped up before we go to delay that fatigue!
I recommend consuming a good source of carbs before your workouts. A piece of fruit is great as a snack as it is fast digesting and will give you a quick energy boost. Complex carbs like sweet potato, quinoa or brown rice are also great, but make sure you leave enough time for them to digest before training.
3. Amino acids
Last up, amino acids! These are the building blocks of muscle tissue, so it is important you have them in your system before you train. Otherwise, your body will break down its muscle tissue and have no tools to repair it with, meaning your body goes into a catabolic state and eats away at your hard earned muscle mass.
The good news is, you don't have to overthink it. Consume around 20 - 30 grams of protein in your meal 2 - 3 hours before training and you're good to go. Black beans and quinoa are one of my favourite combinations, as they provide the perfect balance of protein and carbs to fuel you through your training!
If you're training fasted or it has been a while since you ate, this is where BCAAs come in. BCAAs absorb rapidly into the bloodstream, so if you drink them during your workout they will help to prevent the muscle breakdown you would otherwise get when training in a fasted state. BCAAs are always great for extra long or intense workouts, when your body has used up its existing amino acid supply and needs extra tools to get the job done.
Example pre workout meals:
- Lentil and quinoa salad (2 - 3 hours before)
- Smoothie with banana, berries and protein powder (90 minutes before)
- Piece of fruit and BCAAs (30 minutes before)
Now you know what to eat to perform at your best, but performance means absolutely nothing if you don’t recover properly!
Now, when I think of recovery, the most important place to start is sleep. I could write a whole article on the subject, but for now I will just state the basics when it comes to sleep and make an assumption you are getting 7-9 hours of sleep a night…because you should be!
One study in particular from the Strength and Conditioning Journal by Marshall and Turner (2016), showed that when we reach deeper stages of sleep, growth hormone and other androgens are released which are important for a bunch of reasons including muscle growth and repair as well as bone growth, and restoration/recovery of your nervous system and metabolic expenditure from a previous training session.
There are a thousand and one other articles, studies, textbooks, etc. that emphasize benefits and importance of sleep. So before I go any further, make sure you've got your sleep locked down before you even look at your nutrition!
Now, onto the food. You will need a combination of carbohydrates and protein in your post workout meal to cover all aspects of recovery. We need carbohydrates to replenish those depleted glycogen stores and protein to support the repair of damaged muscle, and growth of new muscle.
If we are continuing the analogy that your body is like your car, or truck depending on how much of a beast you are, think of your workout as a road trip and now you returned home to refill your gas tank and get some work and repair on it.
Whilst I don’t like getting too specific in how many grams of this or that as it makes nutrition so much more difficult than it needs to be, especially for the average guy or gal looking to just be active and healthy, understand this is not your excuse to go H.A.M on everything in sight. In fact, if we are talking about protein specifically, you do not need a huge dose of protein to support muscle growth and repair post workout!
Most literature seems to agree on a range dose of 20 to 30g of protein post-workout depending on your size, lean muscle mass, gender, genetics, etc. That is why I love having PERFORM with a bit of fruit immediately after my workouts as it has an optimal dose of protein plus carbs from the fruit! I currently blend the Salted Maca Caramel with 2 bananas and coconut milk for the perfect post workout smoothie.
Or, if you've worked up an appetite and you're after something more substantial, why not give one of these combos a try or check out this 11 Unusual and Delicious Vegan Bodybuilding recipes:
- Lentils with peas, walnuts and veggies
- Black beans and quinoa with avocado and veggies
- Whole grain pasta with tomato sauce and veggies
- 2 to 4 slices of sprouted whole grain bread with avocado and veggies
So there you have it! Pre and post workout does and will impact your progress and either lead you closer to or farther from your ending goal.
Regardless if you are simply wanting to live a healthy lifestyle, want to lose fat, want to build muscle, or maybe something more specific like running 10km or a triathlon, how you fuel your workout and how you recovery from it will make all the difference in how quickly and efficiently you do it!
Burke, L., & Deakin, V. (2015). Clinical Sports Nutrition (5th ed.). McGraw-Hill Education (Australia).
Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (2012). Canadian Physical Activity Guideines. Canadian Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines. Your Plan To Get Active Every Day.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Physical Activity and Health. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/pa-health/index.htm
Marshall, G.J.G. & Turner, A.N. (2016). Strength and Conditioning Journal. The Importance of Sleep for Athletic Performance. 38(1). 61-67.
Maughan, R.J. & Leiper, J.B. (1995). European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology. Sodium Intake and Post-Exercise Rehydration in Man. 71. 311-19.
Tiidus, M., Tupling R.A., & Houstan, M.E. (2012). Biochmistry Primer for Exercise Science (4th ed.)