What's Best to Eat Before and After a Workout?


Pre and post workout meals, shakes and bars are increasingly available. Sales of functional nutrition bars alone have increased by almost 400% since 2010. While overall calorie intake and macronutrient split have the biggest impact on body shape and performance, what we eat before training (pre-workout nutrition) and what we eat after (post-workout nutrition) can have an impact on our training session and our overall progress.

So what should we eat before and after a training session?


Pre-Workout

If you have a meal before your workout, this should ideally consist of:

  • Carbohydrate, to increase muscle glycogen (stored energy in muscles)stores and therefore prolong time to fatigue

  • Protein, to reduce muscle protein breakdown when working out

Whether you have this in liquid form or as a solid meal or snack depends on

  1. Your preference and

  2. How much time you have before your workout.

If you only have an hour or less before your workout, it is advisable to have a shake (sip it, don’t drink it all in one go). Otherwise you’ll run the risk of gastro-intestinal discomfort.

If you have more time you may prefer to eat a meal or snack. This would ideally be taken in 2-3 hours prior to the workout.


Supplementation

There are some ergogenic aids, which will improve performance when taken pre workout. The most commonly researched and consumed of which is caffeine. A cup of coffee before your workout, or caffeine as part of your pre-workout shake can

  1. Enhance the way our muscles use energy, sparing glycogen reserves and as a result reduce perceived fatigue and elevate mood

  2. Temporarily increase strength, particularly in people who seldom consume caffeine

  3. Speed up recovery post-workout, if taken in combination with carbohydrates, as it accelerates the rate of glycogen replenishment (this is more important if you work out very frequently or multiple times per day)

Another supplement that you may find useful is magnesium. Magnesium is involved in many different aspects of muscle function and exercise including energy production, oxygen uptake, muscle contraction, muscle relaxation and electrolyte balance. Some of us do not get enough magnesium in our diets and low levels may impair physical performance and exercise capacity and are associated with muscle damage and cramps. Because magnesium also supports production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, it is recommended to take it in the evenings, a couple of hours before bed.


Post-Workout Nutrition

Similarly to pre-workout nutrition, this would ideally constitute of

  • Carbohydrate: to replenish muscle glycogen, thereby enhancing recovery

  • Protein, to enhance muscle recovery and muscle protein synthesis post exercise

20-25 grams of high-quality protein is sufficient to stimulate maximal protein synthesis. High quality protein means easily-absorbed protein that contains all essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein that we do not make in our bodies and can only get via our diet). Generally speaking animal-based protein, such as dairy (including whey), eggs and meat and fish covers that more easily, however a vegan protein shake or a meal containing beans, legumes, pulses and wholegrains will get you there too.

The post-workout meal should ideally be eaten within two hours of the workout. Maximal recovery and repair would be achieved if eating within 30 to 45 minutes of finishing your workout.

Again, taking this in either liquid or solid form is determined by your preference, time and circumstance. However, having a balanced meal is always preferred for a number of reasons

  1. You take in additional micro-nutrients and other important components, such as fibre

  2. Fibre is essential, not only to feed the good bacteria in your gut, thereby promoting gut health, but also to provide roughage to encourage regular bowel movements (thereby getting rid of toxins)

  3. Fibre has also been shown to increase feelings of satiety (fullness)

  4. A solid meal will digest more slowly, meaning it will keep you fuller for longer.

  5. Eating regular solid meals can encourage healthy eating patterns and sitting down to have a proper meal has been shown to result in higher meal satisfaction than consuming on-the-go shake

  6. The act of chewing is part of a well-functioning digestion process and releases important digestive enzymes such as amylase.

It is therefore advisable to opt for solid food rather than a shake as often as you can. If you are unable to have a meal post-workout due to time or convenience it is absolutely possible to wait a little longer, particularly if you have had a pre-workout. In fact, if you have had a pre-workout the importance of a post-workout is largely diminished, assuming you train no more than once a day. As long as daily caloric needs are met across the 24-hour day period your body will get everything it needs to perform as optimally as you can.


Ultimately, pre and post workout nutrition can be a useful tool when training but it is not the defining factor if you go to the gym for general health purposes, aesthetics or to improve performance on a casual level. In that case, total calorie intake and, to a lesser extent, macronutrient ratios and food quality, are more important than exact timing and composition of meals. As long as you eat adequately to refuel your body’s energy stores, encourage muscle repair and growth and prevent the breakdown of muscle mass, the details are definitely useful but the time and energy spent thinking about that is probably better spent actually working out or enjoying a healthy balanced meal.

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