Everyone has their routine for fueling their exercise endeavors.
You’ve got that go-to meal before and after thats tried and true, and you’re sticking to it.
Others though, kinda throw some shit on the wall, hoping it sticks and doesn’t make its way back up while you’re deadlifting.
Let’s tidy things up, shall we?
Your body’s stored form of carbohydrates (fuel): Glycogen
Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred energy source, and especially for exercise. Consuming them “sandwiched” around your training also improves their absorption, and distribution. In simpler terms: “that shit will be used a whole lot better, with less likelihood of fat storage.”
Protein near training is needed for tissue repair, and to have amino acids (building blocks of protein) circulating in the bloodstream for a protein-sparing effect. Meaning: “it’s gonna make sure you’re not burning off your muscles in order to push though your workout.”
Fuel your workout effectively, not hinder your current physique state, and maximize your workout’s efforts.
We’re burning off glycogen when we’re training, so it makes sense to have some carbs prior to training to “top off the tank,” right? Right – in most cases.
The leaner you are, the harder and longer you’re training, and the timing of which you’re training plays a big factor here.
If you’re relatively overweight, and really focusing on shedding some weight, do you really need to focus on this? No. You have stored nutrients, you will only need enough to make sure you don’t feel sick, or depleted. Your biggest focus should be your total daily energy expenditure, and total daily intake – this is minutiae for you. I have seen people force themselves to eat a “pre-workout” meal before training, that just happened to put them into a calorie surplus, and caused them to gain or maintain weight as opposed to losing. At which point, they get frustrated, mad at the process because “it’s not working for them” and then quit, or be largely deterred.
On the other hand, if you’re relatively lean, training hard, and have ample time prior to training, then a pre-workout meal will definitely be beneficial.
For serious trainees, a pre-workout meal with carbs will help provide a good pump, fuel higher-intensity training, supporting muscle contractions, and paired with protein will prevent any muscle catabolization.
- 1.5-2 hours prior to training, dominant in protein and carbs.
- Fats should be avoided, or kept to a minimum due to the slower digestion, which can make you feel very sluggish. *If you get low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) easily, a few fats (10 at most) will suffice to ensure level blood sugar.
- Too large of a meal will have you feeling like the pillsbury doughboy as you drop into squats, so eat comfortably.
- Be weary of fibrous-dense forms of carbohydrate prior to training, as they can slow digestion and cause gas, bloating, and discomfort. Aim for simpler sources, such as: rice, white potatoes, toast, cereal, applesauce (I have kids, don’t judge me), and fruits you digest well.
- If you’re eating well before your workout – 2.5-4 hours – a larger meal, with more fibrous (veggies, brown rice, beans, sweet potatoes) choices is ok, as is some fats (keep it below 15-20g though, to be safe)
- 1:1 ratio of carbs to protein is solid, for higher performers up to 1.5-2:1 carbs to protein might be warranted.
If you’re a fan of drinking your pre-workout meal, beware it will absorb faster (30-75 mins depending on density) so that can help out when you’re in a bind, and it’s noteworthy if that’s your preference to ensure you have circulating energy.
If you like carbohydrate drinks (gatorade, body-armor, glycogen drinks, dextrose drinks, supplement carb powders) they’re best saved for intra-workout (during workout) fueling, as they’re absorbed very quickly.
Adding some carbs mid-workout to ensure you’re not going beyond your glycogen stores (stored in muscle, and liver) and to support further performance.
This is absolutely not necessary if you’re not training with high intensity for over an hour consistently. Meaning, the majority train their main lifts pretty intensely, but after those first 2 main lifts you drop your intensity as you move on the list to accessories, and isolations (which is great). If that workout dragged over 1.5 hours, I would consider it. If not, save your money. Crossfit, longer duration total-body training, consistent aerobic exercise, experienced trainees who put in long hours, and for those competing in events involving high output and duration should consider.
For those dedicated to muscle building, and have all their other boxes checked (total caloric intake, training consistency, progressive overload, planned stress management, sleep):
Consuming liquids carbs during your workout will ensure you’re burning off those carbohydrates as fuel, and could aid recovery by way of blunting the cortisol response of training. This is important because you’re still creating muscle damage with training, but you’re amplifying your recovery efforts, enabling you to keep your training volume, intensity, and frequency high, which would entail growth.
Intra-Workout Fueling For Those Focused Mainly on Muscle Growth
- Highly Branched Cyclic Dextrin (HBCD)+Essential Amino Acids (EAAs)
*What is Highly Branched Cyclic Dextrin? HBCD is an advanced type of maltodextrin that is more soluble, and more easily absorbed by the body than any other carb source. HBCD provides a sustained increase in energy levels without causing spikes in the blood glucose and/or insulin levels, which is why its become so popular in recent years.
Intra-Workout Fueling For Those Competing, & Training High Duration Not Focusing Specifically on Muscle Growth
- Carbohydrate Liquid (sports drinks)
Intra-Workout Fueling For The Vast Majority of Folks
Most of us will do just fine with water while training. Sip some water, about 8 oz every 20 minutes at least, and keep it movin’.
When to avoid intra-workout fueling:
- If fat loss is your number one priority. Unless during your deficit you feel as though you can’t perform, you would have to take some of your carbs from your eating and allot them for this purpose.
- If you’re training with a lower intensity. This doesn’t mean you’re not training hard, or with purpose – just could be you’re maintaining, just getting into it, or your goals don’t align with the other aforementioned.
- If you’re exclusively training for power, strength, and explosiveness. We mentioned the intra-workout carbs help to drive cortisol down, aiding recovery. We know cortisol is the “fight or flight” hormone, but when performing max effort strength, and powerful feats, we need that response for performance at that level. You would actually want to avoid fueling during your session in order to keep you in that high performance state (olympic lifting, sprinting, powerlifting).
What About Fasting?
If you train in the early Am, and you’re not training with the duration, goals, and intensity of those who would qualify as needing the fueling, you’ll be fine on your glycogen storage.
One morning session won’t drain you, as long as it’s a regular session and nothing over the top, it will all come down to preference. If you feel to drained, try a carb drink pre/intra and see how you feel. If you’re worried about “losing your gains” go for some EAAs mixed with some Highly Branched Cyclic Dextrin HBCD, or just a scoop of EAAs would be a solid choice.
Essential Amino Acids contain all of the Branched Chain Amino Acids, but Branched Chain Amino Acids only contain 3 of the Essential Amino Acids. Hmm, a little confusing?
Would you rather go to the store that has a few groceries you need, but may be just a bit cheaper – or the grocery store with all the groceries you need, sweet samples, a bar, all your friends, and has been ranked superior to the other store? Alright then, that’s why we choose EAAs; it has all the essential aminos we need, keeping muscle protein synthesis up, us energized, and primed for growth and recovery.
Post Workout Nutrition
Initiate the recovery process, refuel and replenish all that’s been drained, and enter an anabolic (growth) state, and avoid a catabolic (breakdown) state.
Post workout, you’re body is incredible insulin sensitive, which we definitely want. If you’re insulin resistant, your cells don’t respond appropriately to insulin, leaving high levels of glucose (blood sugar) in the bloodstream. Insulin sensitivity is when the cells use blood sugar more effectively, reducing blood sugar, and drastically reducing the chance of it being stored as fat.
In post workout terms, what insulin sensitivity means is it’s driving down the cortisol responses taking you into recovery, re-storing the glycogen stores you might have tapped into during exercise, and paired with the increase in muscle protein synthesis and hormone production post-workout, it’s the safest (in terms of fat storage), and most effective time to eat!
Do you need to knock back a shake immediately?
No. If you get to food within 2-3 hours, you’ll be fine. That post-workout sensitivity window will be there for hours. Thanks, science.
If you’re abnormally high stressed, or if your workout intensity was quite high, that’s when it’s recommended to consume that post-workout meal a bit sooner, to drive that stress response down asap.
Carbs & Protein
Notice a theme here?
A recommended serving size for most people would be similar to a 1:1 ratio of carbs to protein, if you’re on the higher end of caloric intake, and focused mainly on muscle growth, you can have more of a 1.5-2:1 ratio of carbs to protein. In terms of grams, 20-30g of each would be recommended at least, but it’s all determined also based on what you can tolerate, and your total daily intake.
I harp heavily on people getting in more whole foods, but for those high-performers really focused on muscle growth, a 1-2:1 ratio of Highly Branched Cyclic Dextrin to Whey would be your most optimal bet.
For the other 80% of us folks, eating is the goal. Avoid fats post workout as best you can, as it can negatively impact digestion by simply slowing the process, and causing bloat. If you’re at the further out (1.5-3 hour range) post-workout, 5-15g of fat won’t disrupt much.
The carbs help shuttle the insulin to the muscle, refilling your stored energy and initiating recovery, and the protein serves to get those aminos to your muscles to take advantage of muscle protein synthesis (which is elevated post-workout) to grow and repair your muscles. Fats on the other hand, don’t play much of a role here other than being involved in foods we might want to consume post-workout (which is totally fine, if that’s the deal-breaker, eat it!)
Post-Workout Fueling For Those Focused Mainly on Muscle Growth
- 1-2:1 HBCD:Whey
Post-Workout Fueling For The Vast Majority of Folks
- 20-40 grams of simple digesting (non-fibrous) carbs & protein
- Lean meats, egg whites, whey, non-fat greek yogurt, white potatoes, white rice, white toast
Fruit sugars (fructose) have actually been shown to be stored primarily in the liver, so their effect on recovery, muscle replenishment, and insulin responses won’t be as beneficial as starches. For some, this is a bummer. If this is the make-or-break decision maker of if you’re even going to eat, eat some damn fruit. It’s not going to harm you, and if it’s simpler to carry an apple or banana after a workout than a cup of white rice, go for it. Enjoy what you enjoy, all I’m sayin’ is; that starch is more than acceptable, and optimal post-workout.
To Sum It All Up
Carbs & Protein pre and post-workout are your best bet. For 80% of trainees, a meal 90-120 mins prior dominant in simpler carbs and protein, and a meal within 2 hours post workout in a similar fashion is all you need.
If you’re jacked, and trying to get more jacked: Pick up some highly branched cyclic dextrin (HBCD), and Whey protein, but keep eating your real food protein and carbs meals pre and post 🙂
Thanks for reading! Feel free to reach out if I can give your individual situation any guidance!