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Nutrition Before, During, and After a Workout

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

Nutrition has become a hot topic as of late, especially around how to eat before, during and after exercise. More and more, fitness enthusiasts are beginning to understand optimizing fitness goals isn’t just about calorie in and calorie out ratios.

  • Applying proper nutrition around your workouts is a strategy that can have huge impacts on both weight loss and muscle gain.

Research labs around the world report the “right combinations of amino acids, quickly digested proteins, and quickly digested carbs can improve performance, stimulate better recovery, reduce muscle soreness, improve immune function, increase protein synthesis, and reduce fat mass.”

In this article we cover what those combinations are and provide some strategies for success.

  • Like all health and fitness goals, assessing individual need is the first place to start when determining your food plan around your workouts.

Things like personal goals, body type, intensity of the workout and individual tolerances for specific foods should all be considered when you choose your food.

For instance, an endurance athlete needs to fuel differently than an individual who has a primary goal of losing weight.

Remember, you can experiment with the strategies we share. None of them are absolutely set in stone as "right", but rather guidelines of where to begin.

Pre-Workout Nutrition

When considering what to eat before a workout, there are three objectives to keep in mind:

  • What are your needs to have energy during the workout

  • What will maintain good blood sugar

  • What will not bother your stomach when your temperature rises

Typically there are two main strategies used in the fitness industry when taking those three objectives into consideration:

  • High-Carb Diet

  • Carb as Needed Approach

For most people, we recommend starting with the Carb as Needed approach. That’s to eat starchy carbs only when you need them for energy, rather than storing them up in your liver and muscles through eating them all day.

While high-carb diets do help with energy after your workout and maintaining blood sugar, it can also keep your glycogen stores high, promote excess body fat gain and eventually poor carbohydrate handling (insulin).

  • High Carb Diet is a strategy involving 70% of total daily caloric intake being starchy carbohydrates. This strategy is reserved for high endurance athletes, especially those with certain body types. These types of diets should be used during intense training periods and typically not followed all year round.

  • Carb as Needed is a strategy of sticking to a good balanced diet of protein, carbohydrates, and fats for your body type year-round, eating within one to two hours prior to exercise and sipping on a carb containing drink during exercise. This strategy provides carbs when needed, rather than loading them up when they are not.

Both strategies work for energy and blood sugar balance, but which is right for you? This is when you want to consider your personal goals and the type of workouts you are doing. Perhaps experimenting is a good idea for you, however we recommend starting with the "carb as needed” approach.

How to “Carb As Needed”

  • Work with a Nutritionist or calculate your macronutrients here

  • Eat a balanced and sensible daily diet of proteins, carbohydrates and fats for your body type and overall goals

  • Eat a normal meal according to your nutrition plan 1 – 2 hours prior to working out that includes a starchy carb, rather than just fruits and veges.

  • If you work out in the early morning, still try and eat 45 to 30 minutes prior. (Consider how this could affect your stomach and stick to things that won’t upset you.)

  • If you typically have issues with blood sugar, eat closer to the one-hour before mark.

  • Try to include a protein item in your meal. Animal protein sustains blood sugar, plus it’s available sooner for your body to build and repair.

  • For a few quick meal ideas, check out Clean Recipe Book and look under the snack section.

  • If you have a high metabolism and are trying to gain muscle mass, you should consider drinking a P+C drink immediately before exercise or sip on a carb containing drink during your workout.

During-Workout Nutrition

Adding supplements to your fitness regime is not meant to substitute food, but rather help with essential nutrients when food is not practical or available. Drinking a carb containing supplement during exercise falls into both categories. Using the right supplements during exercise not only aids in energy, but also helps in quickening the recovery process. We recommend two types of drink supplements to be used during workouts and both should only be used during exercise.

  • BCAA – Branched-Chain amino acids This supplement substitutes for any protein-rich food. It can be used during all high-intensity exercise sessions when fat loss and muscle/performance preservation is desired. (Should contain the 3 BCAA leucine, isoleucine, valine)

  • Protein-carbohydrate (P+C) drinks This supplement substitutes for any protein-rich and carbohydrate-rich food. It can be used during all high-intensity exercise sessions when muscle strength and size increases, as well as athletic performance increases, are desired. (Should contain a mixture of quickly digested, well tolerated protein and carbohydrate in a ratio of 2:1 or 3:1 carbs: proteins)

Post-Workout Nutrition

As fitness professionals, one question we get asked regularly is “what should I eat after my workout”. Post-workout nutrition depends on personal goals, body type and exercise completed.

  • Consistent with the balanced diet approach in the “Carb as Needed” strategy, eating a meal with protein, carbohydrates, and fats that align with your overall goals within one hour is ideal

  • Nutrition uptake is maximized for muscle growth, fat reduction and recovery right after exercise. So, don’t wait long to refuel!

  • If your goal is to gain muscle, endurance sports, physique optimization or intermittent sports Try drinking a P+C drink immediately after a workout in addition to your meal.

  • If your goal is primarily fat loss Stick to eating a balanced meal within one hour of exercise.

In summary, proper nutrition before, during and after workouts have been shown to have substantial impacts on fitness outcomes. Striving to feed your body the right amount and at the right time is well worth the effort to improve health and fitness levels.

Be patient as you get to know your needs. Play with some of these suggestions to figure out what works best for you. You can also talk with a Nutritionist or your personal trainer for guidance.

Nutrition: The Complete Guide Official Course Text for ISSA’s Specialist in Fitness Nutrition Program John Berardi, PhD

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