Workout Nutrition: Does It Matter For You?

One often confusing piece of exercise is what to eat before and after.

Does it really matter?

How much will it affect my performance and recovery?

What if I don’t have time to eat before and after?

What I’ve been trying to drive home the past couple years with nutrition information is that the MOST important thing that matters with calories is the total amount for the day.  Even if you time everything perfectly, if you eat too much or too little it can cause unwanted weight gain or loss.

Timing does not trump total intake.  Remember that!

Second in terms of importance below total calories is the breakdown of those calories.  This comes down to how much protein, fat and carbohydrates you eat and the percent those make up of your daily calorie total.

You need to be eating enough total protein, normally around 0.8 – 1 g per lb.  From there we want to match carbohydrate intake to activity and goals and balance that with your fat intake.

If food was money (I like it)

Think about the timing like this: if you get your paycheck from work before you need to pay your bills (timing), great!  But if the paycheck isn’t big enough (daily total) or if you got paid in Bitcoin (breakdown of total) it wouldn’t matter how quickly you got paid.  If you can’t pay the full amount or use the currency needed, the timing doesn’t matter much at all.

This example is an issue I see quite often with clients.  It’s easy to get caught up in pre and post workout nutrition strategies, supplements and shakes. It’s more fun and feels more proactive to implement high-end protocols into your nutrition program.  But the return on investment requires the basics to be covered.

When timing doesn’t matter that much

1.      Be in a hyper-caloric (calorie surplus) state.  If you are eating more calories than you need, you are pretty much always in a “fed” state meaning you’ve got plenty of amino acids, glucose and fatty acids floating around to fuel workouts and help recovery

2.      Being significantly overweight. If you are significantly overweight, as in needing to lose 25lbs or more, then the same applies as above. Even if you are eating in a calorie deficit, having a lot of excess body fat means you have plenty of stored energy to help fuel you during exercise, between meals and while you sleep.  This is exactly why new and/or overweight clients can get a lot stronger, add muscle AND lost fat even when eating less than normal.

3.      Recreational exercise.  If you only come to the gym twice a week or if the majority of your exercise is short and low intensity, there is no need for meal timing.  Walking, casual bike rides, 20 minute circuits, yoga and other similar activities to not require advanced recovery techniques

When timing matters

1.      Being lean(er) and in a fat loss state.  If you are generally lean and trying to get a six pack or other significant level of leanness, timing matters.  Being in a calorie deficit means your recovery is already decrease so maximizing nutrient intake and halting muscle breakdown after training is important.

2.      Training multiple times per day.  If you’ve got double weight training sessions, or morning lift followed by sport practice, longer aerobic work or some other taxing activity – you want to time your nutrients!  Your goal is to halt muscle breakdown, restore glycogen (stored glucose) and shift to a more recovered state.

3.      If you have all other basics covered and want an extra edge.  If you have calories set, are maximizing your macronutrient breakdown and already eating well and training hard, you can maximize progress by focusing on nutrient timing.  Especially for high stress individuals, high achievers and people sensitive to blood sugar swings; nailing this down can make a big difference.

Make sure to go over these notes above and assess if you need to be focusing on timing and if that extra work is causing you to lose sight of the basics.  Trust me, the 10g of BCAA’s during a workout are not even 1% the importance of eating the correct amount of calories.  If you believe they are, you’re fooling yourself.

What makes good workout nutrition

You’ll see the word “peri-workout” when it comes to workout nutrition.  Peri just means everything taken “around” the workout window.  This means what you eat:

1.      Pre – Usually a smaller meal with an equal amount of carbs and protein, lower in fat

2.      During – Saved for more advanced athletes. This encompasses whey, amino acids, liquid carbohydrates,  creatine etc. to maximize energy and blood sugar during training

3.      Post – Usually a larger meal, with equal amounts of protein and carbs, possibly even higher carbs depending on your goal.  For most this is the highest carbohydrate meal of the day and often the most calories.  Generally fat is moderate to low

What’s the deal with carbs and exercise?

Ah, the often mis-aligned and demonized carbohydrate.  Too bad because carbs are:

C. Crazy good

A. Awesome around workouts

R. Readily available and fast digesting

B. Best fuel for muscles and nervous system

S. Spare protein for muscle growth

I know, kind of corny but I had fun with thatJ

Generally, that acrostic sums up some simple but powerful truths.  The first is that carbohydrates do NOT make you fat.  How short-sighted and general to just spew that information out there and apply it to most people.  Too many calories make you gain fat and a poorly structured diet with low protein and low quality foods leads to less muscle and more body fat, not carbohydrates.

Sure, if fat loss is your goal you will be eating fewer carbohydrates but part of that is simply because you’ll be eating fewer calories.  Since we don’t decrease protein during fat loss, we generally decrease carbs and fats.  It’s more a matter of utility than anything.

In fact, keeping some carbohydrates in around your workouts (even in a lower-carb phase) can help maximize the productivity and recovery from training.  Hence, the importance of timing for fat loss phases as noted above.

During a low-carb phase, something as simple as an apple pre-training and some sweet potatoes with your meal post-training can help you feel stronger, more energized, focused and recovered during and after exercise.

Ever feel like shi* while training with very few carbohydrates?  That’s generally your brain and nervous system competing with your muscles for glucose.  Glucose is the primary fuel for your brain and nervous system so going to low can lead to fatigue, sluggishness and feelings of weakness.  Toss that apple in there and you might feel way better.

Remember that carbohydrates are more quickly absorbed than fats or proteins.  That’s a good thing!  Don’t believe me?  Eat some high fat cheese before a squat session and tell me you don’t feel like hurling!  The slow digestion and blood flow something high in fat takes can really hamper performance.

Carbohydrates all spare protein.  This is really important because while carbohydrates are used for energy, the protein we eat can be used for building muscle.  The insulin carbohydrates stimulate also help halt muscle protein breakdown and dampen the stress hormones that elevate during training. 

Wrap up

What does all this mean?  It certainly doesn’t mean you need a foot-long sub pre-training followed by 60 pieces of sushi after.  It just means pushing the bulk of your carbs closer to workouts and then experimenting with different sources can help your performance and recovery.

As we covered, how much you eat matters more.  But if that is under control you can apply some simple strategies for getting the most out of training.

Below are some examples for men and women in regards to food amount and sources pre and post exercise to give you some practical examples to try out.

Remember the C in C.A.R.B.S stands for “crazy good”, how much more can I convince you?