Pre & Post Workout Nutrition

Years ago, my pre-and post-workout meals were like sacred, inalienable rituals to be observed without deviation. Drinking a  protein shake pre and post-workout was crucial, I believed, and especially after, when your body’s “anabolic window” was rapidly closing and with it your opportunity for maximum muscle and strength gain. Chances are you’ve heard something similar.

Bodybuilders and gym-goers alike have been singing pre-and post-workout nutrition praises for decades. How important are these meals, though? Does eating before or after workouts matter? The long story short is this: Eating before and after exercises isn’t vital, but it’s not entirely without merit, either. And in this chapter, you’re going to get the whole story, including why pre-and post-workout nutrition is even a “thing,” the best type of pre-and post-workout meals, the truth about the “anabolic window,” and more. So let’s start with pre-workout nutrition.

-Should You Eat Protein Before You Work Out?

If you haven’t consumed protein in the three to four hours after your workout, then it’s a good idea to consume between 30 to 40 grams before your workout. If you have ingested protein in the last few hours, though, then you don’t need to eat more. Instead, you can eat after your workout. Now let’s take a minute to dive into this advice because it helps you understand pre-workout nutrition better and nutrition and muscle building on the whole. We recall that as far as muscle building goes, eating protein does two vital things:

1. It bumps muscle protein synthesis rates and suppresses muscle protein breakdown rates.

2. It gives your body the raw materials that are needed in order to build muscle tissue.

This is why you must eat enough protein every day to maximize muscle growth. However, while there’s evidence that eating protein before a resistance training workout can magnify its effects on muscle protein synthesis rates, the results don’t appear to be strong enough to support the claim that having protein before an exercise is superior to not having it beforehand. 

Instead, pre-workout protein is best viewed in the context of your entire diet.

If you haven’t eaten protein three to four hours preceding your workout, your body’s muscle protein synthesis rates are going to decrease to a  low baseline level. Unfortunately, this means that your body’s muscle-building machinery will be idle, waiting for the next feeding of protein to kickstart it into action.

Think of any time where this apparatus is dormant as lost production time. Your body could have been building muscle if only it were given the right stimulus and supplies.

Ideally, then, you’d eat another serving of protein more or less immediately after muscle protein synthesis rates bottom out. By doing this, you’d effectively keep muscle protein synthesis elevated throughout the entirety of your waking hours. (And you’d also ideally eat protein before going to bed to boost them while you sleep.) 

If you start your workout several hours after eating, you’re letting that muscle-building equipment remain stagnant for a more extended period. Conversely, if you don’t eat after the training for too long, muscle protein breakdown rates will rise to exceed synthesis rates, which can ultimately result in muscle loss.

This is why you must eat protein before you work out if it has been a few hours since you last consumed any. It’ll prime your body to build muscle again, and as I mentioned, it may even start to receive a more significant anabolic boost from the training.

Suppose you have eaten protein an hour or two before a workout. In that case, however, amino acids will still be in your bloodstream, insulin levels will still increase, and muscle protein synthesis rates will still be climbing. Thus, eating protein again won’t accomplish much.

This is why a study conducted by scientists at the University of Tartu found that weightlifters who added two protein shakes before and after their workouts on top of their regular diet didn’t gain more muscle or strength than weightlifters who consumed protein shakes five-plus hours before and after their workouts.

Carbs Before Training?

Yes. The data on eating carbs before a workout is transparent: it enhances endurance and overall strength.

Specifically, consuming carbs 15 to 60 minutes before working out will help you push harder in your training and may also aid in post-workout recovery and muscle growth.

Eating carbs before training provides your body with an abundance of glucose to burn for immediate energy. There are three ways that this can help:

1. The more glucose that’s accessible for your muscles to burn, the better you’re going to perform in your workouts (especially if your workouts are more prolonged and intense).

2. Increasing blood glucose levels helps preserve the glycogen stored in your muscles because your body doesn’t need to draw from these glycogen stores as heavily to fuel your training.

This, in turn, improves performance.

3. Research suggests that maintaining higher muscle glycogen levels improves cellular signaling related to muscle building.

So, by consuming carbs before you train, you’ll have more energy in your workouts, which will help you put up better numbers and thus progress faster, and it may also enhance your body’s ability to build muscle.

What consuming carbs before a workout won’t do, however, is directly enhance muscle growth. Unfortunately, carbs don’t share the same anabolic properties as protein.

How much carbohydrate should you eat before working out, and what types are best?

Studies show that 30 to 40 grams of any carbohydrate eaten about 30 minutes before a training session will be enough for our purposes.

You can have any fruit, starch, simple sugars, etc. Choose whatever you enjoy most and is easiest on your stomach.

You don’t need to buy fancy, overpriced carb supplements. They’re usually tubs of simple sugars like maltodextrin or dextrose, which aren’t wrong sources of pre-workout carbs per se, but they don’t offer any unique benefits, either.

My favorite pre-workout carbs are nutritious whole foods like oatmeal, bananas, dates, figs, melons, white potatoes, white rice, raisins, and sweet potatoes.

Should You Eat Fat before You Work Out?

You can eat fat before a workout, but you don’t necessarily have to. There are a lot of speculations involved around how eating fat before an exercise can improve performance, but the scientific literature says otherwise.

A good write-up of the existing research on the matter can be found in a study conducted by scientists at Deakin University.9 Here’s the conclusion of their data:

“Thus, it would appear that while such a strategy can have a marked effect on exercise metabolism (i.e., reduced carbohydrate utilization), there is no beneficial effect on exercise performance.

Chalk up yet another strike against high-fat, low-carb dieting”.

Should You Eat Protein after You Work Out?

Yes, it’s optimal to consume between 30 to 40 grams of protein within an hour or two of finishing a workout.

We recall that muscle protein breakdown rates go on the rise after we finish training, quickly exceeding the rate of protein synthesis.

Muscle gain can’t happen until this reverses (synthesis rates outstrip breakdown rates), and eating protein causes exactly that by:

1. Providing the amino acid leucine, which directly stimulates muscle protein synthesis.

2. Stimulating insulin production, which suppresses muscle protein breakdown rates.

Studies also show that protein is eaten after a workout causes more muscle protein synthesis than when eaten otherwise.

Should You Eat Carbs after You Work Out?

We can.

We’re often told to consume carbs after working out to spike insulin levels, which is supposed to supercharge muscle growth in various ways.

Unfortunately, studies suggest this doesn’t work, and adding carbs to your post-workout meals doesn’t accelerate muscle gain.

Only moderate amounts of insulin elevation are needed to minimize muscle protein breakdown rates, and you can quickly achieve this with a sufficient dose of protein.

That said, adding carbs to your post-workout meal will elevate insulin levels for a more extended period, which is sensible from a muscle-building standpoint because, as you know, insulin suppresses muscle protein breakdown.

This is a prime example of why high-carb diets are better for gaining muscle than low-carb ones. Studies show that high-carb diets result in higher insulin levels, resulting in lower muscle protein breakdown rates, which promotes more muscle gain.

Another benefit to eating carbs after a workout is refilling your muscles with glycogen. Body glycogen replenishment gives your body a  nice post-workout pump. Glycogen can also boost your mood, but it doesn’t improve overall workout performance unless you train again.

It’s also important to note that the body will not store carbs as fat until glycogen stores have been replenished, which is why people often recommend eating your most carb-rich meals immediately after you work out.

It is debatable how much this can benefit your body composition over time, but it certainly won’t hurt.

Should You Eat Fat after You Work Out?

Sure, if you want to. 

Some people claim that you shouldn’t because it slows down the process of digesting and absorbing the post-workout protein and carbs that your body so desperately needs. It’s true that consuming fat with a protein- or carb-rich meal slows down the rate at which food is cleared from the stomach, but it’s not true that this makes for less adequate post-workout nutrition.

For example, several studies have stated that the fat content of a meal does not affect glycogen replenishment rates. Studies also conclude that whole milk can be more anabolic than nonfat milk.

-What about the “Anabolic Window”?

No discussion of post-workout nutrition is complete without mentioning the anabolic threshold.

The main idea here is that once you’ve finished a workout, you need to eat within a specific amount of time, generally between 30 to 60 minutes,  to maximize muscle gain. If you don’t, the story goes, you’ll gain less muscle from the workout.

How true is this, though? It depends on when you last consumed protein.

If you neglect to eat protein in the three to four-plus hours preceding your workout, muscle protein synthesis will likely be at a low baseline level. It would make sense, then, to eat protein soon after you finish in the gym. If you don’t, you’re not missing out on an exceptional opportunity to gain muscle faster, but your body can’t start building muscle until you eat.

If you have eaten protein within a few hours of starting your workout, however, then the timing of your post-workout meal is not as important. Your body will still be in the process of breaking down the food that you recently ate. Because of this, you can eat immediately after your workout if you choose to. You can wait until it has been up to three to four hours since your last meal as well. It’s a known fact that your pre-and post-workout meals are the most important meals of the day.

This isn’t true. 

So long as your diet is set up correctly, on the whole, no individual meal ranks high above another. In other words, so long as your daily calorie intake and macros are on point when you are eating isn’t going to greatly have an impact on your results one way or another.

That said, getting your pre-and post-workout nutrition right can give you a slight edge over the long term, so why not take every advantage you can get?

-Key Takeaways

▪️If you haven’t consumed protein in the three to four hours preceding your workout, then it’s a good idea to take in between 30 to 40 grams before you train.

▪️If you’ve eaten protein an hour or two before a workout, eating protein again won’t accomplish much.

▪️Eating carbs 15 to 60 minutes before your training session will help you train harder and aid in post-workout recovery and muscle growth.

▪️Eat between 30 to 40 grams of any type of carbohydrate about 30 minutes before a workout.

Choose whatever carbohydrate you enjoy most and is easiest on your stomach.

▪️There are numerous theories about how eating fat before a workout can improve performance, but the scientific literature disagrees.

▪️ It’s an excellent idea to consume 30 to 40 grams of protein within an hour or two of finishing a workout.

▪️ protein eaten after a workout causes more muscle protein synthesis than eaten otherwise.

▪️Adding carbs to your post-workout meal will keep insulin levels elevated for longer, which is desirable from a muscle-building standpoint because insulin suppresses muscle protein breakdown.

▪️High-carb diets result in higher insulin levels, which decreases the rate of muscle protein breakdown, which in turn produces more muscle gain.

▪️One other benefit to eating carbs after a workout is refilling your muscles with glycogen.

This whole-body glycogen replenishment can give you a nice post-workout pump and mood boost, but it doesn’t appear to improve overall workout performance unless you are training again later in the same day.

▪️The body won’t store carbs as fat until glycogen stores have been refilled, which is why people often recommend eating your most carb-rich meals immediately after you work out.

How much this can benefit your body composition over time is debatable.

▪️ While it’s true that adding fat to a protein- or carb-rich meal slows down the rate at which food is cleared from the stomach, it’s not true that this makes for less adequate post-workout nutrition.

▪️The idea behind the anabolic window is that once you’ve finished a workout, you need to eat within a certain amount of time (30 to 60 minutes, generally) to maximize muscle gain.

▪️ If you haven’t eaten protein in the three to four-plus hours preceding your workout, it makes sense to eat protein soon after you finish in the gym.

▪️ If you haven’t eaten protein in the three to four-plus hours preceding your workout, it makes sense to eat protein soon after you finish in the gym.

▪️If you’ve eaten protein within a few hours of starting your workout, you can eat immediately after your training is finished if you like, but you can wait until it has been up to three to four hours since your last meal as well.

▪️ So long as your daily calories and macros are on point when you eat isn’t going to greatly influence your results one way or another. 

References:

  1. Biolo G, Tipton KD, Klein S, Wolfe RR. An abundant supply of amino acids enhances the metabolic effect of exercise on muscle protein. Am J Physiol Metab. 1997;273(1):E122-E129. doi:10.1152/ajpendo.1997.273.1.E122.
  2. Kumar V, Atherton P, Smith K, Rennie MJ. Human muscle protein synthesis and breakdown during and after exercise. J Appl Physiol. 2009;106(6):2026-2039. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.91481.2008.
  3. Burk A, Timpmann S, Medijainen L, Vähi M, Ööpik V. Time-divided ingestion pattern of casein-based protein supplement stimulates an increase in fat-free body mass during resistance training in young untrained men. Nutr Res. 2009;29(6):405-413. doi:10.1016/j.nutres.2009.03.008.
  4. Jeukendrup AE, Killer SC. The Myths Surrounding Pre-Exercise Carbohydrate Feeding. Ann Nutr Metab. 2010;57(s2):18-25. doi:10.1159/000322698; Hargreaves M, Hawley JA, Jeukendrup A. Pre-exercise carbohydrate and fat ingestion: effects on metabolism and performance. J Sports Sci. 2004;22(1):31-38. doi:10.1080/0264041031000140536.
  5. Hargreaves M, Hawley JA, Jeukendrup A. Pre-exercise carbohydrate and fat ingestion: effects on metabolism and performance. J Sports Sci. 2004;22(1):31-38. doi:10.1080/0264041031000140536.
  6. Gelfand RA, Barrett EJ. Effect of physiologic hyperinsulinemia on skeletal muscle protein synthesis and breakdown in man. J Clin Invest. 1987;80(1):1-6. doi:10.1172/JCI113033.
  7. Hamer HM, Wall BT, Kiskini A, et al. Carbohydrate co-ingestion with protein does not further augment post-prandial muscle protein accretion in older men. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2013;10(1):15.
  8. Jentjens R, Jeukendrup A. Determinants of post-exercise glycogen synthesis during short-term recovery. Sports Med. 2003;33(2):117-144. Ivy J. Glycogen Resynthesis After Exercise: Effect of Carbohydrate Intake. Int J Sports Med. 1998;19(S 2):S142-S145. doi:10.1055/s-2007-971981.

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