Ultimate Guide to Pre and Post Workout Nutrition

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Research suggests that eating right has a more significant impact on health than working out alone. Combining the two gives you the best of both worlds and allows your body to work at its peak. Learn how to combine elements of nutrition into your pre and post workout routine to get your best results ever!

It is all too often that we spend our time in the gym churning away to get great results but remain unsatisfied. Whether your workout of choice be a casual jog on the treadmill, high intensity group fitness classes, weight training, cross-fit or mixed martial arts, you should know that the workout alone may not help you to reach your health and fitness goals. What you put into your body before and after your workout can prove vital to your performance, recovery, and the overall effectiveness of your workouts.
Use this guide as your go-to resource to harness the power of pre and post workout nutrition and become the badass that you are.

Essential Nutrients for Fitness

The good news for most athletes (i.e. you) is that there are only a handful of essential nutrients you need to be concerned with for pre and post workout health. The most common nutrients that you will learn about time and time again are carbohydrates (or carbs) and protein.

All About Carbs
The Preferred Fuel Source

What are carbs?

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) describes carbohydrates as nutrients that your body uses to make glucose (1). Glucose, says the CDC, is the fuel that gives you energy and helps the body function properly. Eating carbohydrates allows glucose to enter the bloodstream, raising blood sugar levels (glucose levels). This spurs the beta cells in the pancreas to release insulin, a hormone that makes our cells absorb blood sugar for energy or storage.

Simple and Complex Carbs

There are two types of carbohydrates, simple and complex. For the sake of healthy eating, most nutritionists recommend consuming more complex carbs over simple carbs. This is not to say that you should avoid simple carbs as we will cover below.

Simple Carbs

Simple carbs are found to occur naturally in fruit, veggies and milk products. These types of carbs are digested and absorbed faster in the body. Outside of these naturally occurring incidences of simple carbs they can also be found in processed founds like corn syrup, brown sugar, lactose, dextrose and malt syrup. Limit added sugars in your diet and strive to eat more naturally occurring simple carbs from foods like fresh fruit, milk and vegetables. The CDC says that foods with added sugars have fewer nutrients than foods with naturally occurring sugars. (2)

Complex Carbs

Complex carbs contain starches and fiber and are often found in breads, grains, vegetables, and fruits. These types of carbs are digested and absorbed more slowly in the body, thus helping you to have sustained energy and keeping you fuller, longer. Starchy foods like potatoes, dry beans, peas and corn must be broken down through digestion before they can be used as a glucose source.

How much carbs do I need?

According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (3) carbohydrates should make up 45 to 65 percent of your total daily calories. You can find numerous carbohydrate calculators with simple internet searches or you can stick to the dietary guidelines and consume carbs based on your caloric intake. This information can be found on the Nutrition Facts label on the side of food products. You can base your caloric intake from this guide published on the above mentioned site:

TABLE 2-3. Estimated Calorie Needs per Day by Age, Gender, and Physical Activity Level.
Estimated amounts of calories needed to maintain calorie balance for various gender and age groups at three different levels of physical activity. The estimates are rounded to the nearest 200 calories. An individual’s calorie needs may be higher or lower than these average estimates.
Physical Activity Level*
Gender Age(years) Sedentary Moderately Active Active
Child (F/M) 2-3 1,000-1,200* 1,000-1,400* 1,000-1,400*
Female* 4-8 1,200-1,400 1,400-1,600 1,400-1,800
9-13 1,400-1,600 1,600-2,000 1,800-2,200
14-18 1,800 2,000 2,400
19-30 1,800-2,000 2,000-2,200 2,400
31-50 1,800 2,000 2,200
51+ 1,600 1,800 2,000-2,200
Male 4-8 1,200-1,400 1,400-1,600 1,600-2,000
9-13 1,600-2,000 1,800-2,200 2,000-2,600
14-18 2,000-2,400 2,400-2,800 2,800-3,200
19-30 2,400-2,600 2,600-2,800 3,000
31-50 2,200-2,400 2,400-2,600 2,800-3,000
51+ 2,000-2,200 2,200-2,400 2,400-2,800

When do I need carbs?

There is a lot of debate within the nutrition world about carbohydrates and when and if you need them. Some people say carbs make you fat, others say that carbs are essential. We are in the school of recommending carbs to help you get the fuel you need to get the most out of your workouts, so we recommend the right types of carbs at the right time. Given the aforementioned notes about simple and complex carbs, complex carbs are recommended pre workout because they provide energy and fuel for your workout. We will get more into carb consumption in-depth in an upcoming section titled “Pre Workout Recommendations.”

What are healthy sources of carbs?

Recommended, or “good carbs,” typically refer to carbs that have more fiber and complex carbohydrates. In short, these types of foods are fruits and vegetables, whole grains and beans. Here is a more detailed list of good carbs:

  • Oatmeal
  • Oat bran
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Most fruits
  • Dry beans
  • Peas
  • Whole wheat bread
  • Barley
  • Brown rice
  • Couscous
  • Whole grain cereal
  • Wheat bran
  • Most vegetables
  • Buckwheat
  • Millet
  • Wild rice
  • Quinoa
  • Whole grain barley
  • Whole grain corn
  • Whole rye
  • Whole wheat
  • Popcorn (opt for low fat without added salt)

What are unhealthy sources (processed or added sugars) of carbs?

  • Brown sugar
  • Corn sweetener
  • Corn syrup
  • Dextrose
  • Fructose
  • Fruit juice concentrates
  • Glucose
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Honey
  • Invert sugar
  • Lactose
  • Maltose
  • Malt Syrup
  • Molasses
  • Raw sugar
  • Sucrose
  • Sugar
  • Syrup

All About Protein
The essential muscle builder

What is Protein?

Proteins are complex molecules in our bodies that are required for the structure, function, and regulation of the body’s tissues and organs. The proteins that we receive from foods are digested into amino acids, the building blocks of our bodies. As it relates to working out, protein is most commonly consumed as a post-workout meal but is also important for pre-workout snacking as well.

How much do I need?

The CDC recommends that 10 to 35 percent of your daily caloric intake come from protein (5). Just as with carbohydrates, you can determine the amount of protein in a food by looking at the Nutrition Facts. Here is a screen shot taken from the CDC website showcasing the recommended dietary allowance as well as some examples of amounts of protein in food:

Recommended Dietary Allowance for Protein Here are examples of amounts of protein in food:
  • 1 cup of milk has 8 grams of protein
  • A 3-ounce piece of meat has about 21 grams of protein
  • 1 cup of dry beans has about 16 grams of protein
  • An 8-ounce container of yogurt has about 11 grams of protein
Grams of protein needed each day
Children ages 1 – 3 13
Children ages 4 - 8 19
Children ages 9 - 13 34
Girls ages 14 – 18 46
Boys ages 14 – 18 52
Women ages 19 – 70+ 46
Men ages 19 – 70+ 56

When do I need protein?

It is recommended that protein is consumed just before and immediately after workouts. Pre workout protein consumption has been shown to increase resting energy expenditure by 6 to 6.5 percent for up to 48 hours (6). Pre workout protein has also been shown to help control cortisol (the hormone that breaks down muscle).

Post workout protein consumption, the more commonly documented of the two, is essential for tissue growth and repair. It is universally accepted that post workout protein intake is beneficial in helping to repair muscles, recover, and increase strength.

What are healthy sources of protein?

Because proteins are made up of amino acids, there are numerous different kinds (of amino acids) that can be consumed. In all, there are 20 different amino acids, with the most beneficial being dubbed as “essential”:

Essential amino acids

These types of amino acids can’t be produced by our bodies so it is vital that we get these from our diets. The way protein sources contribute to our essential amino acid intake are broken down into additional categories as well:

Complete proteins
A complete protein is a source that provides all the essential amino acids. Examples of complete protein sources include: • Fish • Meat • Poultry • Dairy products (milk, eggs, and cheese)

Incomplete proteins
Incomplete protein sources are low in or lack some of the essential amino acids. Incomplete protein sources include: • Rice • Dry beans

Complementary proteins
Complementary proteins are two or more incomplete protein sources that consumed together, provide the adequate amount of essential amino acids. Combining dry beans and rice, for example, would be an example of two incomplete proteins that could provide the body adequate amounts of essential amino acids that each food could not combine on their own.

Should I Opt for Natural Occurring Protein Sources or Use Supplements?

Supplements are often used as a resource for getting protein into our bodies because they tend to be jammed packed with helpful nutrients and are highly convenient. Let’s take the option of drinking a huge glass of milk or taking a whey protein supplement into consideration. Milk, a naturally occurring protein source, can take up to seven hours for the body to absorb. A product like whey protein on the other hand, can be absorbed in as little as half an hour. We will take a deeper look into whey protein supplements for both pre workout and post workout recommendations here.

Recommended Protein List

  • Seafood
  • Poultry- White meat is best for lean protein; dark meat is higher in fat
  • Pork
  • Lean beef
  • Beans
  • Soy- soybeans (edamame) are an excellent source of protein, providing 33 grams of protein in a cup. They are also jammed packed with essential amino acids, providing you with a complete protein source.
  • Dairy products- milk, cheese, and yogurt are all good sources of protein. Choose low fat dairy products when opting for these types of proteins
  • Eggs- Hard boiled eggs contain vitamins A, D and E, and just two eggs can provide up to 12 grams of protein.

Pre Workout Recommendations

Some personal trainers would argue that the pre workout meal is the most important of the day. Sorry mom, breakfast ain’t it! The pre workout meal will determine how hard you can work out in the gym. Essentially it is the food source that provides fuel for your workout. By pre workout meal we are not referring to the protein bar you eat before working out, we are talking about the nutrient-rich meal you ate a couple of hours before you started your workout.

There is no secret pre workout meal that will help you to reach your fitness goals. A healthy diet consisting of carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats will be your best bet. Carbs, as we mentioned before, create glucose, or energy. This sustained energy will be what helps you get through your workouts and are the primary fuel source. Workout magazines Muscle & Fitness and Bodybuilding both recommend having at least two meals “under your belt” before working out. These meals should include complex carbohydrates (like sweet potatoes and whole grains) to provide you with the energy you need for a more effective workout.

However, you need not eat more carbs than the body requires otherwise they will be stored as fat. Eating meals prior to working out allows the body ample time to digest the foods and turn them into energy.

Protein taken before a workout also helps to fuel your muscles during training. It also has the following benefits:

  • Increases protein synthesis- this means pre workout protein increases amino acid delivery which helps to prevent muscle breakdown after a workout.
  • Helps to burn calories- protein taken before a workout has been shown to increase calorie burn over the subsequent 24 hours.
  • Reduce cortisol- the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (7) found that a protein and carb shake taken 30 minutes before exercise led to significant reduction in cortisol up to one day after a workout.

When should I eat before a workout?

There isn’t really a specific time that you should eat before your workout to get the best benefits; every person will differ. You can gauge the amount of carbs you should be eating by your performance at the gym or during your workout. If your energy is not sustaining during your workout, or a couple of hours before it, provide the body with some simple carbs like a handful of fruit immediately before you hit the gym. Fruit can be digested quickly and will provide you the extra energy boost you need. If protein shakes are your thing opt for a shake with a 2:1 mix of carbs to proteins roughly 30 minutes before your workout. Drink half of the shake before your workout and the other half after. The meals you eat earlier in the day can also contribute to energy levels. Having a couple of meals under your belt a couple hours before your workout can help you to sustain your energy levels. For maximum sustainability, consume foods that are high in complex carbs like sweet potatoes, oatmeal or vegetables.

Pre Workout Nutrition Takeaway

  • Prevents muscle protein breakdown
  • Prevents glycogen depletion
  • Reduces post-workout cortisol levels

Pre Workout Meal
Recommendation Guide

Fats take the longest time to digest, followed by protein, then carbs. For this reason it is recommended to have a pre workout meal that is low in fat, moderate in protein, and moderate to high in low fiber carbs. Here are some recommendations from an article in Body Building from Performance University (8).

Pre Workout Meals:
Muscle and Strength

If your goal is to build muscle and get bigger, here are the recommended foods you should be considering a few hours before your workout:

Carbs
Slow digesting carbohydrates like whole-wheat bread, wild rice, beans, fruits and vegetables. Vegetables like salads are a good choice because they help to increase blood and oxygen flow to the muscles. Shoot for around 30-40 grams if your goal is muscle and strength.

  • Why? Slow digesting carbs provide sustained energy because they slowly increase blood glucose levels in addition to modestly releasing insulin.

Protein
Lean proteins like chicken breasts, Alaskan salmon, soybeans, eggs and beans are all good.

  • Why? These proteins are great for helping to bolster protein synthesis after a workout.

Pre Workout Meals:
Weight Loss

The recommended foods for weight loss goals are similar to the meals suggested above for muscle and strength with some added supplements. For those seeking to lose weight it is important to remember that weight loss is more effective with lean muscle growth, a component of your workout that will help to burn fat while at rest.

Eat the following foods 2-3 hours before your workout.

Protein
Lean proteins like chicken breast, fish, turkey, egg whites or lean beef.

Carbs
Salad is also a good source of fiber and helps to sustain energy. Add a handful of fruit from the lower glycemic index like a berry to slowly release the energy supply.

Consider the following foods 30-60 minutes before your workout:

  • Small cup of coffee for caffeine boost
  • Whey protein- digests fasts and helps prevent muscle breakdown

Supplements:

  • BCAAs- Branched Chain Amino Acids contain the most important of amino acids. They support weight loss and provide protein synthesis in the body.
  • Creatine Monohydrate- hydrates muscle tissue.
  • Beta Alanine- amino acid that promotes muscle energy.

Post Workout Recommendations

After a workout the body is primed for growth and repair. Your post workout meal planning is thus a very important part of your strategy for building lean muscle and maintaining it. Big Al’s personal trainers universally accept protein as a tissue rebuild and repairer. Post workout, most men can benefit from around 30-45 grams and most women around 20-25 grams. Carbohydrates are also an important part of post workout meals, and help to restore depleted blood sugar and glycogen levels.

For the best recovery possible, it is important to replenish what you have lost within 30-60 minutes after you train. This can include a solid meal or a shake. The protein requirements for this meal are listed above and the carbs suggestions are as follows: 0.25-0.5 grams of carbs per pound of your target body-weight.

What’s this I hear about post workout window of opportunities for eating and benefit gain?

Studies suggest that consuming a meal within an hour of your workout significantly improves your results and recovery compared to a meal consumed just two hours after your workout. So there appears to be scientific evidence that a window of opportunity exists, and that window is no greater than 60 minutes after the completion of your workout.

  • Why? After a workout your physiology has changed: your muscles are damaged, depleted and naturally primed for nourishment. Just as we mentioned a 2:1 ratio of carbs to protein in the pre workout shake we suggest the same for your post workout meal, with at least 30-45 grams for men and 20-25 grams for women. This ratio of carbs and protein will help to restore your glycogen levels and provide the muscles the proteins they deserve to get strong and lean.

Post Workout Nutrition Takeaway

  • Aids in the recovery of muscle
  • Reduces muscle protein breakdown
  • Restores depleted glycogen levels
  • Increases overall muscle protein synthesis

Post Workout Meal Recommendation Guide

Post Workout Meals:
Muscle and Strength

To provide for the best window for muscle gains, Performance University recommends consuming the following within 30 minutes after finishing up your workout:

Protein
A protein shake such as from a supplement that contains whey protein or whey and casein.

  • Why? Slow digesting casein was tested to be superior than whey in promoting protein accretion over seven hours (9).

Carbs
Shoot for quickly absorbed carbs with high insulin response (i.e. high glycemic) like low fat yogurt (without added fruit to avoid sugar).

  • Why? After your workout your glycogen levels will be low and a quick acting, fast absorbing carb will help to maximize recovery.

Post Workout Meals:
Weight Loss

If your goal is weight loss you can almost mimic the above post workout muscle building meal – with the exception of the carbs – within 30 minutes of finishing your workout:

Proteins
Fast absorbing protein shake that contains whey or a combination of whey and casein.

Supplements:

  • BCAAs

Overview

In addition to consistent exercise, proper eating will help propel your body into the well-oiled machine that you deserve. It is important to recognize what you are putting into your body every day and especially on the days that you will be depleting your energy with exercise. Your workouts can work against you if you don’t prime and prep your body with the fuel and nutrients it needs before and after your workouts. So next time you are thinking about hitting the gym, running around the block or attending a group fitness class, consult this guide and get some ideas about what you should be eating before and after your workout to maximize your results and to give the body the foods it needs to give you the body you want!

pre and post workout nutrition