A question that comes up often in training is “What do I eat before and after my workout?” The answer depends entirely on how you’ve been training and more specifically what you intend to do that day.
There are two main macronutrients you’ll want to consume both pre and post workout. Carbs and Protein.
You can get your carbs from dense vegetables like sweet potatoes or other forms like Pasta if you’re not on a gluten free diet.
Protein comes from meat and fish. A very common source of protein in the fitness world is chicken. For some reason people never get tired of chicken.
You do not want to consume Fat after a workout and most people do not benefit from fat before a workout. There are a couple reasons for that and I’ll go through them.
The first being, most people do not run off of Fat as an energy source. Many diets and nutritional lifestyles focus on changing the energy source from Carbs to Fat. It’s still safe to assume though that most people operate on carbs. So - if you are one of those people who run on Fat (congrats) - you can totally eat Fat pre workout. If you’re not - it will only slow your metabolism, increase your digestion and pull away from your energy during your workout.
The other reason you wouldn’t want to eat fat before a workout is pretty obvious. You’re probably going to want to burn fat during your workout and your body will do a better job of that while it’s not digesting fat.
In general you want to eat a minimum of 2 hours before a workout but it is possible to get used to eating much sooner than that, depending on the food. I prefer to fast and train on an empty stomach.
When I refer to eating - let me be clear - we're not snackers here. Eating means a nutritionally sound meal. It almost always contains Protein, Carbohydrates and Fat. If its a pre workout meal we'll skip the fat but other than that eating needs to be associated with complete nutrition - otherwise you're making everything more difficult for your body - as the macros work together.
Now, after a workout - you should never eat fat because it slows down your metabolism and counteracts the insulin spike you’ll get from the carbs you’ll be eating. This will slow the intake of nutrients to your body at the pivotal point where it needs it the most, post workout.
So how much Carbs and Protein should you eat after your workout?
For a more Strength focused workout or a shorter Power based conditioning workout - you’ll want to have a higher ratio of Protein to carbs. This is because you’re breaking down muscle tissue and protein will be needed to rebuild this.
If your workout was higher volume, long in duration (over 20 minutes conditioning) you’ll want a larger ratio of Carbohydrates. For example if you play 6 full court basketball games, you’re going to need the carbs to recover and replenish the body.
Your body turns carbohydrates into sugars that provide energy to your muscles among other uses. Your central nervous system also benefits from carbohydrates during recovery. So sometimes fatigue from training too much can be offset by resting and eating more than usual on the carbohydrate side.
One strategy for improving your performance with nutrition before a workout is to load up on carbohydrates the night before if you know you are going to have a longer training session the next day or an endurance event. The body will convert them to sugars and if the timing is right - you’ll have much more energy for a workout.
Some people do this by accident with beer and pizza the night before. You’d be surprised how many people have a ton of energy the next day and can’t explain why until a coach ask them what they ate the night before. (Not encouraging this but it shows the point of high carb pre workout.)
The exact quantity of Protein and Carbohydrates will depend on your size and what your usual daily intake is.
For example - I’m 6’2”, 220lbs and I am active 5 days a week or more. I have a fast metabolism and I run off of fat as an energy source. This means I'm more sensitive to high carb diets and I can run leaner than most because I use fat as an energy source.
On any given day I try to get at least 180g of protein. My carbohydrates are somewhere between 60-75 and my fat intake is similar to my carbs.
Another important factor I should mention is that I fast daily, so I really only start eating until after my workout, much later in the day, around 5pm forward.
So my post workout shake has two scoops of protein in it which amount to around 50g of Protein. This is just over a quarter of my protein intake for the day.
Ultimately you’ll have to figure what works for you but the fundamental rules will help with recovery and growth. The rules are as follows.
- Carbohydrates and Protein before and after a workout, never Fat.
- Longer the workout - the more Carbohydrates needed for recovery.
- The more muscle intensive and strength oriented - the more Protein needed.
- Hydration is a requirement for performance and training.
- Sleep is the best recovery tool - period.
I’ll touch more on fasting in a future post.