I get asked questions about what foods and when to eat before/during/after workouts (referred to as peri-workout nutrition) to maximize results in the gym quite a bit. It’s one of those details that attention is given to because everyone intuitively recognizes the value in sound peri-workout nutrition practices. However, it’s not nearly as complicated as you might think. In fact, the value of consuming specific nutrients around your workouts has shown to be less important than we once thought. Worry not - I’ll guide you through the relevant details to help make sure that you’re on the path to success. Also, keep in mind that I’ll primarily be talking about peri-workout nutrition strategies with respect to resistance training, unless noted otherwise.
First of all, make sure your priorities are straight - peri-workout nutrition should not be your highest priority. Make sure your caloric intake is set to a value that is appropriate for your goals. Do you want to build muscle or lose fat? If your calorie intake doesn’t reflect your goals, then it’s probably more important to devote your energy to making sure that’s in order before your worry about peri-workout nutrition. Are you consuming adequate protein to maximize changes to body composition? If you’re not ingesting 1.5-2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight each day (this can be adjusted if you have very high body fat or very low muscle mass), then don’t worry so much about peri-workout nutrition. Consuming adequate protein throughout the day is far more important than consuming protein at a specific time relative to your workout. If drinking a protein shake after your workout happens to be an easy way for you to get in the protein you need to meet your goals, then more power to you.
Alright, let’s assume that your daily calorie and protein intakes are where they need to be to meet your goals. Then, is it better to consume calories before, during, or after the workout? Well, the answer is that either can work. Basically, it’s ideal to not allow a window of greater than 4-5 hours between the meals that sandwich your workouts. If you ate 3 hours before your workout, and your workout lasted an hour, then you probably want to consume something pretty soon after you finish. In fact, it’s even totally fine to workout first thing in the morning on an empty stomach, but just keep in mind that post-workout nutrition becomes significantly more important in this scenario. Let’s assume that you generally eat pretty soon before your workout. If you eat an hour before your workout, and your workout lasts another hour, then as long as you eat in the next 2-3 hours you won’t be leaving any gains behind (disclaimer: some people report GI distress when eating that soon before a workout. I’ve had numerous clients over the years who felt more energized eating shortly before their workout, but plenty of others who had upset stomachs as a result. Make sure you do what works for you).
Consuming calories during a workout is really only necessary during very long workouts. Personally, I do it sometimes because I make my protein shakes with a lot of water in them; it helps me hydrate during a workout, and I find it very convenient. However, this practice isn’t something I would say is necessary or beneficial aside from the practicality factor. Bottom line: make sure you’re not going too long on either end of your workout and you’ll be fine.
So, now that we know when, let’s tackle the what. Should you consume carbs, protein, whole foods, shakes, etc? Top priority is protein. The minimum amount you should consume pre- or post-workout is about 20g. If you are in your 60's or older, then 40g may be more appropriate. For some reason, age seems to influence the body’s response to ingesting a particular amino acid called leucine, which helps to trigger increases in protein synthesis (an important part of building muscle). It doesn’t particularly matter if it’s a shake or whole food either - this should be dictated by convenience and practicality. Protein shakes conveniently range from 20-30g per serving, so they can work just fine. However, shakes are only necessary if the ease of use is important to you. If you’d rather consume whole foods, then by all means, go that route. Your GI response should also be considered. If it’s most convenient for you to eat shortly before a workout, you may find protein shakes work well because they’re easy to digest. However, plenty of people can eat whole foods before their workouts without issue. What about carbs? Well, it used to be thought that you had to consume all of this stuff in a short window right after your workout. In reality, consuming calories within that window isn't particularly valuable, considering that studies have shown that doing so doesn't significantly alter results. However, it is important to consume carbs if you’re working out again relatively soon. For example, if you worked out at 6PM, and plan on working out the following morning at 7AM, then you probably want to get some carbs in before you go to bed to make sure performance in the workout the following morning is unaffected. Otherwise, eating fairly normally will probably take care of your carb needs. Even then, carbs aren’t totally necessary for all resistance training workouts. If you’re doing very traditional strength training in low to moderate rep ranges (basically under 10 repetitions per set), then carbs don’t matter a ton. You will eventually want to consume some, but you don’t deplete enough of your muscles’ stored carbs for it to be a huge concern. If you’re performing especially long or high-volume (high-repetition) workouts, then carbs become more important.
- The meals surrounding your workout should be about 4-5 hours apart
- Consuming calories during a workout only matter if that workout length exceeds 2 hours
- Protein is important in peri-workout nutrition, but total daily intake is more important
- Carbs become more important with increasing workout length/workout volumes
That’s really all there is to it. Hopefully that makes peri-workout nutrition practices seems less obnoxious and complicated. Making sure these practices are sustainable and reasonable to carry out is perhaps the most important aspect of all. Thankfully, the things that truly matter with respect to workout nutrition are fairly easy to follow.