We’ve all had a day on which it takes every ounce of effort we can muster to stop the whirlwind of life going on around us and get to the gym. Even if it is just for a short period of time, it is one of those days where something is better than nothing. When we have a day like this, that chaos going on around us usually doesn’t stop until we walk into the gym and it picks back up as soon as we take our first step out the door. This usually means that we fail to properly fuel our body for the workout or fail to properly fuel our body for recovery. Nutrition and supplementation are integral to fueling your body for each and every workout and allowing your body to recover each and every day.
With this comes many different questions. Should I eat a real meal or have a protein shake? When should I have it? How much should I have? How soon before or after my workout should I eat? The questions can go on and on, but what is the right answer? The right answer is not as straightforward as one might think. The research in this area is not definitive one way or another. So where should you start in order to understand how to properly fuel your body for training and recovery? To do this, you must start with the principle that you want to minimize the amount of time your body spends in a catabolic state. Catabolism is the set of metabolic pathways that breaks down molecules into smaller units that are either oxidized to release energy, or used in other anabolic reactions. Catabolism occurs as you workout. As you workout, your muscles are stressed and begin to breakdown and they need to be repaired during recovery in order to grow and allow you to get stronger. To start and maintain your recovery, you must fuel your body and avoid being in an overall catabolic state.
What Should I Eat? There are two main macronutrients that most people associate with pre- and post–workout meals/supplementation; protein and carbohydrates. A majority of your protein and carbohydrate intake should come from a high quality, well balanced diet. For most people, the macronutrient breakdown is usually somewhere in the following windows: 30-35% Protein, 25-55% Carbohydrates and 20-40% Fat. This ultimately depends on their training regimen and goals. A majority of your intake should come from your day to day diet but both can also be supplemented, especially if your goals include gaining lean muscle. Research has proven that dietary protein supplementation is an effective strategy to augment the adaptive response of skeletal muscle to prolonged resistance-type exercise and can further augment the gains in fat free muscle (Cermak et al). Carbohydrates should come mostly from your meals. Other than for endurance athletes, there is very little need for carbohydrate supplementation.
When Should I Eat? There are many different ideas out there as to the “best” time to eat or have a protein shake before and after your workout. Some say that you must eat within 30 minutes of finishing your workout. Others say you should eat within 2 hours of finishing your workout and drink a protein shake during your workout. Again, the overall idea is to turn the catabolic tide and maintain your body in an overall anabolic state and there are many different ways to do this. As far as a specific time to eat pre- and post–workout, the research is mixed. The best rule of thumb to follow is to not allow the time between your pre- and post–workout to exceed 3-4 hours (Aragon and Schoenfeld). You can also apply this rule for all meals and not just the bookends of your workout. This will ensure that your body maintains an anabolic state around your workout period and throughout the rest of the day. If you know that your schedule is going to derail your window of opportunity, a protein supplement can come in handy. Another situation that many of us might find ourselves in is working out first thing in the morning. I am personally a fan of this because it is the only part of the day that I can control, but it can come at a cost. When you workout right after you wake up, your body has been fasting for the last 6-8 hours and is not in the ideal state to workout. In this case, to reverse the catabolic state your body has been in for the last 7-9 hours you must eat or have a protein supplement as soon as possible after your workout is finished and eat a full meal within a few hours after completing your workout.
How Much Should I Eat? Again, the right answer for this greatly depends on your training regimen and goals. Everyone’s body is different and in turn has different requirements. You will learn a lot of this over time as you better learn your body and understand its response to training. Tracking your daily calorie intake/goals and macronutrients will help with your portioning for pre- and post–workout meals as well as the rest of your meals throughout the day. Keeping your meal portions in line with your macronutrients is one of the easier ways to ensure your body is getting what it needs. The only caveat to this is having smaller portions of fat in your pre- and post–workout meals as it can slow down the digestion process. For training periods, research has shown that high quality protein dosed at 0.4-0.5 g/kg of body mass at both pre- and post-exercise has a maximal acute anabolic effect with 20-40 grams of protein (Aragon and Schoenfeld). This protein should constitute a portion of your daily macronutrients. Using a tracking app like MyFitnessPal or any of the other nutrition tracking apps is an easy way to track what you are eating and they will allow you to see where you are in meeting your calorie and macronutrient goals.
In summary, be sure to align your daily caloric intake and macronutrient needs with your overall training goals. Plan your eating timeline throughout the day such that it does not exceed a 3-4 hour window and keeps your body properly fueled especially for your workouts. If you follow these guidelines you will be performing and recovering better in no time.
- Aragon AA and Schoenfeld BJ (2013) Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window? Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 10: 5
- Cermak NM, Res PT, de Groot LC, Saris WHM, van Loon LJC (2012) Protein supplementation augments the adaptive response of skeletal muscle to resistance-type exercise training: a meta-analysis. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 96: 1454-64