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What you eat is undoubtedly important, but what about when you eat?
Especially if you’re active and have an upcoming training event?
In this blog post I’m going to address workout nutrition from three angles:
Pre-workout nutrition is dependent on the type of workout you’re doing. Give the body what it needs when it needs it. Doing heavy strength training or sprinting on the pitch vs going for a slow jog place different demands on the body.
However, your bodies preferred form of energy is glucose – which we get from eating carbohydrates. But our bodies can only store a certain amount of carbohydrates. Think of your bodies capacity to store carbohydrates as being like a battery – once the battery is 100% charged it can’t get any fuller! So while carbohydrate intake is extremely important (especially if you’re an athlete or serious competitor), eating too many of them can cause you to spill over and store additional bodyfat.
On the flip side, what happens when the battery is empty? Thankfully, unlike our phones, our bodies don’t shut down. It will then use its secondary form of energy – fats.
Carbohydrates give us a faster release of energy (the type of carbohydrates we eat will determine how fast) while fats give us a slower, more gradual form of energy.
Going back to pre-workout nutrition, if you’re training is demanding and intense and requires a lot of effort, fuelling your session with some carbohydrate’s pre-workout will help give you the required energy to push through the session. (Note: For field athletes such as GAA, soccer and rugby players along with endurance athletes, adopting a carbohydrate loading protocol in the days leading up to the match/event will be important).
But, if the training is light to moderate in intensity, you may not need as many, or even any carbohydrates pre-workout.
However, I will give some general guidelines on pre-workout nutrition with the goal being to sustain energy and boost performance.
With the exception of team sports and endurance events (events that are 90 minutes or longer), the majority of people do not need to worry about fuelling up during your workout. Adequate fluid intake will be the most important element here.
However, if you do play a team sport such as GAA, soccer or rugby for instance, an energy drink consumed at half-time (such as Lucozade sport) helps replenish some of your lost carbohydrates. (Note: it is pointless drinking Lucozade Sport before games as you should have your carbohydrate stores topped up already!).
If you compete in endurance events such as longer distance running, triathlon or ironman training, fuelling up with 30-45g of carbohydrates every hour along with about 10-15g of protein is optimal. This could come from liquids, gels or even some food.
Post workout, the goal is to address the three r’s – refuel, recover and rehydrate. Scientific evidence suggests the post-workout window of opportunity of about 45 minutes to 60 minutes after exercising is particularly important to get a meal in to kickstart the recovery process.
Why? Because you want your body to transition from an anabolic (muscle breakdown) phase to a catabolic (muscle building phase). In theory, after exercising – particularly intense weight training or sprinting or bodies energy stores become partially or fully depleted of those carbohydrates we consumed pre-workout. In other words, our bodies used up some/all of the stored carbohydrates and potentially even tapped into fat stores for additional energy depending on the duration and intensity of exercise.
As a result, post-workout, our muscles are like sponges and are greedy to absorb some nutrients to aid in the recovery process. What nutrients? Carbohydrates and protein are of particular importance.
However, bro-science has taken that post-workout window of opportunity to a new level! i.e. slamming back a protein shake the second you finish your last rep of your last set!
Relax – you will not “lose your gainz” if you don’t have a protein shake immediately post-workout. There is no need to panic if you forgot to pack your shake and have to wait an extra hour!
While it is optimal to eat within 45-60 minutes of a workout, if you’re a busy professional who is trying to balance going to the gym and eating somewhat “healthy,” I reassure you, your overall intake of calories for the full day matters more than the 45-minute window period post workout. This means it’s ok to drive home, take a shower and cook yourself a delicious meal.
What if I Train Fasted?
I trained fasted for over 2 years straight (and still do about once or twice a week) and I didn’t notice any significant decrease in energy or strength.
In fact, I feel training fasted allowed me to be more metabolically efficient – meaning I found my body was better at conserving my carbohydrates for higher intensity exercises only and using fat as a fuel source for all other lower-intensity exercises I perform.
In other words, when I felt I needed my carbs to kick in (for max effort lifts, box jumps, conditioning etc.), I felt I can tap into them better because I had them topped up from the day before. I used to wrongly assume that “I’d be weaker today” if I hadn’t eaten prior to the gym session but that hadn’t been the case for me.
Provided your overall nutrition is consistent, there is nothing particularly wrong about training fasted – especially for recreational gym go-ers.
However, I wouldn’t recommend training fasted for athletes training on the field or someone aiming to build a lot muscle. Athletes need all the fuel they can get while building muscle is most optimally done in a calorie surplus. For a lot of people, getting the correct amount of calories is a challenge in itself. So shortening the eating window would make it even more difficult.
However, if you do train fasted I would recommend you have between 5-10g of BCAA’s pre-workout to prevent any muscle from being broken down during your session.
How Important Is Workout Nutrition?
If you want to look and feel more comfortable and confidence in your clothes, nailing your pre- and post-workout nutrition isn’t particularly important.
What’s more important is:
This means, if you’re a busy professional working long hours, you don’t need to add any additional stress to your life about “perfecting” your workout nutrition. Try to get to the gym and establish good nutrition routines into your daily life.
If you’re an athlete (field or endurance), compete at multiple events in a single-day or a meat-head who takes your lifting particularly seriously, it can be beneficial to start diving into some of the finer details mentioned above.
However, for most of us, stressing out over nutrient timing may be adding more complexity to our busy lives than what it’s worth. So focus on addressing 1-5 above firstly before you dive into the details outlined in this blog post.
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References: Ryan, A - (2009): “All About Nutrient Timing.”
St Pierra, B – “Is Nutrient Timing Dead?”
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Adrian McDonnell -
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