Pre & post workout nutrition: timing your meals
Without the right macronutrients at the right time, all your effort in the gym is wasted. From a biological perspective, when you eat can be just as important as what you eat.
Pre-workout nutrition is all about energy conservation. You want to fill up on all the fuel you can so that your muscles can reach their physical potential and you can exert all the energy you possibly can. It’s like filling up the gas tank of a vehicle. The better you fill, the longer you can go. You want to rev up your glycogen levels which means lots of slow-digesting carbs, according to BodyBuilding.com. Oatmeal, pancakes, rice, or bread are all good options.
Protein before the gym is also a good option because it kick starts the protein-synthesis process you need to build muscle. Proteins in your body are being broken down as you exercise and having freshly consumed protein ready in your system prevents any muscle catabolism, or deterioration. Proteins also digest nice and slow so you won’t get munchy while your trying to lift.
The best time to eat your pre-workout meal is about an hour before you train. That way the food has time to digest and is ready to be burned up for energy. This timing can vary based on your individual metabolism, the size of the meal, and any digestive quirks you may have. If you rush in to the gym on a full stomach, certain exercises might be more challenging for you and worst case scenario, you might experience some nausea. Nothing like some intense cardio to induce instant vomit. But if you wait too long, say more than 3 or 4 hours, that food is no longer readily available in your system, and you may end up feeling more fatigued during your workout.
Perfectly timed pre-workout nutrition can also support that satisfying “pump” in the gym. Your muscles look more full during your workouts because blood is constantly being flooded to those areas. The food you ate before the gym plays a huge role in that “pump” process.
Not only carbs, but carbs high in sodium can be the perfect concoction for full, vascular muscles. By adding more salt to your pre-workout meal, your body will naturally hold more water especially in your muscle cells. Sodium also helps regulate your blood pressure and the fullness of your blood vessels, which is why your veins start to look more like a legible roadmap in the gym after you eat a salty meal. If you’re a big sweater, sodium call also help to replenish your electrolyte levels and keep you hydrated.
Though pre-workout meals are important, post-workout nutrition can completely make or break a physique. Post-workout nutrition determines your muscles’ ability to heal, regrow, and perform. If you’re feeling painfully sore for days on end after your workout, it’s probably because you didn’t fill up on the right foods to help your body recover.
One of the first hormones that comes into play after your workout is insulin. When you exercise, your muscle cells can start to leak out essential nutrients. Insulin is responsible for sending these nutrients to the cells in the first place and keeping them there. So with that in mind, spiking your insulin levels is your best bet after a tough workout. Insulin responds immediately to fast-digesting carbs and simple sugars. This is why you might see a bodybuilder down something like gummy bears or other sweets right after a workout. It seems counterproductive, but the breakdown of the ingredients can actually be helpful. Other good choices for carbs include sweet potatoes, fruits, and even some cereals. Carbohydrates are digested and stored as glycogen pre-workout, and as you exert energy, your glycogen levels are depleted. So it makes sense that when you’re all out of carbs it’s time to stock up on some more.
But even without the supplement of carbs, proteins post-workout are an absolute must. And you want to start getting them into your system as quickly as you can. That’s why you may see some fitness pros at your gym whipping out shakers full of protein powder before they’ve even stepped outside. Without available protein, your body can’t synthesize the right nutrients to build muscle so it will start breaking them down instead. Getting fast-digesting protein into your body makes sure that you’re not losing any mass and consistently making strides to new growth. You should shoot for about 20 to 40 grams right after your training.
The urgent timing of this post workout protein is called the “anabolic window”. The anabolic window is that prime period of time, about 20 minutes to an hour, after your workout when your muscles are the most susceptible to nutrients. The theory is that your muscle cells are like sponges right after you leave the gym and will soak up just about anything you feed them, but this opportunity is short lived, and the longer you wait, the less effective food can be. Researchers have gone back and forth on this topic. According to a BodyBuilding.com study, the anabolic window only applies to people who workout fasted. If you go into a workout without any food, your body’s already in a state of breakdown so post workout nutrition is that much more urgent. But for a fully fueled body, the anabolic window doesn’t always apply. Subjects could still effectively synthesize protein even 3 hours after their workout. Your post-workout protein supplementation really comes down to how your body responds, so take a closer look at your physical progress and see the kind of diet that helped you get there.
There’s so much you can do to promote new muscle growth in your body. It may seem like a painfully slow process, but it goes beyond just throwing weight around in the gym. If you want to pull out all the stops and find a way to guarantee your own success, put your diet under a magnifying glass. Go beyond prepping your meals. Time your meals, make a schedule, prep your body for your workouts and recover like a pro. Check all the boxes of not only your exercise routine, but your diet as well so that there’s zero chance of your goals not becoming a reality. Teach your body that there’s no limits it can’t overcome.
Take it from me
I’ve set some pretty lofty fitness goals for myself in the next few years and I want to do absolutely everything I can to get there. Showing up for the gym is a big part of it, but none of it is possible unless my diet is in check. I look at my diet as my super power and this amazing thing I can use to fuel my own performance. I don’t have to accept my physical limitations because there’s so much improvement available to me in the food that I eat.
I can physically feel the difference in my body when my pre-workout meal isn’t up to par. If I don’t have enough carbs in the tank, I’m noticeably weaker and have to take plates off the bar. My best lifts are days when I’m full of food and stocked up on energy. Give me the same exact workout with a different meal plan and my performance will be completely different.
Right now, my pre-workout go to is oatmeal or pancakes, something bready and filling. Post-workout I’m all about the protein shakes. I love vanilla protein powder with a little banana and peanut butter. That way I’m getting carbs, protein and a little sugar. Lately, I’ve even thrown in a poptart or some other low calorie sweet treat. My body loves consistency, so as long as I’m giving it the nutrients it’s used to on the same schedule every day, I can feel the benefits.