by Aaron Friday, 9/22/2017
What you should eat before or after training, or what you should eat in general, is the type of question that is best answered by each individual through a combination of education and personal experimentation.
The research consistently points to advantages in eating protein before and/or after resistance training. Beyond that, how you choose to fuel your workouts and recover for the next workout largely depends on your goals. My hope is to provide some useful information and inspire you to develop pre- and post-workout nutrition strategies that work for you.
30 Minutes Before Lifting Weights
Consuming food and/or supplements 30 minutes before weight training can give you a little energy boost and greatly aid in recovery from the workout you’re about to do.
Wake Up and Get Ready to Train
Since you’ll need your brain for weight training, you should make sure it is awake and has fuel. Don’t exercise with low blood sugar. If you feel like you’re dragging a bit before class, have a slight headache, or are having trouble paying attention, try eating 15 grams of easily digested carbohydrate (about half a large banana). That should be enough to raise your blood sugar. You want to feel awake, energized, and attentive so you can be engaged in your training, have fun, and work hard enough to achieve your fitness objectives.
Certainly, being hungry is a distraction in training, so eat enough to fend off the hunger for another hour. A banana or a scoop of protein might be enough — don’t give your body a large amount of food to digest right before training.
If you need coffee or an energy drink to get ready, that’s not unusual. Have some coffee or whatever to get going. If you’re a habitual coffee user, however, you may find that it does not help at all unless you train first thing in the morning.
Repair and Build Muscle
Having 20-40 grams of easily digested protein powder 30 minutes before weight training has been shown to increase protein synthesis significantly. What this suggests is that you will build more muscle from the same workouts if you consistently have a scoop (or two) of protein powder before you train. This can also help to fend off hunger.
Protein supplements are most commonly taken after weight training, but research shows that it works just as well if you take it before training.
6 grams of essential amino acids (EAAs) pre-workout has also been shown to stimulate protein synthesis significantly. You may want to try EAAs if you don’t tolerate protein powder (or would rather ingest 6 grams of a bad-tasting powder than 30 grams!).
What About Pre-Workout Supplements?
For normal, day-to-day exercise, I don’t recommend designer pre-workout supplements. I’m talking about the $2.00 per-dose stimulant formulas that help you psych up for workouts you don’t actually want to do. My advice is to focus on real food and simple supplements and exercise in a normal state of consciousness. Let the training itself excite you. It will.
2-4 Hours Before Lifting Weights
The energy that actually moves the weights comes from glycogen and creatine, which need to be in your muscles (not your stomach) before you get to the gym. It’s important to understand that these energy sources come from all the food you’ve eaten since the last time you trained. It isn’t just what you eat two hours before your workout or the energy drink you slammed right before class that determines how much energy you’ll have for training. It’s mainly how well you’ve recovered from your last workout, which might have been two days ago.
If you work out very frequently, like every day, there’s a good chance you are operating on less than full tank of glycogen some of the time. That’s OK, except you’ll want to fill up that tank for the really tough workouts in your schedule.
You can top off your your glycogen stores well in advance by eating some carbohydrates with every meal, along with the usual protein and fat. Having some carbohydrates 4 hours prior to working out and then again 2 hours prior will help as well. Also, make sure you are staying hydrated (see How Much Water Do I Need?).
After Lifting Weights
Repair and Build Muscle
Having 20-40 grams of easily digested protein powder after weight training has been shown to increase protein synthesis significantly. This suggests that you will build more muscle from your training if you consistently have a scoop (or two) of protein powder after you train. Does this sound familiar? It should, because it’s the same benefit as having protein before you work out.
Muscles are especially receptive to nutrients right after weight training, so having a protein shake within 30 minutes post-workout is almost universally recommended. This so-called “anabolic window” supposedly lasts for about two hours after training. If you don’t want to drink protein supplements, it is imperative that you eat your next meal within two hours of training and that it contain a good dose of protein.
Store Energy for the Next Workout
If you plan to train again the next day, are trying to get as big as you can, or just want to recover as quickly as possible, post-workout is a great time to eat a lot of carbohydrates. Because glycogen stores are partially or totally drained after lifting, the carbohydrates you eat will first go toward refilling these energy stores. Carbohydrates, along with the protein, also help put a stop to the catabolism (tissue breakdown) that you’ve induced through training. That’s where recovery begins.
If you’re trying to lose weight, it’s probably not a great idea to eat a lot of carbohydrates at once. Once you’ve refilled your glycogen stores, any extra carbohydrates will start loading up your fat stores. You do need to replenish glycogen, however, but you can do it over a couple days via the usual carbohydrate content of your meals.
Frequently Asked Questions
When does it start working? Nutrition starts working immediately, but day-to-day changes are small. Just like you need to string together dozens of workouts to reap the full benefits of weight training, you need to be consistent with your nutrition. After eight weeks of three days/week training (that you never miss!) combined with conscious pre- and post-workout nutrition, you will know first-hand that it’s working.
Do I need to eat pre/post-workout if I’m trying to lose fat? Yes! Training hard and eating right (and enough) will cause you to build muscle and strengthen your metabolism, which are needed for fat loss. As we know, protein requirements actually increase when one is trying to lose fat (see How Much Protein Do I Need?). Also, everyone needs glycogen in their muscles to train the way we do, and that means eating complex carbohydrates well in advance of working out. We just need to be careful not to exceed our glycogen stores with excess carbohydrates — something that is relatively easy to do when our carbohydrates consist of vegetables, whole fruits, beans, and whole grains.
What about eating during a workout (aka, “peri-workout nutrition”) Eating during a workout is not typically needed or recommended for sessions that are 60 minutes or less. Endurance athletes have to pay attention to this, though.
What about creatine supplements? Creatine is an energy substrate used in the phosphagen energy system. It can help you train that energy system harder and, by extension, reach strength goals faster (if you respond to creatine). If you’re interested, you should read up on it and maybe give it a try. Creatine can be taken at any time, though; it is not specifically a pre- or post-workout supplement.
What are EAAs? EAAs are essential amino acids. These are the amino acids our bodies can’t manufacture, so we have to get them through food or supplements. Research shows that taking EAAs pre-workout increases protein synthesis significantly. If you don’t like protein powder, EAAs might be a good alternative. You should know that they don’t tend to work nearly as well if taken after a workout.
What about BCAAs? Branched-chain amino acids are a subset of EAAs. They are typically used before, during, and/or after workouts to spare muscle tissue by people who are restricting their calories.
What about other amino acids? Amino acids like leucine, glutamine, arginine, taurine, tyrosine, and others can be used individually to provide energy, aid in recovery, boost the immune system, etc. There tends to be a heck of a lot of disagreement about whether any of them actually do what they are purported to do with regard to strength gains, but look into them if you’re so inclined.
This information is for educational purposes only and should not be construed as dietary advice.