What to eat before and after a workout is always a hot topic of conversation. It doesn’t help that if you were to ask a personal trainer, a registered dietitian nutritionist, or medical doctor, you will probably get 3 very different answers.
A workout and proper nutrition… they go together like peanut butter, and, uh… well not jelly… something more nutritious… they go together like peanut butter and banana.
We’re finding that the most critical times for proper nutrition when it comes to exercise performance, fat burning, and muscle growth is right before and right after your workout.
Why is proper nutrition right before and after a workout so important?
Well, you want to be sure that you providing your body with enough of the right kind of fuel to perform its best. Then, why does what we eat after a workout make a difference? We didn’t know this 10 years ago, but it turns out that right after we finish our run, drop that last weight, or swim that last lap, the cells in our bodies begin hunting for certain nutrients. Those nutrients are water (obviously), carbohydrate, and protein. Some would also argue that you may need some electrolytes after a workout. By the way, people who use the word “electrolytes” are just trying to sound fancy. Electrolytes simply refer to vitamins and minerals. For endurance athletes, yes, they may need some extra sodium (salt) and potassium, but for the average person, this isn’t as big of a deal.
How much water, carbs, and protein do you need before and after your workout?
Let’s imagine you’re going to hit the gym in about 2 hours. Here’s what you’re going to want to do: drink about 17 to 20 fl oz of water (or a sports drink). You’re also going to want to fuel your body to perform at its best. The body is going to need some carbohydrate and some protein. Notice I said “some” – I didn’t say a lot.
- A piece of whole grain toast topped with 2 tbs of peanut or almond butter would work just fine
- Or, an apple and a stick of string cheese
- Or, 1 whole egg, topped with a slice of melted Swiss cheese sitting on a whole wheat English muffin
If you are performing high intensity, interval-style exercises, consuming some carbohydrates about 30 minutes before your workout can be beneficial. Then, 10-20 minutes before you start your exercise, have another 7 to 10 fl oz of water or a sports drink.
Let me take a step back here: what’s 7 or 10 fl oz? One easy way to get a really rough “guesstimate” is to make a fist. Now look at your fist. That’s about 8 fl oz of fluid, or 1 cup… same thing. Aim to drink 2 fist-sized glasses of water 2-3 hours before you workout and at least one 10-20 minutes before.
What Should You Eat After a Workout to Help Maximize Your Gains?
Of course, protein is important. This is because our muscles are made of proteins.
First, I will use my psychic abilities and go out on a limb by saying you’re likely already consuming enough protein each day. How could I possibly know this? This is because there have been a lot of data collected on how much and what types of food populations around the world consume regularly, and most people consume plenty of protein each day.
Do we need protein immediately after a workout to help support muscle growth?
After your workout, especially after strength training, researchers are discovering that consuming 20 grams of leucine-rich protein is often recommended. Leucine-rich proteins can be found in:
- animal products
How much is 20 g of protein? 3 oz. of chicken would contain about 27 grams of protein. 3 oz. isn’t much–it’s about the size of a deck of cards.
Consuming Some Carbohydrate After a Workout is Beneficial
Carbohydrates are beneficial after a workout because they can help our bodies absorb that leucine-rich protein more efficiently.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends we aim for about 1 gram of carbohydrate per kg of body weight after a workout. This does take a little bit of math to figure out, but stick with me, it’s not too bad.
Let’s say you weigh 150 lbs. You first need to convert weight in lbs. to weight in kg. To do this, divide your body weight by 2.2. Using my example, divide 150 by 2.2. Plugging into my imaginary calculator, this means 150 lbs. is equivalent to 68.2 kg. No matter what you weigh, use this same formula.
Now that we know your hypothetical body weight in kg, the math is super simple now! Because the American College of Sports Medicine says you need 1 gram of carbohydrate per kg of body weight, you don’t need to do anything else… you have your answer! If you weigh 150 lbs., you should consume about 70 g of carbohydrate after a workout. This would be like eating a bowl of oatmeal topped with blueberries.
Combine that with about 20 grams of leucine-rich protein (which would be like 6 oz. of Greek yogurt), and you’ve met all of your post-workout needs.
Should You Eat Before or After a Workout?
Researchers are discovering that the timing of this post-workout meal is important. The goal is to consume these foods within 20-30 minutes after finishing your workout. After a workout, the demand for protein is high which makes it the best time to replenish it.
Because carbohydrate actually helps with protein absorption, eating both within 20-30 minutes of your workout is ideal.
Should You Supplement with Protein?
I won’t be able to discuss every single one, but just the ones that are most popular.
Creatine, also known as creatine monohydrate, has been found to improve performance and muscle gains for most healthy adults. Our bodies actually make creatine naturally, but researchers have found that in active people, and especially those that lift weights, extra creatine may help.
There are some side effects with its use. I don’t usually recommend creatine to those with a history or a family history of kidney disease. This is because it may lead to the body retaining more water, and the kidneys are in charge of helping the body get rid of not only water, but any extra creatine, too.
If you do use it, you’ll need to pay attention to the dosing indicated on the packaging. And, yes, it is good to cycle on and off. But I can’t provide specifics without knowing the dosages.
Before you run out and buy creatine supplements, I must quote the International Society of Sports Nutrition:
The same result [of improved performance] can be achieved with the ingestion of sufficient carbohydrates and high biological value protein.
Beta-alanine is a protein, and one of its main jobs is to reduce lactic acid buildup.
Think about the last time you sprinted really hard. Did the muscles in your legs start to burn? That’s caused by the buildup of lactic acid. Our bodies produce lactic acid normally when we perform very high intensity movements. Most of us can’t wait to stop and take a rest when we feel our muscles burn like that.
The thinking is: by supplementing with beta-alanine, you will get less of this lactic acid buildup. Your muscles won’t feel like they’re on fire, which will allow you to workout at these high intensities for longer.
Unfortunately, there is conflicting data on this. At this time, there is simply not enough information to know whether supplementing with beta-alanine is safe or effective in the short or long-term. I would save your money on this one.
Glutamine is also a protein. Our bodies can actually make glutamine on their own. We actually don’t need to get this protein from our diets. So why would anyone want to supplement with it?
Glutamine is interesting because when the body is undergoing extreme stress or has gone through some trauma, we can’t make enough of it to heal ourselves. Under those specific conditions, we may need to supplement with it.
Some have argued, “Well, I train so hard and I’m so sore afterwards… doesn’t that count as extreme stress for the body? What about all that muscle breakdown? Doesn’t that count as trauma?”
Technically, sure. But what we’re finding from research studies is that while it's safe to take as a supplement, extra glutamine doesn’t help improve performance, immune functioning, or the body's ability to heal any faster.
Whey is one of the proteins found in milk (the other is casein). If you drink milk or consume any products made from milk, you are consuming whey protein. You’re also getting some leucine.
What’s frustrating is that we simply don’t know if whey is helpful or not. From what I have seen, whey protein supplementation is most helpful for those that are over the age of 60 and participate in a strength training program.
Summary of Sports Supplements
Here’s my take on sports supplements:
- Most do not appear to help in reality
- The quality of supplement is very important. Do your research before buying! I recommend the website Consumerlab.com–they’re an independent organization that tests for the quality and purity of many of the popular supplements on the market
- Many of the studies that have been performed focus on comparing protein supplements against each other. We really need more research comparing protein supplements with real food to see if eating more nutritious foods would lead to the same or better results.
I will quote the authors of a research article written by experts in the field of Sports Medicine:
Although most supplements may be considered as safe when taken at the recommended doses, athletes should be aware of the potential risks linked to the consumption of supplements. In addition to the risks linked to overdosage and cross-effects when combining different supplements at the same time, inadvertent or deliberate contamination with stimulants, estrogenic compounds, diuretics, or anabolic agents may occur.
What’s the bottom line here? First, you likely don’t need a protein supplement. If you want to help your body build strength and muscle as efficiently as possible, consider focusing instead on consuming some leucine-rich foods within 20-30 minutes after finishing your workout. Then, do your best to stay consistent with your strength training and follow a meal plan full of balance and variety, and you’ll build that strength and see those muscles popping in due time.