Pre and Post Workout Nutrition: What Does the Science Say

When it comes to nutrition, especially in relation to exercising, we’re all left feeling a bit confused and frustrated here. There’s a plethora of advice and rules out there related to what and when you need to eat if you intend your exercise to be effective at all. OK, so we know we need to eat protein for muscle recovery and carbs to replenish glycogen stores, but the confusing bit comes with all the talk about specific nutrition strategies and nutrient timing. Gym-goers are generally stressing out over the specific time frame of when they must eat certain foods and a lot of the advice out there is outdated or not supported by solid scientific research. To clear up all the confusion, let’s look at some facts based on actual scientific evidence.

The Goals Of Eating Before And After A Workout

Pre-workout meals are eaten in order to enhance your performance during exercising – you need nutrients to improve stamina and physical power. Post-workout meals assist muscle recovery and minimize damage, promoting anabolic muscle growth.

Combined together, these two bring the best results. However, nutrient requirements vary depending on the type of training you do and your goals as well (endurance sports, strength training, weight loss, recreational) and that’s why the rules can’t be the same for everyone.

The Window Of Opportunity

The two main rules that we are taught to stick to in relation to pre and post workout nutrition are:

  1. You must eat protein and carbs before and after exercising
  2. Immediately after your workout, a short window of opportunity opens, when your muscles are most ready to accept nutrients. Hence, you must eat within an hour after working out.

Well, here’s some news for you: the part about post-workout meals is not entirely true.

Studies have shown that while it’s not bad for you to eat a balanced meal right after your workout, it’s definitely not something you have to do – unless exercise is repeated again during the next eight hours. Only endurance athletes or those who train more than once daily need this immediate post-workout meal in order to replenish extremely depleted glycogen levels. For those who don’t fall into this category, glycogen recovery is spread over many hours as they don’t need immediate replenishment. So, the important thing would be to meet your caloric needs in the next 24 hours, whereas using the window of opportunity right after your workout is irrelevant to the process of recovery. Furthermore, research has also shown that post-workout meals are important in promoting anabolic muscle growth and preventing tissue destruction – but only if pre-workout nutrition wasn’t adequate.

Strength And Power Training

For training such as powerlifting, bodybuilding, football, etc. the most important macronutrient is protein. Because these types of exercise are characterized by short and intense bursts of activity, muscle glycogen does not get depleted as much as it does during endurance sports, so carbohydrates are normally important, but secondary to protein. The protein is needed to support muscle growth and minimize damage.

For this type of training (the average gym-goer falls into this category as well), the recommended nutritional pattern is:

  • A balanced meal of protein and carbs 2-4 hours pre OR post workout
  • Liquid or semi-liquid protein and carbs (such as smoothies with added protein powder) for easy digestion 30-60 minutes pre OR post workout

Endurance Training

Marathons, triathlons, any long-distance activity (cycling, swimming), Crossfit, and sports such as basketball and soccer fall into this category. Endurance training lasts at least 60 minutes, during which muscle glycogen gets drastically depleted – that’s why endurance athletes require a lot more carbohydrates in order to maintain stamina and replenish glycogen stores in the liver and muscles. Nutrient timing is important here because the decrease of nutrient availability is more drastic with this type of training than with any other. The recommended nutritional pattern is:

  • A balanced meal of equal parts carb and protein 2-4 hours pre OR post workout
  • 8-15g protein and 30-60g carbs in liquid or gel form (e.g. through sports drinks) for every hour of endurance activity
  • Liquid or semi-liquid protein and carbs (smoothies and shakes) for easy digestion 30-60 minutes pre OR post workout

*For both strength and endurance training, the suggested amount for both protein and carbs is 0.2-0.25 grams per pound of target body weight, in all meals

Weight Loss

When it comes to weight loss, the main goal is to burn more calories than have been consumed, thus creating a caloric deficit which will lead to losing weight. Nutrient timing is not important, but rather the quality of the meals. The above guidelines can be used, but they’re secondary to caloric intake and an adequately planned diet.

In the end, it’s about personal preference for those exercising recreationally or seeking to lose weight. If you don’t feel like eating after your workout, you most certainly don’t have to – unless you’re an endurance athlete. Or, for example, if you exercise in the morning and can’t wake up at an ungodly hour to eat a proper meal 2 hours prior to exercising, you can make up for the nutrients afterwards (if you find that that works alright for you and you have enough energy regardless). Focus on eating properly and adequately, and then incorporate the timing according to your lifestyle and preferences.

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