Pre-workout and intra-workout nutrition are the most important things you can do to make progress with your workouts. That may seem like a bold statement but the latest research is quite compelling.
It used to be that pre-workout nutrition usually consisted of simply having a sugar-laden snack 30 minutes before a workout. Or worse, for those preferring a caffeinated buzz, they would guzzle an energy drink and power through their workout on nervous energy. This isn’t “nutrition” at all.
In recent years, athletes have been drinking measured amounts of protein and carbs both pre-workout and during their workouts. For those following advanced scientific research, progress has been evident, and in some cases quite significant.
Nutrition Timing is Important
When it comes to building muscle, building strength, recovery, and even body composition, WHEN you eat is almost as important as what you eat.
If you don’t eat your carbs and protein when your body is most receptive to it, you may be largely wasting the nutrients. And the latest research is showing that it’s more important to ingest important nutrients before and during your workouts. And further, it’s optimal to have both carbs and protein. Note: this doesn’t apply to those in a serious fat loss mode. This advice is geared to those wanting to build muscle or strength, improve athletic performance or achieve body recomposition.
In fact, one study looked at the difference between drinking a high quality protein shake a few hours after a workout vs. drinking it during the workout. It showed 85% less protein synthesis!
Regardless of the quality of the protein one ingests, you still need insulin to make muscle cells receptive to that protein. Below is a short snippet from an article that TC Luoma wrote that describes the process in a fun way:
“It’s like a coach who’s just given the rip-roaringest half-time pep talk in history. He’s got the players so amped up that they’re banging on lockers and butting helmeted heads… only someone locked the door and they can’t get on the field to play.
When insulin is low, the insulin antagonist glucagon shows up and starts to rob muscles of amino acids so it can convert them to the glucose that muscles need for fuel. Epinephrine and cortisol, two other catabolic hormones, also enter the scene, the former robbing the liver of glycogen to fuel the muscles and the latter robbing energy from wherever it can – from fat, carbs, or from protein itself.
All that fuel, energy, and building blocks should be going to the muscles, but instead they’re being pilfered by catabolic hormones. It’s too bad that insulin is in such short supply, because it would offset the collective efforts of all those catabolic fuel/energy/amino-acid robbing hormones.”
Another important variable is the level of muscle glycogen in your body. It is estimated that muscle glycogen is reduced by as much as 12% after just one set of 10 biceps curls, and muscle glycogen is what fuels ATP, the energy source of muscle. 3 sets of biceps curls results in a reduction of about 35%, and if you do another few sets you’re at a 40% reduction in glycogen.
Bottom line, you’re running out of fuel for muscular contractions. What to do? You need constant fuel, i.e., intra-workout nutrition, hence, the importance of ingesting carbs and protein before and during a workout. Coach Christian Thibaudeau calls this having the proper “hormonal milieu.”
Ingesting the right mix of protein and carbs before and during a workout, you minimize the cannibalism of muscles. You spare muscle protein, negate protein degradation, and set the muscle up for regeneration and remodeling, otherwise known as growth.
But wait, won’t eating all those calories make me fat? Research suggests that fat is actually oxidized at a greater rate, and this fat oxidation (fueled by proper nutrient timing) continues long after the workout. Studies show that when athletes following proper workout nutrition are weighed after a workout, they are indeed heavier than otherwise, because their muscles are filled with muscle-cell regenerating nutrients. Weighing more because of muscle fullness is way different than weighing more because of body fat.
There are two basic types of carbohydrates: simple and complex.
- Simple carbohydrates are simple sugars like glucose, fructose (fruit), and sucrose (table sugar).These provide the quickest source of available energy.
- Complex carbs are essentially starches, and are found in plant-based foods: whole grains and starchy vegetables such as potatoes. These provide sustained energy over longer periods of time.
Complex carbs are a better choice if you are having a pre-workout meal 2-3 hours before your training session. On the other hand, if you are an early morning fitness fiend and are limited in time, then simple carbs are a better choice (i.e. fruit not a Snickers bar!!).
In terms of how much to consume, that depends body weight, fitness goals, and the purpose of a training session.
- If the goal is to get through a long endurance workout, the athlete needs more glycogen to be built up in advance of the session. Thus, complex carbs are a better choice.
- If the goal is strength or hypertrophy, the athlete doesn’t need as much pre-stored glycogen, so there is more flexibility in this case.
Here is a recommendation from one study (Jeukendrup, 2014). The recommended pre-workout intake of carbs for endurance is 60 grams per hour for workouts lasting two to three hours, and up to 90 grams per hour for longer endurance events. Anything less than two hours requires less than 60 grams of carbs pre-workout.
We have previously established the importance of consuming both protein and carbs together. Some study data:
- Westcott and Loud (2013) discovered that consuming a combination of carbohydrates and protein led to increased muscular gains.
- Bartlett et al. (2015 found that when athletes consumed fewer carbs with protein supplements, they experienced more muscle breakdown. And, when they continued to exercise without carbohydrates they lost more skeletal muscle mass.
Clearly, carbs and protein work together for faster muscle recovery, especially after strength training and muscle-building exercises. A good recommendation is to consume approximately half of the carb grams in protein. Thus, if your pre and intra nutrition foods/shakes are contributing a total of 40 grams of carbs, then you should be aiming for 20 grams of protein.