What to eat before, during and after a workout gets a lot of hype. It can also be very confusing. The great thing is, our bodies are a heck of a lot smarter then we give them credit for. If you are an average healthy individual, who is just trying to look and feel better, then a balanced meal 2 hours before and within 2 hours after is all you need. Yup that is it. It’s that simple. A meal consisting of a lean protein, healthy carbohydrate and a small amount healthy fat is all you need.
Now, if you are an athlete (either strength or endurance based), a very serious exerciser, a bodybuilder or you have a very specific physique goal then things will need to be a little more individualized. You will need a pre workout meal, a post workout meal and possibly a intra workout drink. The amount of carbs and protein in each would vary depending on your goals and body type, but generally you will need at least 20-30 grams of protein and 20-60 grams of carbs before and after.
What about the anabolic window all the broz at the gym talk about? Don’t I have to slam a protein drink as soon as I finish my last exercise?! Recent research has shown that our bodies are smarter than that and the “window” is actually pretty big. Again as long as we get protein and carbs in within 2 hours, we are good. For an average person there is no reason to be slamming the protein shake as you walk out of the gym. A regular meal by the time you get home will suffice. Chicken and rice is one of my favorite post workout meals. (Or sushi, or fajitas. Sometimes tacos.)
Now, if you don’t have time to cook, or you don’t like eating a full meal after a workout out, a protein drink is perfect. Whey protein (from milk) tends to be the gold standard when it comes to powdered protein. There is also casein (another milk based protein), egg, and multiple different plant based ones (soy, pea, rice). There are even many different blends of all the different types. If you find one upsets your stomach, try a different one. It is not uncommon for some to be sensitive to certain types of powdered protein, but just because one bothers you doesn’t mean they all will. When buying a protein powder make sure you keep an eye on the label, some brands have a lot of carbs or fat. The additional carbs are not necessarily a problem; you just need to be aware so you know not to add in any more carbs. I personally prefer low carb powders, that way I can add in my own carbs. I feel it gives me more flexibility.
What about fasting? Fasted cardio? Fasted strength training?
Now this one is VERY personal. First, it comes down to do YOU like working out fasted? Most don’t, but if it works for you, then rock on with it. I personally don’t recommend it, except as a last ditch measure used to get rid of those stubborn last pounds before an event. Most people actually perform better in the gym when they are properly fueled before a workout, in turn they get a better workout. This is, however, a very individualized thing. There are a lot of things that should be addressed before you need to add in fasted workouts. For example, how is your nutrition intake the rest of the day? How is your stress? What is your sleep like? Only after all of those have been addressed should you even think about adding in fasted workouts.
The pre-workout meal is very similar to the post. Optimally, 2-3 hours before your workout you should consume a regular balanced meal of carbs, proteins and a small amount of fat. Now, what if you can’t eat that far in advance of your workout? Maybe you work out early in the AM or directly after work? That’s fine. If you have to eat less then 2 hours before your planned workout session, just reach for fast digesting foods. By that I mean, keep the fat and the fiber content low. The goal here is for the food to be easily digested and used for fuel instead of just sloshing around in your belly when you are working out. Smoothies work really well in this situation, or any lean meat and starchy carb. Potatoes (sweet or white), rice, bread (if you eat it), rice cakes, ripe bananas are all examples of some quicker digesting carbohydrate choices.
Workout nutrition is not a one size fits all kind of thing. It really depends on your goal and your nutritional intake the rest of the day. However, if your goal is to increase strength, enhance performance (this includes endurance sports), gain muscle mass (FYI if you want 6 pack abs or kick ass arms, then what you really want is more muscle) then work out nutrition is for you, but it doesn’t mean you have to drink a powdered protein supplement in the locker room. For most, a regular balanced meals will suffice. Just remember you have to feed the muscle to grow the muscle.
Aragon AA, S. B. (2013, Jan). Nutrient timing revisited:is there a post-excercise anabolic window? J Int Soc Sports Nutr, 10(1), 5.
Aragon AA, S. B. (2013, Dec 3). The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. J Int Soc Sports Nutr., 10(1), 53.