It’s Thursday night, about 10pm and you’re done for the day, worn out and ready to go to bed. It’s nearly Friday and naturally you’re looking forward to the weekend.
You think about what you have planned whilst you brush your teeth and head to the bedroom to get changed. It’s here you suddenly remember that you haven’t packed your pre and post workout shakes for Friday’s gym session.
You find yourself standing half naked in the kitchen looking for the protein powder and a suitable Tupperware. You were sure they were both in this cupboard but now you can’t seem to find them anywhere.
A few minutes pass before you find what you’re looking for. When you do, you put a couple of scoops of powder into the Tupperware, add it to the bag with your lunch and gym kit before putting the protein powder back in the right cupboard this time.
What is workout nutrition?
Workout nutrition is the food you eat either pre (before) or post (after) workout.
For the vast majority of gym goers, it’s taken in the form of protein shakes often with the addition of carbohydrates for the post workout shake.
The purpose of these meals is to; refuel your body’s energy stores, encourage muscle repair and growth and prevent the breakdown of muscle mass.
General guidelines are to eat 1 – 2 hours before working out and then within 2 hours of finishing your workout with general wisdom being that the sooner the better.
However, for the average gym goer there is some debate over the need to adhere to such rigid principles and whether or not you can get all the same benefits without needing to be so bound by timing and reliant on protein shakes.
In this post, we will explore why you use pre and post workout nutrition and how it may or may not apply to you.
Friday is well underway and you almost don’t realise what time it is until you glance at the clock on the computer.
Crap! Is that the time?
You quickly grab your shaker and head to the kitchen to make your pre-workout protein shake. You try to shake it discreetly under your desk hoping to avoid drawing to much attention to yourself.
You manage to avoid the sideways glances and probing questions for now.
What’s that for? Why do you take it? Should I take one too?
You quickly drain the contents of your shaker, glance at the clock once more and make a mental note to head to the gym in the next 30-60 minutes.
What is Pre-Workout Nutrition?
Pre-workout nutrition is the meal you eat or drink before working out and is usually consumed between 1 - 3 hours before your workout.
The pre-workout meal is important for providing you with the fuel you need to perform your workout and aids in;
- Preventing muscle glycogen depletion during your workout
- Reducing muscle protein breakdown when working out
To get these benefits you want your pre-workout meal to be a mix of carbohydrate and protein. Whether you eat or drink this mix is up to you and will depend on how close to your workout you have you eat and what your preference is.
If you’re eating within an hour of your workout it’s advisable to drink your pre-workout meal (sip it, don’t knock it back) so you don’t feel too full or uncomfortable when you hit the gym.
If you have more time then you can opt for a solid meal.
You weave your way through the lunchtime crowd to the changing room, grab a locker, get changed and head to the free weights room.
*About an hour passes*
Walking back to the changing room you feel pleased with your workout, you felt strong today and are looking forward to increasing the weight on a few exercises in the next session.
However, your thoughts quickly turn to post-workout nutrition. You know have a ‘window’ of time to get the necessary nutrients into your body for optimal results and your keen not to miss it.
Today’s workout was a good one and you want to milk it for all the progress you can.
You grab your shaker from the locker, get some water from the tap, add the protein powder and get to shaking.
You don’t bother to try and hide it this time, you’re far from the only person performing this ritual. In fact, as you leave the changing room a fellow gym goer asks you what flavour you have and if it’s any good.
You tell him it’s chocolate and that it’s pretty good.
What is Post-Workout Nutrition
Post workout nutrition is the meal eaten after working out. Conventional wisdom suggests eating a mixed meal of protein and carbohydrates within 2 hours but preferably within 30 -45 minutes of finishing your workout.
This post workout meal is important for helping your body recover and repair. Eating a post workout meal will help with the following;
- The reduction of muscle fatigue and soreness
- Replenish muscle glycogen (stored energy) that was used in your workout
- Increase muscle protein synthesis and reduce the muscle protein breakdown caused by exercise
How you take this meal is up to you, some people opt to drink their post workout meal for convenience but you could just as easily eat solid food. Both options are valid and one is not necessarily better than the other.
Walking back to work you eat a banana (because you’ve been told that carbs are important after working out) and think about how nice it would be to not have to rely on pre and post workout shakes, to just eat normal meals.
You’ve always liked the idea of not taking supplements and the truth is these protein shakes make your stomach feel a bit funny most of the time anyway.
You wonder how your fellow gym goer is getting on with his protein shake and feeling torn between your progress and your stomach you make a mental note to do some research on different types of protein powder.
You get back to your desk and whilst no one is looking begin to search for alternative protein powders, only to realise your heart isn’t really in it.
The more you think about the more you begin to understand that you’re done with protein shakes.
You decide to take a new direction with your pre and post workout nutrition.
What’s best for the average gym goer looking to build muscle or lose fat?
If you’re just looking to build good aesthetics, keep fit or improve sporting performance on a casual level then total daily calorie intake and macronutrient ratios are of more importance to you that the exact timing and composition of your meals.
In fact, research published by Alan Aragon and Brad Schoenfeld supports this and found that the post-workout meal is only truly important if a pre-workout meal had NOT been eaten.
If a pre-workout meal HAD been eaten then the importance of the post-workout meal was largely diminished.
The researchers go on to explain that unless you are planning on training a second time later in the day (and therefore needed to restore glycogen stores more immediately) or had not eaten a pre-workout meal, then as long as daily caloric needs were met across the 24-hour day period there is no particular benefit gained from having a post-workout meal.
Now it is important to keep in mind that whilst the aforementioned study certainly shows that post-workout nutrition may not be as important as we once thought (depending on the circumstances), more research needs to be done.
The bottom line is that a post-workout meal isn’t bad for you and there is certainly no harm in having one if you want to.
However, if you decide not to eat a post-workout meal or simply can’t for whatever reason then remember to meet your daily calories needs in full and you’ll be good to go.
Fast forward 1 month.
Things have been going well, your strength is still improving and you’re beginning to see the changes you want to see.
You realise you’ve got a way to go but you’re confident that you’re on the right track.
You no longer stick so strictly to pre and post workout meals, you’ve pretty much cut out protein shakes in favour of solid food and are happy with the change. You’ve been making larger lunches and eating some before your workout when you can and the rest after.
It works, it’s easier and you feel great.
You’ve realised that if you miss a pre-workout meal or don't eat until 5 hours after your workout because you’re busy, it’s ok.
It dawns on you that to make the progress you want to see you need to create a sustainable routine that you enjoy and not sweat the exact time or precise macronutrient ratios of your meals.
Ultimately, pre and post workout nutrition can be a useful tool when training but it is not the defining factor for the typical gym goer who is interested in building muscle or losing fat for aesthetic and health purposes.
The fact is there are factors of bigger importance (total calorie intake and macronutrient ratios) which are much easier to stick to and have a greater overall effect on body composition in the long-term.
Whether you eat 30 mins after your workout or 2 hours before are not going to make or break your workout success.
I for one have stopped adhering so tightly to the structure of pre and post workout nutrition and have gradually shifted from relying on protein shakes to cutting them out entirely and eating real food for all my meals.
These changes were gradual ones that came into effect as I determined what worked best for me and my lifestyle.
I am keen to see how this area of research develops in the future and will either update this article or write a new one as this topic develops.