Back in the olden days, workout nutrition consisted of a quick run to the water fountain between exercises.

Then came Gatorade.

Then, we were introduced to the magic 20 minute post-workout window of time.

We were told that if we chugged down a  carb/protein shake immediately after working out, we would:

  1. Shift our metabolism from a catabolic state (muscle damaging) to an anabolic state (muscle building) .
  2. Reduce post exercise muscle soreness
  3. Get bigger, stronger, leaner, faster, etc…

And there was (and still is) a lot of scientific research to back up this belief.

As a result, every gym put in a “smoothie bar” and we all chugged down some pretty gross post-workout protein shakes.

But wait, it doesn’t end there, we’re just getting started.

Researchers began to study whether pre-workout carb/pro nutrition might be even more efficient than post-workout carb/pro nutrition.

And their research showed that it was.

mango-shakeAs a result, instead of one post-workout shake, I was now drinking half my shake pre-workout and finishing the rest post-workout.

I thought I had it all figured out.

Not quite.

The next scientific breakthrough discovered that while a combined carb/pro shake pre-workout worked wonders, a carb free protein meal didn’t work near as well.

And that was fine with me. Those heavy pre-workout protein shakes were sloshing around in my stomach and slowing down my workouts.

RECAP

At this point:

  • Carbs before workout – GOOD
  • Carbs & pro before workout good, but made Doug’s tummy upset
  • Carbs during workout – GOOD
  • Carbs & Pro (Amino Acids) immediately post workout – GOOD

In a nutshell, the theory is that:

  1. Carbs raise your insulin levels, increasing the efficiency of nutrient absorption.
  2. Your workout inflicts micro-damage on your muscles.
  3. Your muscles are now screaming for nutrition to re-synthesize newer/stronger/faster muscles.
  4. Then you throw a bunch of protein/amino acids into the mix

And voila, your body recovers faster & more efficiently from your workouts.

End of story, right?

Not yet.

In the past few years, I have been reading more about improving anaerobic endurance during workouts by supplementing with beta alanine or bicarbonates. And while the research shows mixed results, I have personally and professionally seen impressive gains in endurance during some pretty intense HIIT & HIRT workouts.

Since adding these supplements into the mix, I have been able to push some very intense workouts well past the dreaded 45 minute mark.

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So, what does all of this mean?

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It means that for best results, I recommend:

  • Eating a combined pro/carb meal (real food) 1 to 2 hours before working out
  • Drinking a mid-workout beverage containing…a high GI carb like maltodextrin, BCAAs, creatine, bicarbonates and/or beta alanine.
  • Drinking a post-workout shake containing carbs and a fast digesting protein (whey isolate).

Keep in mind this is a best case scenario type of peri-workout nutrition program.

Most of you aren’t going to want to spend the money on all of this stuff.

So, if cost is an issue, I would recommend

  • Eat the pre-workout meal as described above.
  • Drink watered down orange juice during your workout. BCAAs & Creatine if you can afford them.
  • Post-workout shake as described above.

Personally, I have tried 3 different workout beverages with sugar/BCAAs/Beta Alanine/Bicarb and have found that Biotest’s Surge Workout Fuel to be the most effective. It costs approximately $1.10 per serving.

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BTW – peri means around or about…so in this case peri-workout nutrition means nutrition around your workout

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I look forward to hearing your feedback. Workout nutrition is a hotly debated topic amongst all of the “experts” out there on the interweb.

My skin is thick, don’t hold back.

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28 comments

  1. So let’s talk about the GI of the carbs more. You are saying a high GI carb during workout, but what about before and after?

    I have always worked under the idea that high GI carbs up to an hour before, during, and up to an hour after workouts is fine. Before and during it boosts blood sugar levels which may increase performance as the muscles have a supply readily available (especially if this is immediately after waking). After it bumps insulin levels, which pushes nutrients into the cells faster which bumps recovery in the long run?

    What about other parts of the day? I think high GI carbs are to be avoided outside the workout time periods, but what about carbs in general? I have been working under the assumption that you need carbs throughout the day if you work out hard because your post workout probably does not cover all the bases due to absorption etc…, but when I work out intensely what type is best? High/Med/Low? I ask because I know low GI carbs impact blood sugar the least, but if I do a glycogen dump with 45min HIRT in the AM and then 12hrs later I have 2-3hrs of moderate to high activity at night, does the slow carbs fulfill the recovery needs in the short time span? Is there benefit to MED or HI GI carbs at any time outside of workouts?

    What if one of our workouts ends less than an hour before bed? I have always heard that we should not eat carbs before bed because insulin impacts Growth hormone release, and during sleep is the time when this is released at its greatest. However I am also told the post workout meal is the most important meal in terms of recovery?

    Also are there any changes to any of this if your workout is first thing in the AM, or any other specific time of day? For example I like to work out usually within 30min of waking, I can’t really eat a meal and have it digested in 30min so I usually just drink an 8oz red bull because I can digest the simple sugars in time with no issues. My schedule won’t really allow me the 1+hrs to eat a real meal before, and I figure its best to have something in my system since I have just fasted all night right?

    One more item, would you change any of this depending on your goals? If its maximum fat loss or maximum performance, any significant changes?

    Keep up the good work!

    -Matt

  2. This further confirms one of my favourite sayings “Muscles are built in the kitchen!” – It makes sense to consume the bulk of your calories around your workout or else the body won’t have anything to repair itself with or re-energize.

    @Matt, completely agree when you say “I think high GI carbs are to be avoided outside the workout time periods”. I can’t see any benefit of flooding the body with a load of energy when the body isn’t being pushed.

  3. I was a little wary of reading the post when I saw it in my inbox – so tired of reading stuff that is difficult to understand. But thanks for this – this is doable. The fitness black book says to go into workouts in a fasted state for weight loss. I suppose many theories will be there..

  4. P S: Very interested in the points that Matt has brought up. I am a 41 year old woman trying to lose weight. Losing steadily but slowly.

  5. I hate to say this, but…it depends.

    I start taking in the high GI carbs 15 min before I start to train. That should be enough time for them to work.

    The goal is to cause a spike in insulin to encourage the storage of nutrients into the muscles that I just trashed during my workout.

    Considering that fat loss is one of the main goals for almost all of my clients, I want to manipulate insulin to it’s best effect. That is, to store nutrients in the muscle via an elevated insulin level, BUT to avoid storing nutrients as fat due to a similar high insulin level.

    To do this, I want my insulin spike to occur in as small a time period as possible surrounding the workout.

    The longer we move away from the workout with elevated insulin, the more likely we move from storing nutrients into the muscle tissue and towards storing it as blubber.

    More research needs to be done, but in my personal/professional experience, I try to operate within 15 min before & after the workout.

    Re nutrition for the rest of the day – you CAN go carb free and avoid any insulin spike. That will work best for fat loss, but it makes a lot of people miserable. It’s a trade off. I have never done well with a no-carb diet. Because of that, I prefer low GI all day long (mostly veg) and then high GI at workout time

    Avoid high GI except at workout time.

    Re the nighttime workout – It’s a common problem. People work long hours, workout at night and then have to deal with the dilemma of a post workout feed. My answer depends upon your goal. If it’s fat loss, I would suggest a workout drink during the workout, follow immediately with a protein shake. If you’re going to bed in the next hour, don’t eat any more. But, if you’re up for another 2-3 hours, look at a solid meal high in pro/mod in fat and mod in vegetable carbs – greens, broccoli, etc…(slow to digest, loaded with nutrients)

    However, if you find that your weight loss goals are stalled. We may try eliminating that last solid meal.

    Re the am workout – don’t worry about the meal – the sugar in the red bull is going to give us our insulin spike. Follow up with a pro shake immediately after finishing the workout and follow with a solid meal with high pro & moderate carbs – because you have your entire day ahead of you, you can go with more calorie dense carbs at this meal – sweet potatoes, etc…(unless your weight loss stalls…and then we replace those carbs with more crunchy veggies)

    Re goals – It all depends on goals and more importantly your results.

    All of this is theory until you begin to try it upon yourself.

    Sometimes I feel like a mad scientists, making little tweaks and adjustments to a diet/training plan to make it work for a client. Fitting a body transformation program into a modern lifestyle isn’t always the simplest thing to do.

  6. Sangita

    I enjoy reading Rusty’s blog as well, but that idea of fasted state workouts is one area where I couldn’t disagree more.

    The idea behind the fasted state workout is to force a spike in growth hormone.

    My issue with that is twofold:

    1. When it comes to the effect of hormones upon body composition, insulin is the king. The slight changes in GH brought upon by a starved workout is irrelevant next to the effect that a large insulin spike has upon body composition. Insulin drives obesity. Insulin drives weight loss. Insulin drives gains in muscle mass.

    2. I have personally & professionally seen the effect of this insulin manipulation hundreds and hundreds of times. I also have feedback from a group of trainers/strength coaches/ bodybuilding prep gurus whose livelihoods & reputations depend upon their clients getting good results.

    The GH theory is still a fringe theory that relies on a handful of studies.

    While it is an interesting theory worth experimenting with, when push comes to shove, I will always choose a method that is based in a large body of scientific research + a large body of practical application over a method with only a handful of theories to back it up.

  7. DR,

    I’m with you on the GH point. I began my journey believing in its effectiveness and its manipulation during workouts, but the evidence is just not there that it’s secreted for long enough in large enough quantities to do anything in a small scale. Training methodologies over longer periods can effect basal levels, but the immediate and fleeting spike in levels doesn’t do much. Lyle McDonald just had a really good few posts on this stuff.

    I think growth hormone is a hormone that is important to keep track of on a larger scale, ie. on a daily or weekly basis by making sure you eat well and sleep well etc., and insulin is the one that people should be more worried about controlling minute by minute or hour by hour, because its the hormone that has tangible acute effects.

  8. Thanks DR thanks a lot! I have read this over and over. I am actually beginning to understand insulin. You have written it very clearly. And thanks Yash for that important point. Very interesting discussion.

  9. With all this new researhc coming and going its hard to keep up. Thanks for making it simple. Now I know what to get when I go shoping for supplements and shakes. I also include b vitmains before workouts because they give me an extra boost of energy

  10. I agree with the above information. Usually what I try to do before workouts is eat something high in protein or carbs (mainly breakfast because I workout in the mornings)before I exercise. Then when i get done working out I drink a protein shake. I’ve always been told drinking a protein shake after your workout helps build muscle, as well rebuild muscle. It hasn’t been until recently I started eating food rich in carbs/protein before my workout. It’s interesting to know about this, but I’m sure in the next 5 to 10 years we will be hearing some new research on what to eat before or after your workout.

  11. Okay. I think I need help. It’s funny because I’m a tiny female trying to add muscle and everytime I look up information about muscle building, I get advice from men who are at least a foot taller than me and 150 lbs. bigger. So perhaps I could ask abt. my needs? I have lost a lot of weight in the last year, and have seen a shift in body fat % as well (measured with calipers by a trainer), but I am now skinny fat. I am 5′ tall, weight shifts from 117-121 lbs, hypothyroid (taking armour, still having trouble getting dosage right but blood tests every two months to adjust), I have lupus so I eat gluten free, and am very very low on sugar and it’s only natural sugar then, and I have thalassemia. So, I want to get a little more muscular, especially in arms, chest, and calves, and I work with a trainer, but progress is sad and slow. Given my medical needs, I learned that nutrition-wise, I can’t afford to eat more than 1350 calories in a day, and processed foods really affect me poorly. I don’t mind supplementing, but how can I incorporate peri-workout nutrition into my life without adding lots of calories? Or I guess without risking fat gain, as that appears to be my predisposition. Losing weight is also a psychological issue for me, and if I consume 150 calories during a workout without mindfulness, then my real meals are smaller and I am more likely to binge on something unhealthy, so I just wanted to ask if there’s a different way.

  12. Another fact about insulin…it is a growth hormone (anybody who has seen the size of an infant of a diabetic mother has witnessed this first hand). For those who are trying to increase mass, insulin release while muscles are getting a lot of blood flow will maximize growth.

    Unfortunately b/c of the current rampant abuse of carbs and lack of moving, all carbs are getting a bad name. Carbs are the cleanest burning, most readily available fuel source for intense training. Fats can’t be burned for fuel in INTENSE training b/c 9 times the amount of O2 is required to burn the same amount of fat vs carb…..that is an amount of O2 that the body can’t possibly obtain when exercise is at the higher end of VO2 max. Aminos can be broken down into gucose, releasing nitrogen, for energy but only contribute about 5% of energy requirement and that is in marathon runners, b/c they have to be split apart first. Some aminos (BCAAs) are more easily converted to energy than others.

    Exercise increases insulin uptake by cells so resistance not a concern for an athlete. It takes about 24 hrs to resynthesize and restore glycogen levels for the next workout and if they are not restored, their loss is cumulative, causing fatigue and burn-out. Avoiding carbs all together compounds this issue…..healthy carbs, of course.

    Still, most results are achieved by sound daily nutrition and smart training, training, training.

    Thanks for the article.

  13. Im on the EET plan and only eat protein before working out. This is mainly cause I work out in the morning. I have found Im building muscle MUCH faster by eating a high protein and high carb meal after my work out than when I ate before and after. Of course Im trying to cut my body fat way down. One thing you have to take in account is the goals a person has set for themselves. If you’re trying to lose weight, eating before, during and after isn’t going to help much. Of course for those people who struggle to gain muscle I could see the benefit of this….Its all about what each individual is trying to achieve.

  14. I get nervous when someone says that a theory has been proven…especially when it comes to nutrition.

    Not that I disagree with the study, but it (like all studies) has limitations. Most noticeable is the type & duration of exercise performed during the experiment. In my opinion, this is a fairly tame workout, not stressing either the aerobic or anaerobic energy systems. This could explain the lack of “need” for post-workout carbs

    The Workout

    After 5 min of warming up on a cycle ergometer (∼75 W), subjects completed a session of three upper-body resistance-type exercises that featured three sets of 10 repetitions for each of the exercises. This was performed with resistance set at 40% of their body weight for the chest press and shoulder press and at 50% body weight for the front pulldown (all equipment by Jimsa Benelux, Rotterdam, The Netherlands), with 1-min rest intervals between sets. This was followed by a session of lower-limb exercises consisting of eight sets of 10 repetitions on the leg press and leg extension machines (Technogym, Rotterdam, The Netherlands), both performed at 75% of their individual 1-RM, with 2-min rest intervals between sets. All subjects were verbally encouraged during exercise, and the entire exercise protocol required ∼1 h to complete.

  15. What you write seems reasonable but if Dr. Mercola and his research is to be believed, beware consuming simple carbs after exercise that is designed bump ups the body’s production of human growth hormone.
     
    So, the high intensity stuff, like sprint for 30 seconds, rest 90 seconds, repeat for 8 sets stuff will dramatically increase hGH. Mercola says that simple carbs will render the benefits less effective, although such carbs may improve recovery periods for athletes who seek to perform at this level several times per week.
     
    Here’s his post on the subject: http://fitness.mercola.com/sites/fitness/archive/2012/02/10/phil-campbell-interview.aspx

  16. In terms of hormone production, I am more concerned with making use of post workout insulin than I am GH. IMHO, the effectiveness of natural GH manipulation has been overrated over the past few years.

  17. I workout at 5am before my kids get up. I eat egg whites with veggies at 7 with them. I go to Pure Barre 4 times per week. THEN I have protein shake with creatine and eith er wheat grass or diam. earth, then an hour later i have old fashioned oatmeal with either ground flax or chia seeds. Thoughts on that one? BTW- Im 47 with 15% body fat. See me at PaulasHealthyLiving.com

  18. First of all, great post. I’ve been trying to learn more about peri-workout nutrition and the amount of info on the net can be staggering. I’ve always trusted your opinions so I’m picking up what you’re putting down.

    Second. You say it’s all about goals. Here are mine. I’m at a weight and fitness level I am happy with BUT I am certainly not opposed getting leaner muscle and getting stronger. I don’t really want to bulk up per say.

    I am interested in learning more about the mid-workout beverage. Right now I don’t use one. My typical week is split even between running and high-intensity strength training (2-3 days of each; alternating). Considering my goals and my routine, should I bother with the mid-workout beverage? Also should my peri-workout nutrition be the same for both running and weight training? Slamming down a workout drink mid-run doesn’t sound too appealing.

    One more thing, my workout times are all over the map. Weekdays I might sneak in a session first thing in the morning or wait until after work. Weekends I usually work out for a longer period of time 2 hours or so after waking up. I’ve always wondered what to do when meal times are close to post workout. For example say I finish a workout at noon. Should I slam a shake and call that lunch, forget the shake and eat a meal with a good amount of protein and carbs, or do both?

    Hope this question isn’t too long. I look forward to your thoughts.

  19. Hey Ben,

    Re workout drink – I would recommend Scivation’s Xtend – or something similar from a different manufacturer

    Re your meals, try to think of the purpose behind each meal.

    You NEED to re-fuel after a workout – that’s why we do the post-workout protein/carb shake right away and follow up with a solid pro/carb meal fairly soon after. I believe that this technique trumps any “don’t eat 2 hours before bed” belief.

    For your specific example, workout at noon – post-workout shake needs to be slammed down asap. Best case scenario would be to follow up with some solid pro/carb food by 2:00 pm. If you can’t find time for the solid meal, at least make sure you get the pro shake.

    Another option is to make 2 shakes, drink one immediately after working out and save the second to drink in an hour or two post-workout

  20. Thanks for the Xtend recommendation. Looks like good stuff. Should I use it on running days too? If so when?

  21. #1 option – During workouts
    #2 option – before and after…if you don’t drink while running (I don’t)

    I have seen great success with it, but I am sure that there are similar products on the market if you can’t find xtend

  22. What about those of us who workout at 5 am to fit in a workout before work? What is the next best thing to downing some food an hour before?

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