Exercise is merely a stimulus for change. The purpose of exercise is to induce stress on the body (e.g. mechanical stress, metabolic stress, nervous system stimulation). It’s not just to burn calories or to get our hearts pumping. Exercise is a tool we need in order to force our bodies to change.
Our physiological readiness to withstand the stress of exercise and the way we nourish our bodies between exercise sessions are what truly dictate our response. In other words, our bodies need to be challenged, but also need to recover if we want to see positive changes.
Perhaps this is why many people who exercise but don’t pay much attention to nourishment (or have altered physiology) don’t see jaw-dropping or even noticeable results.
Your pre- and post-exercise nutrition strategies are driven largely by the frequency, intensity, duration, and types of training you choose to do. These choices not only make or break your workout performance, but also your recovery between sessions.
One thing that holds true regardless of these variables is whether you choose solid foods or liquids for the best gastrointestinal tolerance. The table below can help you plan those choices. (Keep in mind tolerance will vary among individuals.)
Before you work out strenuously, be sure you’re well-hydrated, since hypo-hydration is enough to significantly elevate cortisol during and after training — which is catabolic, meaning it breaks down muscle tissue. Lack of proper hydration is also shown to reduce the post-resistance training testosterone surge, and also alters carbohydrate and fat metabolism for the worse.
Slight dehydration (~3 percent body mass loss) has also been shown to decrease maximal strength and repetitions, increase heart rate and perceived exertion, and hinders heart-rate recovery.
Being hydrated is more complex than simply drinking enough water, but that can only be determined through comprehensive blood testing and urinalysis. While your water tracker in your food journal will help you tally up the ounces you drink, your physiological markers of hydration will be the best indicators of cellular hydration.
Nourish for damage control.
Since exercise can be quite catabolic — literally breaking down some healthy tissue to stimulate repair and building of new tissue — it’s smart to anticipate such damage and prepare for it ahead of time.
Resistance training is known to damage muscle fibers. If done correctly, the microscopic tears created during the session can take days to be repaired.
Strenuous metabolic training (higher-intensity cardio) uses up available fuels so quickly that our bodies release hormones (called catecholamines and glucocorticoids, such as epinephrine/norepinephrine and cortisol) to break down healthy tissue to make glucose.
To minimize the potential damage, you need to enter strenuous training sessions with plenty of available amino acids. Amino acids are the individual components of all proteins — the proteins we eat and the proteins we build (like muscle tissue).
We need relatively consistent intake of protein-rich foods to maintain good protein status.
- For protein needs, within two to three hours of starting a tough training session, be sure to eat at least a palm-size portion of meat, fish, poultry, or eggs to supply your body with a rich pool of amino acids.
- For protein needs, if less you have less than two hours before starting your training session, you’re an early morning exerciser, or you forgot to have adequate protein at your last solid food meal, opt for a high-quality whey protein or vegan protein shake about an hour or two before beginning your workout.
Perhaps even a shake doesn’t sound appealing to your stomach so close to a workout. In that case, I recommend a few scoops of essential amino acids, which support protein status just as well as solid food protein or protein powder but with fewer calories and easier digestion.
Essential amino acids are well tolerated during such workouts and are especially important for sessions lasting longer than 90 minutes, as evidence suggests they delay sensations of fatigue, preserve lean muscle tissue, and may support immune function in the context of intense training.
Top off with high-octane fuel.
Besides protein and amino acids, some exercisers should also aim to maximize available glucose before and during their training sessions.
- For complex carbohydrates, within two hours of starting a training session, those who are at or near their goal weight and body composition should plan about a fist-sized serving of complex carbohydrates at the meal preceding their workouts, and/or supplement with a carbohydrate solution within two hours of beginning. I prefer UCAN for its unique ability to supply a steady stream of glucose to fuel high performance without spiking blood sugars or diminishing fat metabolism (no sugar crash).
- If you’re trying to lose more than 3 percent body fat, it may be a good idea to restrict carbohydrate intake for at least 30 minutes prior to aerobic (low-intensity) exercise, as studies in obese subjects suggest training with moderately low glucose availability may maximize fat use during exercise. Satisfy pre-exercise hunger with protein rather than carbohydrates.
An exception to this would be to use the unique “superstarch” provided in UCAN for more strenuous interval sessions or high-volume resistance training. Mounting evidence suggests that it may be one of the best “food” sources of carbohydrates for the obese and those with type 2 diabetes. (UCAN is considered a food rather than a supplement because it’s merely non-GMO corn starch prepared using a patented heat-moisture process.)
Replenish nutrients (and fuel).
After a strenuous training session, the priority is to replenish nutrients. That means rehydrate, restock a diminishing supply of amino acids, and possibly refill glycogen stores, depending on how depleting the exercise was.
Interestingly, post-workout nourishment can be as simple as mirroring pre-workout strategies for some. Drinking a protein or amino acid supplement shake with some form of carbohydrate in it can satisfy all three post-workout priorities for many exercisers.
While it’s a good idea to replenish protein immediately after catabolic exercise (any hard session that accumulates lactate and/or damages muscle fibers themselves), it’s becoming clearer that achieving adequate total daily protein is more important than timing intake perfectly.
For those interested in significant strength gains, creatine monohydrate supplementation — particularly after resistance training — has been shown to most positively impact body composition and muscle strength. Creatine is the most thoroughly studied performance supplement in the world and is a mainstay in the programs of athletes and body-builders alike.
In a way, your post-workout nutrition today is your pre-workout strategy for tomorrow, and these non-weight-room principles may be the factors holding you back in your program.
Using the table below, practicing every strategy would be vital if you’re a professional athlete, but aiming for about 80 percent of the goals laid out here would be a game changer in your weekend warrior routine. If you miss a pre-workout shake or during-workout aminos, make it a priority to replenish well afterwards.
Note that I’m recommending very slight differences for those at or near goal body composition versus those looking to lose more weight/fat. This is because we all need protein, amino acids, and carbs to some degree to support our peak exercise performance and recovery potential.
Also note: My recommendations are based on my best generalizations of available research and my experience. These do not factor in your individual situation, physiology, or other daily nutrition habits. These suggestions also assume your strenuous workouts are individualized for your needs and appropriate for your current fitness state and goals (e.g. personalized resistance training program and interval workouts).
Those are BIG assumptions. If you’re not into guessing, I suggest you partner with a coach who knows what they’re doing and can show you proven results.
Non-food nourishment is also a must.
While a single post can’t cover all best strategies to support optimal training conditions, I’ll say this: The most important forms of nourishment to sustain long-term health and resilience are quality sleep and stress control.
If you’re chronically sleep deprived (in terms of quantity or quality), or if you always feel stressed out, it doesn’t much matter what you do in the gym — our body will fight your every effort to change!
Prioritize your zzz’s, force yourself to smile and laugh every day, and meditate to reduce stress and enhance sleep quality. Life is too short to not get the results we all deserve.
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Erdmann, J., & al., e. (2010). Effect of carbohydrate- and protein-rich meals on exercise-induced activation of lipolysis in obese subjects. Hormone Metabolic Research, Apr; 42(4):290-4.
Judelson, D. (2008). Effect of hydration state on resistance exercise-induced endocrine markers of anabolism, catabolism, and metabolism. Journal of Applied Physiology, Sep;105(3):816-24.
Kraft, J., & al., e. (2010). Impact of dehydration on a full body resistance exercise protocol. European Journal of Applied Physiology, May; 109(2):259-67.
Krieder, R. (1999). EFFECTS OF PROTEIN AND AMINO-ACID SUPPLEMENTATION ON ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE. Sportscience, 3(1).
Schoenfeld, B., Aragon, A., & Krieger, J. (2013). The effect of protein timing on muscle strength. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 10:53.