I had this question pop up in my inbox quite a few times over the past few weeks, so I thought I’d update and edit and re-feature a previous blog post to answer it. Check this out.
What should I eat before I train? After? I have been trying to have a whey shake both before and after my workouts, but I have been thinking about getting something else. Any suggestions?
–Steve W., Colorado
An excellent question. Before I answer, I just want to give a brief overview of the general mood in the industry regarding this subject.
For a long while, everyone was focused on post-workout nutrition; fast digesting protein shakes mixed with high glycemic carbohydrates (both of which break down quickly and therefore get absorbed faster) were the norm.
After a few years the focus shifted and expanded to include pre-workout nutrition. The original incarnation of this was to start drinking post workout shakes before you actually began training, allowing your body to start digesting and absorbing right as you began to need the nutrients. Soon after, shakes designed specifically for pre-workout needs began to be released.
More recently, there has been a push towards taking supplements during your workout. The main thrust of peri-workout nutrition is to help facilitate in recovery, and occasionally to make the training itself more productive/intense.
So now we’ve got the term “para-workout nutrition.” This is basically the all supplements one would need or want to take in the time surrounding your training session. All in all, it can be a bit overwhelming.
To answer your question fully, I’ll discuss a little bit about each of these and then tell you my thoughts.
Pre-Workout: Recent studies have shown the pre-exercise nutrition is as important if not more important than post-exercise nutrition—which makes sense, when you think about it. After all, you wouldn’t compete in a race with low grade gasoline in your car, only to fill it with premium once the race is over. That would be dumb. Or if you’re like me, you don’t put gas in it at all, because your car is powered by dylithium crystals and a flux capacitor.
Obvioulsy, you should put good stuff in your body pre-workout. In this case, or at least for the purposes of answering this question as fully as possible, you have a few options. A few supplement companies make drinks or shakes designed specifically for pre-workout consumption.
The idea here is that these supplements prime you to not only perform better and create a greater training effect, but also help you recover and even make your post workout shake more effective. I have used a few, and I like some of them.
Some good products include SURGE Workout Fuel by Biotest and Jack3d by USP Labs. Workout Fuel is about essential nutrients and Jack3d is more of a stimulant based product (as an aside, it’s actually a kick-ass stimulant and I got something out of the product–kills your appetite, though, which can be a problem).
The main thing here is the cost:benefit ratio. These drinks are not overly expensive (about on par with most supplements ~$40.00 for a container) but if you workout frequently you go through it pretty quickly. For the average trainee, or anyone tight on cash, I would say you can probably get away without this.
If cost is not an issue, I think hard-training people and especially athletes can benefit greatly from a dedicated pre-workout drink. Generally, though, I think the vast majority of people can just use the same drink pre- and post- workout.
Peri-Workout: While at this point I haven’t seen any supplements designed specifically taken during a workout, there are certainly a good number of practices that call for mid-training supplementation.
Initially, peri-workout nutrition was basically just sipping on your pre/post workout shake during the training session, and allowing for preemptive recovery. More recently, I’ve seen supplement protocols which call for taking extra Branched Chain Amino Acids and the like during training.
The jury is still out on the efficacy of taking supplements during the actual training session itself, and for me personally it is more a matter of practicality than anything else. Taking extra BCAAs or a dose of creatine may be somewhat effective, but I have found that it sort of interferes with my workout.
I train at a pretty brisk pace, and I really don’t allow myself much in the way of rest periods, so going into my gym bag to take a few pills sort of interrupts my flow. I normally just take them right before or right after, and haven’t noticed a significant difference one way or the other.
I think in large part whether this is worthwhile depends on the length of the workout. If you have fast paced training sessions that last about 30 minutes or so, I have to doubt whether you can really even break down and begin to absorb anything you take during that time period; it’s probably better to just take these supplements beforehand. However, sipping on a recovery drink is nearly essential, as this type of training is pretty draining; even over a short time period, performance drop-off can be severe, so mitigating it with a shake is an excellent way to increase the training effect and stave off fatigue.
For anyone who has longer training sessions, especially if they are dedicated specifically to gaining muscle and/or strength, peri-workout nutrition in the form of extra BCAAs or Beta-7 supplements is probably extremely beneficial. In addition, these types of workouts tend to be a bit longer by nature, and so better lend themselves to taking extra supplements.
On the plus side, generally speaking supplements of this type aren’t really expensive, so if you want to try to add it into the mix it’s very low cost for a potentially great benefit.
Post-Workout: The idea of taking in the appropriate mix of nutrients immediately after training is probably the most well accepted nutritional theory when it comes to strength training. For years, trying to find the right combination of ingredients was one of the main focuses of the supplement industry.
There are a lot of approaches to this, but I strongly suggest picking up a protein/carb recovery drink. I recommend Workout by ProGrade. This is absolutely one of the best products on the market, made by one of the best companies. I’ve been using it for a while for both the vast majority of my clients and my own personal workouts.
Dedicated post-workout nutrition is great because it is so adjustable. Unlike drinks that are designed to enhance performance pre-workout, recovery shakes have adequate protein and fast-digesting carbs to help you grow stronger, lose fat faster, and also recovery from soreness. Additionally, they are pretty sound in terms of nutrient, so they can occasionally fill some gaps you may have in your diet.
Another good question.
I’ve been going back and forth this with the mentally, and I’ve gone over the research and (perhaps more specifically) I’ve been reading through a lot of the blogs of those nutrition guys who take this position. (Alan Aragon for one–check out his blog, he has good information in general).
There are a few very good arguments on the other side of this and to be honest some stout research to back them up. I’ll be very honest when I say that I don’t relish the idea of getting into an overly scientific debate about GI, but I will say that I think (generally speaking) there is just a lot of empircal evidence to support the idea that high GI carbs are a good choice post workout.
It’s also been argued that a lot of the GI stuff is essentially useless. I don’t agree there, but it’s worth noting that there is merit to the point that the actual GI rating of a given food is determined in a fasted state, or using a single feeding model, and therefore not truly representative of “real life.”
Having said that, I tend to be a bit more pragmatic in my approach to just about everything, and, from that view, I think more than anything else we should look at things from a perspective of what is practical.
Unless working with extreme populations (diabetics or elite athletes for example) I think we need to realize that while nutrtion is of paramount importance, the majority of what we do is really guesswork. Alans own arguments point to the fact that even what we use as baseline stuff is often inherently flawed from the outset of the data collection.
So, like anything else with regard to diet, we need to stop laboring under the delusion that any of this has been truly figured out, or–more to the point–that any of our science would be applicable to all people.
When we design diets for people, we prescribe a number a calories based on formulas that (unfortunately) are crapshoots at worst and not nearly as accurate as we’d like at best. Knowing this, we allow for a period of observation and then make changes based on that period.
At the absolute best, we are able to determine what will work for most of the people most of the time.
Another point is this: while I generally dislike mindset of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” because I think it breeds complacency and eliminates a drive for progress, I DO think there is some merit to looking at the development of P/PWO nutrition over the years.
That is: in any aspect of any field, or in any area of nature, it is worthwhile to take note of the course things seem to follow natural.
So, in this case, we should give some weight to the fact that, for whatever reason, people have consistently gravitated towards the use of fast digesting, high GI carbs post workout. It stands to reason that it was and has been consistently observed that people recover well when using high GI carbs and have more productive training sessions. It has worked well for me, for my clients, and for athletes of all stripes for years.
Does this mean that low GI carbs won’t be effective post workout? No, of course not.
I do think, though, that using low GI carbs post workout, or giving that as a broad recommendation would lead to problems.
Formulated pre/post workout supplements notwithstanding, I think for anyone looking to try to get proper post workout nutrtion would probably miss the mark more often than hit it by trying to get the carbs from low GI sources. With high GI sources, there is a greater likelihood that you’ll wind up with the desired insulin response.
From that perspective alone, I think high GI just makes more sense [to give as a broad recommendation], whether or not they are technically scientifically superior.
Speaking generally, while I think all of the above mentioned products have merit, for most people a single supplement will do the job of many. By focusing on just one product, you’ll save time, money, and the headache of trying to figure out the exactitudes of when to take each thing in relation to the others.
This is the method I would recommend:
Again, using only one supplement, let’s assume Workout. Just prior to your workout, consume roughly one half of the recommended serving, and sip on the other half during training. After your workout, have another full serving.
With this method, you are coving pre-, peri-, and post-workout nutrition with a single supplement. You are addressing not only recovery, but also performance. In addition, you are saving time, money, and hassle by not getting into a whole host of supplementation.
As you continue to advance in your training, you can start adding in other stuff as needed or desired. However, I’d say for now just stick with a single supplement and focus on the training itself.
With regard to your whey shake, you can continue to use that as either a meal supplement or just a way to get extra protein during the day.
NOTE: For a great read on nutrition, particularly pre/post-workout nutrition, check out Nutrient Timing, by Ivy and Portman. It is a great reference for any trainer or nutritionist, and probably the seminal work on the subject. If nothing else, it is full of interesting information that you can probably put to use almost immediately.
Let’s make this one viral – I want 25 tweets, 50 Facebook “likes” and 100 comments. Go!