Pre and post workout nutrition shakes and bars are increasingly available. Sales of functional nutrition bars alone have increased by almost 400% since 2010. While overall calorie intake and macronutrient split have the biggest impact on body shape and performance, what we eat before training and what we eat after can have an impact on our training session and our overall progress.
So what should we eat before and after a training session? Auro has asked expert nutritionist Sophie Thurner for her advice on how to prepare for and recover from your workout.
If you have a meal before your workout, this should ideally consist of:
Carbohydrate to increase muscle glycogen (energy reserved in muscles) stores and therefore prolong time to fatigue
Protein to reduce muscle protein breakdown when exercising
Whether you have this in liquid form or as a solid meal or snack depends on two things:
How much time you have before your workout
If you only have an hour or less before your workout, it is advisable to have a shake. Be sure to sip it, don’t drink it all in one go. Otherwise you’ll run the risk of gastro-intestinal discomfort.
If you have more time you may prefer to eat a meal or snack. This would ideally be eaten 2-3 hours prior to working out.
There are some ergogenic aids, which will improve performance when taken pre-workout. These are anything that gives you a physical or mental edge when exercising. The most common one consumed is caffeine. A cup of coffee before, or caffeine as part of your pre-workout shake can:
Enhance the way our muscles use energy, sparing glycogen reserves and as a result reduce perceived fatigue and elevate mood
Temporarily increase strength, particularly in people who seldom consume caffeine
Speed up recovery post-workout, if taken in combination with carbohydrates, as it accelerates the rate of glycogen replenishment (this is more important if you work out very frequently or multiple times per day)
Another supplement that you may find useful is magnesium. Magnesium is useful in many different aspects of muscle function and exercise including energy production, oxygen uptake, muscle contraction and relaxation, and electrolyte balance. Some of us do not get enough magnesium in our diets. Low levels may impair physical performance and exercise capacity and are associated with muscle damage and cramps. Because magnesium also supports production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, it is recommended to take it in the evenings, a couple of hours before bed.
Similarly to pre-workout nutrition, this ideally constitutes of
Carbohydrates to replenish muscle glycogen and enhance recovery
Protein to enhance muscle recovery and muscle protein synthesis post-exercise
20-25 grams of high-quality protein is sufficient to stimulate maximal protein synthesis. High quality protein is more easily absorbed, and contains all essential amino acids. These are the building blocks of protein that we do not make in our bodies and can only get via our diet.
Generally speaking animal-based protein, such as dairy (including whey), eggs and meat and fish covers that more easily. However a vegan protein shake or a meal containing beans, legumes, pulses and whole-grains will get you there too.
When to eat?
A post-workout meal should ideally be eaten within two hours of the workout. Maximum recovery and repair can be achieved if eating within 30 to 45 minutes of finishing the session.
Again, taking this in either liquid or solid form is determined by your preference, time and circumstance. However, having a balanced meal is always preferred for a number of reasons:
You take in additional micro-nutrients and other important components, such as fibre
Fibre is essential, not only to feed the good bacteria in your gut, thereby promoting gut health, but also to provide roughage to encourage regular bowel movements (thereby getting rid of toxins)
Fibre has also been shown to increase feelings of satiety (fullness)
A solid meal will digest more slowly, meaning it will keep you fuller for longer
Eating regular solid meals can encourage healthy eating patterns and sitting down to have a proper meal has been shown to result in higher meal satisfaction than consuming on-the-go shakes
The act of chewing is part of a well-functioning digestion process and releases important digestive enzymes such as amylase
What to do?
It’s therefore advisable to opt for solid food rather than a shake as often as you can. If you are unable to have a meal post-workout due to time or convenience, it is absolutely possible to wait a little longer. Particularly if you have had something pre-workout.
In fact, if you have had a pre-workout the importance of a post-workout is largely diminished, assuming you train no more than once a day. As long as daily caloric needs are met across the 24-hour day period your body will get everything it needs to perform as optimally as you can.
Ultimately, pre and post workout nutrition can be a useful tool when training. It is not the defining factor if you go to the gym for general health purposes, aesthetics or to improve performance on a casual level. In that case, total calorie intake and, to a lesser extent, macronutrient ratios and food quality, are more important than exact timing and composition of meals.
As long as you eat adequately to refuel your body’s energy stores, encourage muscle repair and growth and prevent the breakdown of muscle mass, the details are definitely useful. The time and energy spent thinking about that is probably better spent actually working out or enjoying a healthy balanced meal.
Sophie is a Registered Nutritionist and fully qualified personal trainer based in London.
She has always loved sports and had an avid interest in nutrition. After a successful career as a banker, she decided to make her passion her career.
She went back to university and completed a degree in Human Nutrition, while also qualifying as a personal trainer.
Sophie provides tailor-made, sustainable nutritional advice to help her clients tackle their individual areas of improvement and achieve long-term health and well-being.
If you’d like to learn more about Sophie, visit her website. Got more workout nutrition questions? Head on over to our community page and ask away! Our experts are there to help you on your fitness journey, so get involved!