Do you make your nutrition around your workout a priority?
If so, how much better do you feel when you’re properly fueled heading into the gym and also going throughout your day after refueling properly?
If you don’t, do you notice sometimes sluggish and lethargy heading into your workouts?
Do you struggle tapping into that 6th gear 30 minutes into your workout and just not able to push quite as hard?
Are you sore often or get really bad DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness)?
Do you struggle sleeping? Especially on days you work out?
Do you get injured often?
Have you been progress-less in the gym? Meaning you’ve been there for over 3 months and not seen ANY progress (weights lifted, body comp, etc.).
If you answered yes to any, some, or all of these, chances are you’re not fueling your workouts enough...if at all.
There are many reasons you want to eat around when you work out. Most importantly, it gives you the energy to get through it & what’s not great about that?? Secondly, it helps replenish all the fuel & energy you used in your workout helping you recover and build strength. Lastly, it serves as a GREAT routine builder in your day to prioritize great nourishing and nutritious meals.
As you read through this article, you’re going to learn WHY fueling for your workouts is so important—beyond “it helps you perform better”—and how specifically we at Clar-e-ty recommend fueling your workouts. In the past, we’ve released similar articles but was a bit more strict & rigid when it came to numbers and portions. This go around, we want to introduce a bit more flexibility so that your adherence increases even more.
It’s incredibly important to eat to fuel your workouts.
Not only does it just help improve performance, it protects your body, specifically your muscles from injury and overuse.
When you eat food, specifically carbohydrates, which will be our main focus for workout nutrition, your body breaks those carbohydrates into glucose. As glucose enters your blood stream, you’ll experience a bit of energy. This is the basis and benefit when it comes to pre-workout meals. All other carbohydrates that aren’t immediately used to fuel cellular processes or your workouts in your body will be stored as glycogen. Glycogen, stored in both your liver and in your muscles, serves as your fuel for your workouts. It’s MUCH quicker for your body to turn glycogen into glucose for fuel as opposed to using and breaking down fat, specifically stored body fat, which is why glucose is your body’s main source of fuel. Only when we tap into longer aerobic exercises OR exist in a calorie deficit does our bodies start utilizing stored fat.
When your body has finished its workout, that glycogen needs to be replenished. It can take up to 24-48 hours for your body to replenish its glycogen stores, which is why it’s so important to prioritize refueling those stores immediately (within a few hours) of finishing your workout.
To build strength, you need to use glycogen in your muscles and encourage the breakdown of that muscle. That’s the basis for all lifting exercises! In order to build strength, you need to apply a stimulus great enough—but not too great—to get some “breakdown” effect. WHEN you refuel—via carbohydrates—that glycogen is replenished & muscle fiber stem cells are “turned on” to essentially form MORE muscle fibers to handle that newer—albeit soon “normal”—load that was applied.
So while lifting and training is incredibly important, to get the most out of your workouts and to optimally build strength and obtain your desired body comp goals, your NUTRITION is a huge part of the puzzle.
Prioritizing your intake around your workouts also helps with consistency and habits. It’s usually a really effective way to get people eating a certain desired way that bleeds into other meals and times throughout the day. For example, if I have someone working out in the morning, their dinner the night before is their pre-workout meal, and their breakfast after their workout is their post-workout meal. That’s a gooooood chunk of the day that you get to make nourishing and productive. EITHER that serves as a foundation to allow more flexibility in OTHER meals OR it serves as the habit/routine builder to keep most of your other meals as nourishing and productive.
Even for me, eating around my workouts holds me accountable to eating! So many people, including myself, wake up and hit the ground running. It’s often very easy to just get working and forget to eat. Having workouts in my day already scheduled holds me accountable to getting in an appropriate amount of fuel so I can head into the gym confident and ready to go.
Now let’s get into the specifics and breakdown what you should be looking for pre- and post-workout in order to optimally perform...but also recover and thrive!
The importance of pre-workout nutrition is to give your body the blood sugar boost to get through your workout, as we’ve already mentioned in the previous section.
For some time, it was thought that pre-workout carbs immediately were turned into glycogen and served as the primary fuel for your workout. It turns out that this isn’t necessarily the case. Not alllllllll of it will be used as “blood stream glucose”, as it does take at a minimum 24 hours for your body to store glucose into glycogen. Much of your pre-workout nutrition DOES go into your net carb totals for the day and eventually will be utilized in future workouts.
[This is why eating enough on rest days & not restricting your intake is vastly important!!!]
So what should you be including in your pre-workout meal?
Two main priorities should be considered: carbs and protein.
As we’ve mentioned a lot, carbs should make a lot of sense here. Some of these carbs will eventually go and serve as glycogen in future workouts, but also a good bit will serve as that “sugar high” and give you a nice boost for your workout. Think of it like un-caffeinated pre-workout! I’d recommend anywhere from 25-60g of carbs, or 1-2 cups or handful of carbs in your pre-workout meal.
Protein is also important for a couple of reasons.
While protein is beneficial to growing, or simply maintaining muscle, what you eat in your pre-workout meal isn’t going to make or break your workout. Protein is best absorbed and digested when eaten consistently throughout the day. Including it in your pre-workout meal ensures you’re feeding your body protein, which it can use for muscle protein synthesis OR also every other thing protein is needed for in your body.
We encourage you to eat roughly your bodyweight in grams of protein, with a +/- 10g wiggle room. That can be a tough change for many of you, especially women as we’re often told protein is bad for us, causes kidney issues, makes you bulky, etc. While we [and literally most reputable scientists and coaches in the field] have debunked this, it can still be a tough habit to incorporate. Adding in protein at a meal makes it that much easier. For example, if you eat just 3 meals a day and weight 150lbs, that’s 50g/meal! That’s a lot of protein and you might not be able to consume all that comfortably. Adding a 4th meal before your workout (say 4ish pm if you’re an evening exerciser), cuts that down to 37g/meal, which is the average size of a chicken breast and much more attainable to consume.
With protein, use your discretion. If you’re tracking & logging grams of protein, 25-35 is usually a great window, but as long as you’re consistently eating protein throughout the day and hitting roughly bodyweight in grams of protein, you’re golden. If you’re NOT tracking macros, a handful or palm-sized portion is plenty!
Does this mean you can’t have veggies or fats?
Absolutely not! While the fiber in veggies and the fats you consume can alter your rate of digestion, we don’t want to obsess too much over it. In a perfect world, yes you’d lower your fibrous veggie and fat intake around your workouts so you either don’t digest your food too fast (via the veggies) or too slow (via the fats) BUT it’s important to look at the whole picture here. IF the only time you can get veggies in is in that meal then it’s important to keep them in there so we can still get those micronutrients! IF the only protein you enjoy eating is higher in fat, that’s okay! I wouldn’t recommend eating a whole jar of peanut butter before hitting a 10-mile run or attempting Fran...but the science is in the compliance. If it gets you out and moving...then that’s something to consider!
Personally, I have clients who prefer a bit of veggies in their pre-workout meals and others who just want the basics (rice and chicken for example). This is why individualized nutrition is not only fun...but also essential to YOUR success!
When should you eat before a workout?
As always, it depends. Generally, 1-2 hours before is best. Too soon and you’ve got a fully tummy (refer back to a jar of peanut butter...or watch Michael from the Office carbo-load with fettucine alfredo 10 minutes before a 5k). Too late and you’re hungry & depleted and working out on low blood sugar. This varies per person. Some have higher metabolisms and also don’t do much jumping and running in their workouts and are okay eating a meal closer to their workout, while others are more sensitive or moving around, in which case that 90 minute to 2 hour window likely is more appropriate! Lastly, your schedule decides this as well! If you’re a morning trainer, I wouldn’t wake up 2 hrs before your 5am workout to eat chicken and rice. Instead, I would prioritize some extra carbs in your meal at the end of the day before: i.e. dinner! Maybe you sip on a protein shake heading into the gym, too. If you work out in the middle of the day, breakfast or a snack mid-morning would be optimal! If you train later in the day, getting in something after lunch is likely best, as lunch could be up to 7hrs before your workout. We understand not everyone’s schedule is that flexible, so snacks and smaller meals can be utilized! Generally, if your schedule doesn’t allow it, having something small even like a protein shake & an apple or even a protein bar in the car heading to the gym is enough to give you that boost but not so much to upset your stomach or bog you down.
Now onto after the workout.
Generally speaking, similar considerations can be applied post-workout as we discussed in our pre-workout section.
Protein and carbs are most important here, for similar reasons.
While the carbs in your post-workout have a bit of a different impact, it still comes down to glucose & glycogen replenishment, which we’ve already discussed in previous sections. It’s important to replenish your glycogen stores for several reasons.
It prevents injury because it replenishes & re-grows muscle fibers. As a result, you remain strong or get stronger.
It allows your cortisol levels to lower, removing you from sympathetic “fight or flight” mode and instead into parasympathetic “rest and digest” mode.
It prevents muscle breakdown catabolism.
It helps you sleep (because cortisol has been shunted off).
It helps for performance in future workouts.
It’s less about the blood sugar this go around and more about the full glycogen replenishment implications.
I would recommend similar quantities: 25-60g. As always, though, this is best individualized! If you’re a morning exerciser, you may not want allllll the carbs in your breakfast because you still have lunch and dinner to consider. Vice versa, you may be hungry after your afternoon workout and want a bit more carbs to get to bed. The science is in the compliance.
Protein considerations are essentially the exact same as with your pre-workout meal. This is important for the bigger “all day” picture in helping you get enough protein for the day and for all the things needed, not just muscle protein synthesis. It’s also helpful in helping you reach your protein goal!
Now a note on protein, I do find it helpful to add a protein shake around your workout! I personally love doing this as it buys me time to get a meal in, helps me reach my protein goal easier (we’ll do the math in a second), and helps with hydration! If you consumed 4 meals a day (like we talked about in the previous section) and also added a scoop (25-30g protein usually) of whey protein after your workout, you now only need 30g of protein in your four meals as opposed to 37g with your 4 meals alone OR your 50g/meal if you only ate 3 meals! Additionally, whey protein contains leucine and isoleucine which are not common amino acids found in foods (other than meats, specifically red meat), and are the key amino acids used in the muscle protein synthesis pathway.