Others deal with protein.
And of course, we recently dealt with eating for muscle gain vs eating for fat loss.
But one question that gets asked time after time is what to eat before/after your workouts in order to maximize muscle gain without adding fat.
I’m going to jump right into my recommendations and save the explanations for the end – I’m betting some of you don’t care about the explanations as much as the action plan!
Pre and Post Workout Eating Guidelines
Important preamble: except for #4, these guidelines apply to all of you, whether you are trying to gain mass, lose fat, or just maintain. No matter who you are, you should do about the same thing with your eating in the window before/during/after your lifting workouts. The main difference between gaining and losing overall bodyweight is not different overall eating plans. The difference comes down to total weekly calories. More on that here.
1. Never train on an empty stomach. I’m talking about weight training here (there are mixed reports of doing cardio in a semi-fasted state being better for fat burning, but even if there is a link, it is a small link). To maximize your lifting, you need to do it intensely. If you don’t have enough energy in your muscles (stored glycogen) you will be weaker. That defeats the purpose.
2. Have a mix of protein and carbs BEFORE your workout, preferably about 30 minutes before. Calorie mix should be about 60% carbohydrates, 40% proteins. ADVANCED TIP: These should be carbs like oats, not simple or processed sugars and not veggies. Fruits are fine. (I sometimes have a banana.) Proteins can be slower proteins like casein if you are using a powder or chicken if you are doing real food.
3. Have a mix of protein and carbs AFTER your workout, preferably within 1 hour. Don’t wait 2 hours like some people say. Calorie mix should be about 60% carbs, 40% proteins. ADVANCED TIP: These should be fast carbs – simple sugars are ok. Honey. Orange juice. Your proteins also need to be fast proteins, like whey protein in a shake.
4. Optional: If you are skinny and really trying to add bulk, have a protein/carb mix shake DURING your workout too.
5. Avoid high fiber meals within 2 hrs before or 2 hours after your workout. High fiber can upset your stomach a bit. Fiber counts as carbs yet don’t do much for getting protein into your muscles. Fiber is important, but at different times of day. Some fiber with every meal is fine (especially veggies), but don’t have a fiber-heavy meal right after your workout. This guideline is especially important around cardio workouts.
6. Avoid food with high fat within 2 hrs before or 2 hours after your workout. Fat will slow down the absorption of the protein and carbs. You still need healthy fats (fish oils, nuts, olive oil, etc.) – just other times of day.
7. ADVANCED TIP: Your highest carb intake should be in the time around your workouts. Structure your meal plans accordingly, so that you eat fewer carbs later in the day (except for veggies – good any time other than around your workout because of the fiber).
My Specific Plan
Here’s what I typically do personally (currently). Keep in mind, I workout in the morning.
a) About 1 hr before my workout I’ll either have a banana [carbs] and a casein shake [slow protein], with skim milk [slow protein and fast carbs] or I’ll have a glass of skim milk and a few scoops of my best homemade protein mix [this has some fat and fiber in it, so I keep the amount small]. I’ve also experimented in the past with having a little caffeine here too. I’m not sure if it helps with endurance or not, though science says it does.
b) During my workout I consume more calories. Because I burn a ton of calories all week (weights plus running) I’m scared to death of getting too skinny and thus I need the extra “meal”. I’ll either have a whey protein shake that comes with carbs already, in milk, or I’ll have a whey protein shake without carbs (but in skim milk) and eat a banana about half way through.
c) About an hour after my workout, I’ll have half a bagel, some eggs (half just egg whites), salsa, and some veggies. My workouts are usually about 60 minutes so this puts me at three “meals” within the space of 3 hrs. This is a ton of food and you do NOT need this much food unless you are naturally thin (skip guideline #4 above unless you are naturally thin).
The common thinking up until a few years ago really focused on what you ate after your workouts. There were a lot of studies done showing that you had about 2 hours after your workout to feed the muscle.
But like all science, any study is necessarily a limited scope. For example, the studies often had the subjects of the test fast before the workout! And then the comparisons were against people who ate protein and carbs right afterwards. Duh! Of course the comparisons were going to be significantly different!
Very few people really fast before their workouts. An exception is people who workout in the morning who might not eat until after their workout if they aren’t taught better.
Anyway, for a couple decades – inexplicably – no conclusive studies were done about pre-workout nutrition.
Recently there have been studies showing that pre-workout nutrition can be just as effective as post-workout nutrition.
In fact, the consensus among fitness professionals now is that for the average person (non-competitive athlete), as long as you have lean proteins and simple carbs within a 4 hour block (2 hrs before and 2 hrs after) of your workout, you are going to get most of the benefits. The mix of carbs-to-protein differs based on if you are doing more of an endurance training (like running) or a strength training (like weight lifting).
You probably already know that during exercise, the body relies primarily on glycogen – sugar/carbs stored in your muscles. Once that glycogen is used up, your body will either start burning fat or muscle (depending on what activity you are doing).
But it takes insane training to actually reach glycogen depletion – to use up all the glycogen. Seriously, people talk about “depleting their muscles of all the glycogen” but that’s really rare except after very long exercise bouts. Think “3 hr lifting sessions” or “running 12 miles”.
However, there is always a curve – as you lose glycogen, you do start to lose intensity for things like weight training. So during training you want to keep glycogen high. That makes it pretty obvious why carbs would be useful around your workout.
So why the combination of carbs and protein?
Based on my understanding (I don’t have a PhD in this or anything), here’s what’s going on. During your lifting, you are destroying muscle. The hope is that by stressing the muscle fibers to the point of damage, that when they heal they will be stronger and bigger. And that is exactly what happens.
So what do the muscles need to repair themselves? Amino acids found from proteins.
The idea in eating protein and carbs together is that the presence of carbs actually speeds the delivery of the protein to the damaged muscle. Study after study shows that just eating the protein helps, but when combined with carbs more protein gets delivered to the damaged muscles in a short time frame. Which brings us to the time issue…
For a period of about 2-3 hrs after your workout, you are actually in a catabolic state – your body is still “destroying” muscle. It’s only later in the day (starting about 3 hrs later and continuing up to 48 to 96 hours later, depending on whose research you believe) that you are anabolic (growing muscle). The hormones in your body change at about the 3 hr point.
To reduce the catabolic effect, and make the anabolic effect more pronounced, you want to get the protein to your muscles as soon as possible – right after they are damaged. Since even “fast” carbs and “fast” proteins take time to digest and get delivered, eating before or during your workouts ends up hitting your muscles at just the right time – when you have finished working them and damaging them.
Update: I’ve gotten a few questions on one issue so I want to clarify… If you workout in the morning and you simply can’t bring yourself to eat both protein and carbs beforehand, then here’s my “minimum” requirement. Eat some kind of fast carbs before and eat some kind of protein after. Carbs before will fuel a good workout and protein afterward will speed repair.