When and what should you eat before working out? And, does it matter what your eat after?

Since there are days when I teach early in the morning (6 and 7 am) or early evenings, what to eat and when is a topic that comes up a lot when chatting with my students and clients.

Fortunately there is plenty of solid research on the topic of exercise and nutrition, and, how to best build and maintain muscle using certain principles of nutrition. Research shows that the type, the amount and the timing of your protein intake are pretty important to your muscle building strategy.

The first thing you need to do is make sure your nutritional needs for the day are met with healthy fats (20 – 25% daily calories), carbohydrates (55% – 65%) and protein (10 – 15%). Too little fat or too little calories overall, can sabotage your efforts in obtaining that lean or muscular body you’re aiming for. And since protein is the primary building block for muscle growth, you’ve got to make sure you’re at least getting your RDA’s worth of protein. How much protein is that? You need approximately 1 gram per every kilogram of body weight, or about .4 grams per pound. Most hard-core exercisers prefer a little more. My trick is just to divide my body weight (in pounds) in half, and that’s the minimum amount of protein grams I like to get a day. It’s usually not dangerous to get 150 percent of the RDA of protein, unless you have liver or kidney disease. Of course, if you’re not doing a lot of weight training, there’s probably no point.

For those of us who are type-A-exercisers, always looking to improve our fitness levels, the missing component is often proper nutrition. I know it is for me. Many people I know at the gym don’t simply take one group exercise class or do one cardio machine for an hour and go home. If, for example, you do a Spinning class then lift weights for 30 – 45 minutes (a 75+ minute workout) nutrition become much more important.

There have been several studies that measured the effects of both protein and carbohydrate before or after weight training. Giving your body protein 30 minutes before weight training is the most effective strategy according to researchers. But, you can still consume your protein and carbohydrates afterwards. Researchers found if you consume a carbohydrate and protein mixture immediately after a strength-training workout, or even as much as 3 hours after, the effects were similar in stimulating protein synthesis. The protein component is of course the most important part of the equation, but the carbohydrates are necessary to replace the depleted glycogen stores in the muscle. However, the dynamic duo of protein and carbohydrate together will stimulate insulin which enhances the protein building effect!

If you did a double duty workout of weight-training and cardio, be sure to get carbohydrates into your system after your session ends. Carbohydrate consumed alone after weight training helps replenish muscle glycogen stores, but as I mentioned before, when consumed with protein, it helps the protein synthesis process.

Here’s a good rule of thumb to follow for improving your sports nutrition regimen.
Pre-workout: have 20 – 30 grams of high quality protein within 30 minutes of starting your weight training routine. Most protein shakes fit this bill as does real food like a chicken breast or egg whites. If you’re going to do an intense or a long cardio workout, have some sort of carbohydrate preferably with some protein, like a bowl of oatmeal or yogurt with fruit and/or granola, or even easier, a carbohydrate gel like GU or a Powerbar. (I am not endorsing a particular brand here – these are just examples).

But be sure to consume carbohydrates pretty soon after you train,
especially if you do a cardio workout along with a weight-training session. The carbohydrates will replace the muscle glycogen stores used up during an intense workout, however, when you eat a mix of carbohydrates and protein, the hormone insulin is stimulated which allows the protein to further enhance protein building.

Jill Brown
Jill Brown
Hi, I'm JillI am a Los Angeles based Fitness + Nutrition Coach. With 20+ years of experience in teaching, training and continuing my education, I have transformed thousands of lives through fitness and healthy lifestyle changes.