healthy living

Nutrition for the Casual Exerciser

What to eat, when, and why.

Have you ever gotten 20 minutes into what you thought was going to be a great workout, only to crash? You looked at the board and saw a bunch of exercises you liked. Why can’t you stay fired up and motivated? You feel sluggish, everything feels heavy. Then you remember, you haven’t eaten in five hours, and you’re trying to deadlift heavy. Suddenly it all makes sense. This post is aimed at taking some of the guesswork out of eating before and after workouts.

Nutrition Why’s

The main point of eating before a workout is to make sure that your blood sugar doesn’t crash. Your body stores adequate carbohydrate to fuel your training session in the form of glycogen, but likely will not spend that glycogen to keep your blood sugar levels high to fight off the fatigued feeling that tends to sneak up on us halfway through a session. The biggest thing to remember here is that everything works, but not everything works for everyone. What makes you feel good for heavy deadlifts may make someone else feel like trash, and the meal that makes you feel good for deadlifts may make you feel like a pile of muck for a conditioning session. Finding what works for you will take a bit of experimentation.

With that in mind, there are a couple of principals to consider when planning your pre- and post workout nutrition. The first is timing, the next is food composition. I listed food composition second because that is more of a dependent variable here. With that stated, let’s dig in.

Nutrition Timing

First, we’ll address timing. Your body takes time to digest the food you eat. It can be quite the lengthy process depending on the fat and fiber content of the food you are eating. This digestion process not only takes time but requires blood to be shuttled to the stomach and small intestine to provide oxygen and energy to the tissues breaking down and up taking your food. For this reason, I like to space my meals a little farther away from the beginning of my workout.

  • My typical go-to is a whole foods meal consisting of a mix of protein, fat, and carbohydrates.
  • I keep the fiber content of this meal relatively low so that I know I can have it digested and through my system by the time I start training.
  • If I have an early morning session, and I don’t have a couple hours to digest my food, I opt for something simple. The closer it is to your workout, the faster you need to be able to digest the food.
  • Since fat and fiber tend to slow the digestion process, I tend to reduce these significantly the closer my meal gets to the start of my workout. This helps me avoid feeling slow or bloated and reduce the chance of a gastrointestinal upset.
  • So if you have a couple hours, eat a balanced meal with some fat, protein, and carbs. If you are more strapped for time, something simple like a banana or apple and some low-fat cottage cheese can get you through.

Post-Workout Nutrition

After the workout, the nutrition game gets a little more tricky. What you eat here is going to be highly dependant on what you are trying to achieve with your workouts. If your goal is fat loss, you will probably be eating fewer calories. Your meal here will be smaller. If you are trying to gain weight, meals will be larger. The composition and timing of the post-workout meal will once again be individual and may take some experimentation. Here are some basic principals to consider while designing this one as well. I like this chart, developed by Alan Aragon and Brad Schoenfeld. These guys are two of the big dogs in what we will broadly categorize as body composition research. You can follow them on the social media if you want some cool information.

The table linked above kind of breaks down the importance of getting certain nutrients into your belly post-exercise. As you can see, what you eat is highly dependent on the type and duration of exercise you just performed. The similarity that you’ll notice, is that there are no hard and fast rules. We used to think that eating right after a workout was the most important thing in our recovery, but we are finding out, that unless you are doing multiple sessions in a day, the more important thing is just that you are eating enough to recover before your next session. This is cool because it breaks the stigma that there is one right thing that we all have to or we will shrivel up and lose all our gainz.

I will go out on a bit of a limb here and say that I still would recommend getting in some form of protein and carbohydrate right after working out for two reasons.

  1. Through various studies, we’re pretty sure that carbohydrate intake correlates strongly with increased ability to recover from workouts, and although the keto crowd would argue, the vast majority of the research seems to indicate that carbs help you recover. The main reason for protein ingestion is that you need amino acids in the bloodstream to help you recover, and the faster you can start this process, the better. Getting in some form of fast acting protein shortly after a workout can help you a lot, especially if you are having trouble getting enough in throughout the day from your food.
  2. The second reason: right after a workout, carbs are actually anti-inflammatory. A quick primer on inflammation here, acute inflammation is good, it signals the body to fix itself. Chronic inflammation is bad, we don’t like it. When you workout hard, inflammation is a natural response. It signals the body to repair the tissue that you damaged. The scary thing about inflammation is when it becomes chronic.

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