Everyone loves a good, gruesome workout. You feel accomplished afterwards, you’ve got the endorphins flowing, but what next? Is it a protein shake? Is it a full meal? What about before the workout? What fueled you during those intense bicep curls? There is a lot that goes into the workout besides the exercises themselves. Pre, during, and post workout nutrition play much larger roles than you may think. Let’s talk about what and when you should be eating to get the maximum benefit out of your next gym session.

Pre-Workout Nutrition

It is pivotal to consume the right foods before your workout. Exercising on an empty stomach can lead to undesirable effects such as burning protein as an energy source or causing your body to rely on fat as an energy source which your body will respond to by making more fat. Your body wants to use carbohydrates as fuel for exercise, but when it does not have enough of its preferred fuel source it will burn glycogen (stored carbs) or fat as the energy source. This may sound nice if you are trying to lose weight, but these forms of energy storage are there to fuel your brain when glucose levels are low in your body, so they’re kind of important. The other option, burning protein, breaks down the same thing you are trying to build up…your muscle. Your body is burning the same thing it needs to rebuild itself after a workout. Definitely not ideal. So, what should you consume before your workout? Here are some great natural pre-workout options:

  • Leafy Greens
  • Whole Grain Bread
  • Legumes
  • Nuts/Seeds
  • Fruits
  • Smoothie
  • Yogurt
  • Rice Cakes

All the foods mentioned above are great sources of complex (healthy) carbohydrates which makes them ideal fuel for the body during a workout. Depending on the size of the pre-workout meal, be sure to eat 2-3 hours before your workout to make sure the food is fully digested in your system and can be utilized during the workout. Exercising on a full, undigested stomach can lead to trouble with digestion which means your body will not be able to fully utilize those carbohydrates. In addition to carbs pre-workout, a cup of coffee is a great natural option to pair with your food for that extra jolt during your workout. So now that you’re fueled up and ready to get your sweat on at the gym, let’s talk about nutrition during the workout.

During the Workout

Though you probably don’t hear about it as much, what you consume during the workout can be just as important as what you consume before or after the workout. The first thing to make sure you’re getting enough of is obviously water. The importance of water in everyday life cannot be undermined. The amount of functions water has in the body is astounding, and it does even more functions during exercise such as regulating body temperature and joint lubrication. It also helps transport necessary nutrients throughout the keep your workout going, which leads me to the next thing you may consider consuming during a workout: glucose. Glucose is the most basic form of sugar and it is the form that your body absorbs. How can this help during the workout? Well you burn calories during the workout and pumping extra calories (glucose) into your veins during the workout is kind of like pouring fuel into a plane while its in flight. The calories help to replenish what is being used in the workout. An amazing product to consume during your workout is Tailwind Nutrition’s “Endurance Fuel”. This blend of calories, electrolytes and hydration is the perfect thing to consume when you’re burning those calories. I have personally used this product and can vouge for its awesomeness. I noticed myself having more energy during my workouts, especially when I used their caffeinated endurance fuel with the extra kick of caffeine (I did not consume coffee before the workouts with caffeinated endurance fuel, that would be crazy). This stuff dissolves COMPLETELY in your water bottle and every flavor I tried tasted amazing (I liked the green tea the best). If you aren’t inclined to purchase some of Tailwind Nutrition’s Endurance Fuel, here are some other great options for you to consume during your workouts:

Now its time to talk about that post workout snack.

Post Workout Nutrition

Most people will just consume a big ol’ protein shake after a workout. While this is a pretty good option, it is not the most beneficial to rebuild your body. The most ideal ratio of carbs to protein to consume after your workout is actually 3:1, respectively. The protein is required to rebuild the muscle you just broke down, but the carbs are important for replenishing the glycogen (stored energy) you just consumed for the workout. Your muscles are where we store a good amount of our glycogen for immediate muscle use during exercise. The other place we store glycogen is in our liver, but we are aiming to replenish the muscle glycogen here. Again, it may sound nice to not replenish the stored glycogen if you are trying to lose weight, but much of the weight you may be trying to lose is adipose tissue, or fat. Therefore, it does not make sense choosing to not replenish your glycogen storage because that is not necessarily where the excess weight is. Consuming protein after a workout both increases protein synthesis while simultaneously decreasing protein degradation. There are plenty of options for post workout snacks that provide this 3:1 ratio. In terms of protein powders, a lot of them are derived from sources that contain carbs anyways such as milk or vegetables, but they contain more protein than anything. Different kinds of protein powders (whey, casein, rice, pea, etc.) are great post workout options if they are paired with an additional snack or contain a good amount of added carbohydrates. Snack ideas to pair with your protein shake include:

  • Sweet Potato
  • Chocolate Milk
  • Quinoa
  • Peanut Butter Sandwich
  • Oatmeal
  • Dark, leafy veggies
  • Rice

If you don’t want to use protein shakes because of the price or some other reason, that’s okay! Here are some other options besides shakes to consume after your workout to get the required protein:

  • Grilled chicken
  • Eggs
  • Greek Yogurt
  • Cottage Cheese
  • Salmon
  • Tuna

If you are looking for an all-around great recovery drink for your workouts though, look no further than Tailwind Nutrition’s “Recovery” drinks. These drinks offer the damn near perfect post workout nutrition that you can easily combine with water. The powder completely dissolves, just like the “Endurance Fuel” and tastes cleaner than any protein powder I have ever used. The “Recovery” drink contains healthy carbs to replenish your glycogen stores, single amino acids (the building blocks of protein) which combine to make complete proteins, and minerals to help re-hydrate you and replenish your electrolytes. Again, I have personally used the “Recovery” drink from Tailwind, and I can confidently say it is the best post workout drink I have ever had. It contains everything I need after a workout in one beverage, tastes great, and doesn’t have a gritty texture like a lot of other protein powders do. As far as timing goes for post workout nutrition, you should ideally consume your 3:1 ratio 30 minutes to 1 hour after finishing your workout for maximum glycogen replenishment. The protein synthesis will take place over a longer period of time (which is why getting enough sleep is also crucial to rebuilding your muscles), but it is still important to have that protein available for when your body needs to rebuild itself.

So that’s it. There’s your quick summary of overall workout nutrition and its extreme importance. I always tell people a healthy lifestyle is 70% nutrition and 30% exercise. Sure, you may place a larger importance on exercise if you are trying to get big or lose weight, but without the proper nutrition you will see no results. Whatever your goal, I cannot stress enough the importance of the proper diet to meet your goals. Keep these things in mind the next time you are about to hit the weights.

Written by Braeden Yacobucci

Braeden is a junior at Kent State University studying Nutrition and Dietetics. He is a member of the Student Dietetic Association and is working towards becoming a Registered Dietitian in Ohio. He has also spent many hours shadowing professional dietitians in the fields.