Fueling: pre, during and post workout nutrition

Published September 10, 2015

Most of us take a protein shake post-workout. After our CrossFit sessions of heavy lifting and cardio training or conditioning we need to rebuild the muscles we break down. However, there are other more important needs for our muscles and cardiovascular system.  When looking for strength improvements or cardiovascular improvements (better conditioning), the most important times to really focus on nutrition is before, during, and after a workout. Priorities for fueling should include: water to stay hydrated, electrolytes to regulate muscle contractions and send nerve impulses, carbohydrates to provide energy, and protein (BCAAs) to rebuild muscles and hormones.

Regulating body water is extremely important considering our body is about 60% water. We sweat large quantities out and therefore must consume large quantities. You want to “pre-hydrate” before the workout: drinking about half a liter 30 minutes or so before. During a workout, whether its strength, skill, or cardio based, ¼ liter every 15 minutes will keep you hydrated and after a workout you want to consume water in small increments until feeling rehydrated.

Electrolyte mixes such as Gatorade or coconut water are very beneficial. Electrolytes allow for electrical impulses to be sent via the nervous system. When we get extremely fatigued or dehydrated, and we lose electrolytes, messages cannot get sent from the brain to other body parts, making us feel dizzy. Our muscles also need electrolytes to contract. When absent our muscles will not properly contract and thus not function correctly.

Carbs are the most important macronutrient for our body during a workout. When we are on low carb diets we feel sluggish or don’t have enough energy when working out. Carbs are sugar, and our body’s quickest and preferred source of energy. When exercising moderately or intensely our body runs on primarily carbs (When under low exertion we use fats). As we fatigue we get “weaker” because our muscles run out of fuel. Proper fueling will keep adequate amounts of sugar in our muscles. Remember Carbs are not bad! You just need to know when to consume each type of carb (another story).

Carbs are also vital for protein absorption. They get a bad rap because they increase insulin levels. This is bad…. except for when working out. As sugar gets in blood stream our muscles take most of it up so our blood sugar levels do not get too high. As our muscles uptake the sugars they also uptake other substances in our blood stream, so if we consume protein, especially BCAA’s, before and during the workout the muscles will also uptake amino acids in addition to the carbs.

It’s the best of both worlds for the muscle cells. They get energy via sugar from the carbs and amino acids via protein. As a result it is recommended to consume carbs and protein about an hour before a workout (it takes about that long to get into our blood stream) and to make sure you maintain levels of carbs, protein, and water in the muscle cells consume a mixture of the three during.

So the takeaway! Rather than drinking a protein shake after our workout, eat an hour before a workout and consume carbs and protein during.  During a workout, carbs can be from Gatorade or my preference coconut water mixed with amino acids from BCAA’s from a protein mix/ powder.

Finally, what to consume after. You guessed it Carbs! I prefer fruit because of the fructose. A specific type of sugar which is helpful to fuel our body in its EPOC (Excess post-exercise oxygen consumption- which means we burn calories even after we are done working out) preferred by our liver for storage so next time we workout we have fuel in our tank. I also recommend trying to eat a meal within an hour or so of working out.

You will notice there is a lot of food/ nutrient consumption surrounding a workout. That is because our bodies do immense amounts of work and we need to make sure they have the raw materials. Around workout time high sugar items or high Glycemic index foods are okay, because the insulin effect I talked about earlier. However, when not around workout time we want to keep our insulin low so low glycemic foods or whole, low sugar foods.

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