Ensuring you get the optimal nutrition in before and after your workouts is essential to maximising your performance and recovering in the best way possible.
Whether your goal is fat loss, muscle size or a strength increase, knowing what to eat and when to eat it is important. Making sure your body is fuelled with the right nutrients before you work out will give you both the energy and strength needed to perform better.
A pre-workout meal which is complete - so containing carbs, protein and fat - 2-3 hours before you exercise is ideal. The sooner you eat before your workout, the simpler and easier to digest the meal should be. My staple pre-workout meal is a big salad with a vegetable mix, a lean source of protein (chicken or turkey usually) and cooked brown rice. For any heavy weight sessions I consume it at least an hour and a half before, or if it’s a cardio day at least 2 hours before. With the cardio I know I’ll be bouncing around more and therefore need the additional time to digest to avoid any stomach discomfort. It should also be noted that raw vegetables take a fair bit of time to digest, so I leave enough time for them to settle. Not everyone digest raw vegetables that well, so if you want to include veg in your pre-workout meal, aiming for cooked ones might be more ideal.
The ratio of carbohydrate, protein and fat your pre-workout meal should consist of will depend on the type of exercise you do. For short, high-intensity exercise carbs are essential, whereas for longer and moderate-to-low intensity exercise fat will also become a source of fuel. Protein will help to improve your performance, potentially helping to increase muscle protein synthesis as well as improving muscle recovery and muscle performance. If you’re unsure, trying to aim for a 40% carbs, 30% protein and 30% fat split might be a good starting point - this means 40% of the nutrients of your pre-workout meal will come from the carbs, 30% from protein and 30% from fat. This does not mean equal measures (e.g. grams) of all 3, as there are 9 calories per 1 gram of fat, but only 4 calories per 1 gram of carbohydrate and 1 gram of protein. So a pre-workout meal at 400 calories, for instance would equal 40 grams of carbs, 30 grams of protein and just under 14 grams of fat.
Pre-workout protein shakes, if your stomach tolerates them, can be a good way to ensure you get protein in your system before engaging in any exercise targeted towards muscle size and/or strength. These should be consumed 30 minutes or so before exercising. However, I still maintain the approach that eating proper food should always win over having a shake, if you have the time and opportunity to do so. There are certain pre-workout powders that mix amino acids (the building blocks of protein) and various types of energy-boosting ingredients (such as caffeine and taurine). These can help give you a much needed push at the gym, and if you find they help there’s probably not much harm in taking them. Just watch out for artificial sweeteners and any unnecessary ingredients - this is where sources such as examine.com come in handy to work out whether what you’re spending your money on is actually worth it. More on supplements another day!
Is it wise to train on an empty stomach?
If your goal is fat loss, it might be tempting to work out without eating anything beforehand. Fasted exercise can help burn more fat, but there is evidence to suggest it may slow down your metabolism to compensate for fat loss. If your body burns loads of fat off it may come to the conclusion it needs to store more of it the next time you eat a meal. Additionally, you may feel hungrier after and end up eating more anyway. I have also experienced first-hand clients becoming unwell in training sessions because they didn’t fuel their body prior to their workout. It doesn’t have to be a massive meal, but I do think you should give your body the right fuel before you exercise.
The same principles apply to your post-workout meal. The anabolic window ("you MUST consume protein after 45-60 minutes of exercise for any chance of muscle gainz") has now largely been debunked, but it is important to ensure your protein intake is adequate post-exercise, especially in the first 24 hours after. A good-quality protein shake containing carbohydrate as well would do the trick, but if you can, eating a balanced meal post-workout is just as good. One is not necessarily more beneficial than the other, but I see the convenience of having protein shakes. Post any heavy weight training the glycogen stores in your muscles will be depleted, so getting some fast-acting carbohydrate in alongside your protein is also a good idea. This doesn’t necessarily mean pigging out on sweets, but fast-acting simple carbohydrate such as white bread, pasta or white rice could be just the thing your muscles need post-workout, especially in the first 4 hours or so after.
If your goals are more along the lines of fat loss and/or toning up, post-workout it would be important to replenish at least some of the glycogen you’ve depleted with carbohydrate, as well as getting good protein and some healthy fat in too.
There’s no need to rush to get your nutrients in after a workout, but the sooner you eat a balanced meal containing all three macronutrients, the better. For the sake of convenience I tend to have a whey protein shake with a carbohydrate mix (containing dextrose, maltodextrin and glycine) within the first hour after my workouts, and I’ll then consume a meal containing lean protein, fast-acting carbohydrate and sources of healthy fat within the following 2 hours after this.