What to Eat Before and After a Workout

What to Eat Before and After a Workout: A Primer for Newbies and Seasoned Athletes

A Primer for Newbies and Seasoned Athletes

Bland skinless, fat-free chicken breast, egg whites, and protein powders: For what seems like forever, those have been go-to staples for bodybuilders and other athletes. Sure, they might throw in something like sweet potato or brown rice, but the primary emphasis here is protein, protein, and more protein.

The not-so-subtle message becomes if you want to build or maintain muscle, you’ve got to ramp up your protein intake. At its most ridiculous, I’ve read about bodybuilders setting their alarm every three hours (even during the night) to eat so they don’t become protein deficient. Talk about a serious way to impede rest, recovery, and sanity!

So why the big deal about protein? Well, you can store carbohydrates as glycogen, and everyone knows you can store fat (sometimes too efficiently), but your body can’t store protein. (I’ve delved into these three macronutrients in more depth and how to make the right choices around your workout in this blog.)

Instead, dietary protein gets broken down into amino acids that your body uses for various functions. Of those 20 amino acids, nine are labeled essential, meaning you can’t make them so you need to get them from food or supplements.

You need a steady protein intake, but how much?

Protein Intake for the Average Person

Most people are overfed, and that includes getting too much protein. Protein can help you lose weight and increase satiety, but it doesn’t take massive amounts to get those and other benefits.

The Institute of Medicine says we should get 10 – 35 percent of our daily calories from protein, (1) which seems like a rather vague suggestion.

The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein makes things a little clearer. They say most people need about 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, which comes out to around 50 grams daily. (2)

That isn’t a lot. Consider that a four-ounce chicken breast provides about 20 – 25 grams and you can begin to see how many people overeat protein. You could eat a McDonald’s Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese and get your daily protein allotment (though I wouldn’t recommend it). (3)

Keep in mind also that a good bit of variation exists within these suggestions. In his book Eat Fat, Get Thin, Dr. Mark Hyman recommends most people get four to six ounces of protein per meal. Other experts believe if you’re over 50, you should increase protein intake to preserve muscle mass. Others maintain we eat too little protein, while over 40 researchers argued in an article published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that we need to seriously increase protein intake. (4)

In other words, no one absolutely agrees how much protein we need. I like Hyman’s solution:

“Pay attention to how your body feels and you’ll know [if you’re getting sufficient protein],” he says. “You can learn by experimenting and recording your observations each day. Check your hunger, energy level, cravings, and amount and quality of sleep to see how they change according to more or less protein. If you feel fatigued or sluggish, it may be a signal that you require more protein.”

Protein Quality

Some protein sources are superior to others. Animal foods like chicken breast contain complete protein – meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids in correct proportions to build protein in your body – whereas some plant foods might lack one or more of those amino acids. (5) Soy protein, for instance, is low in the essential amino acids methionine and lysine.

Sometimes you’ll hear vegans or vegetarians argue ounce for ounce, plant foods contain more protein than animal foods. For instance, a 100-calorie portion of broccoli contains more protein than a 100-calorie portion of steak.

That argument proves to be backwards on several counts. Steak provides a superior protein source (providing all nine essential amino acids); broccoli does not. To get meaningful amounts of protein from plant foods, you’d need to combine a lot of broccoli (even 100 calories’ worth is a good amount) with other plant-based foods to cover your protein bases.

That doesn’t mean you can’t get sufficient protein as a vegan or vegetarian, and it should hardly sway you against eating broccoli. But eat broccoli for its other benefits – fiber, nutrients, and antioxidants – and not to get your protein.

Bottom line: You don’t need tons of protein, and you want to choose the protein-rich foods you eat from quality sources. Grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish, and pasture-raised eggs are great animal-based options. Vegans and vegetarians should go for legumes, nuts, seeds, and non-gluten grains like quinoa.

Whole food sources will always be superior to processed foods, but some people – vegans, for instance – might benefit from a plant-based protein powder.

Protein and Athletes

To answer why heavy lifters and other athletes emphasize protein, you need to understand a few terms. Protein turnover is that balance between protein synthesis and protein breakdown in your muscles.

When you’re synthesizing more than breaking down, you’re in an anabolic (building) state that builds muscle, whereas if you’re breaking down you’re a catabolic state that breaks down muscle.

Obviously, you want to synthesize more than break down to build muscle. Muscle protein turnover happens primarily after working out, so supporting muscles around a workout provides a logical way to build and maintain muscle mass.

Right up front: Protein powders and high-protein diets don’t build muscle. They support muscle building, but only lifting weights builds muscle.

That might sound obvious, but skillful advertising and overhyped high-protein diet books can suggest to build muscle you just need to seriously step up your protein intake.

On the other hand, if you’re lifting heavy or otherwise exercise vigorously, you might want to get more than 50 grams.

According to The American College of Sports Medicine, if you lift weights regularly or you’re training for a cycling or running marathon, you should eat a range of 1.2-1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. (6)

That means if you weigh 75 kg (about 165 pounds) and want to increase muscle mass, you would get about 125 grams of protein daily. That would come out to about 30 grams of protein per meal and then maybe 30 grams during your workout.

Even then, that isn’t a lot of protein, and your needs will fluctuate according to age, gender, athletic performance, and lots of other factors.

Optimal Protein Intake Around Your Workout

You probably know someone – maybe you’re that person – who carefully packs their chicken breast and brown rice for after a workout. If food isn’t your thing (some people aren’t hungry after exercise), protein powders usually combined with some kind of carbohydrate might provide post-workout fuel.

Then you’ve got more hypervigilant folks who take some sort of pre-workout fuel and maybe even something during their workout.

The purpose of fueling before, during, and after your workout has less to do with satiety and more with supplying your body – specifically, your muscles – with the right nutrients.

“[S]tudies done in athletes habitually consuming moderate amounts of carbohydrate show that muscle protein balance is negative after exercise if amino acids are not provided before, during or after exercise,” says Dr. Stephen Phinney in The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance. “ This has led to the common practice of consuming protein supplements after exercise, which in turn results in transient increases in muscle protein synthesis and overall positive protein balance.”

Let’s briefly look at what a pre- and post-workout formula might look like.

Wait, Do I Need to Eat Before a Workout?

No, you don’t.

Eating before a workout provides energy to stay the course, or so one line of thinking goes. But then, do you want to eat immediately before your workout as some people do or a few hours before, allowing food enough time to digest? (After all, you want blood to flow towards your muscles and other organs during a workout, not your digestive system.)

On the other hand, maybe you do better exercising on an empty stomach. (More on this later.)

Manufacturers understand your dilemma. You might not be able to pre-plan your meal several hours before your workout. You’re maybe rushing into the gym, thankful you made it there period, but you don’t have time to eat something. Or you scarf down a protein bar and immediately feel bloated or otherwise gross while you’re working out. (I’ve done that.)

Ergogenic aids are a massive business, and these days you’ll find more pre-workout supplements that promise increased stamina, endurance, energy, and all sorts of other benefits. Many formulas contain synergistic nutrient blends, usually in a powder that mixes with water or juice.

Could it be the perfect pre-workout fuel without working out hungry or going through the hassle of finding something to eat? Maybe.

One six-week study looked at supplement blend of creatine, betaine, and a dendrobium extract (MMP) on safety, performance, and body composition in healthy men and women doing resistance exercise. Overall, researchers found no improvements in performance or body composition. (7)

Another found a pre-workout supplement with caffeine, B vitamins, amino acids, creatine, and beta-alanine could delay fatigue during strenuous exercise. (8)

Be wary. Supplement companies fund some of these studies, especially those that yield positive results. But this one highlighted another point: One pre-workout supplement that has repeatedly proven effective is caffeine.

One study found a caffeine-containing pre-workout dietary supplement could improve anaerobic power performance. (9)  And an evidence-based review found moderate evidence supporting coffee could improve performance in endurance cycling and running. (10)

If you’ve got deep pockets and want to determine their efficacy, it couldn’t hurt to try some of these pre-workout formulas and see if they make any difference. I recommend buying professional brands, reading ingredients, and skip artificial sweeteners and other junk.

Alternately, you might play around with eating before your workout – as in, with real food or a protein powder – and see how you feel.

You might find working out on an empty stomach suits you better some days but not on others. Then, you could just stick with plain old black coffee for a pre-workout caffeine boost. (Although worth noting: Don’t use caffeine as a crutch for bad sleep or underlying problems like adrenal fatigue that could create health issues.)

Experiment. There’s no magic formula. As with most things in life, your mileage will vary with pre-workout supplements. They might give a nudge for a few people, while others won’t see any difference.

Are Protein Supplements the Answer to Building Muscle?

You just killed it with the free weights, and your personal trainer complimented your hard work. Because you want to preserve that hard-earned muscle, you immediately head to the locker room to chug your whey powder.

From the looks of gyms everywhere, you’d think you absolutely better use a protein powder or you’ll quickly lose that muscle.

Manufacturers want you to think that way: It fuels their business, as you can see from an ever-expanding line of powders lining health food and sports nutrition stores. Your gym probably even sells a protein powder or three.

Here’s the short of it: You don’t need any workout supplements. In fact, my philosophy is that you’re probably better off eating whole, real foods around your workouts.

That said, some people aren’t hungry around their workout, or they want a quickly absorbing nutrient-rich supplement. If ergonomic supplements are your thing, go for it: Just don’t feel like you have to take them, and as I’ve always said, you’re better off eating whole foods.

A full discussion about ergonomic supplements goes beyond this article, and you’ll find plenty of discussion about creatine, arginine, and other amino-acid based supplements elsewhere. Here, let’s look at two mainstays among heavy lifters and other athletes: Protein powders and BCAAs.

Protein Powders: Good, Bad, and Ugly

Buying a protein powder can quickly feel intimidating. Visit health food stores and you’ll find massively built men and women buying these hulking containers. Among the proteins in these powders include casein, soy, and whey, but lately more plant-based powders have made the scene.

Here’s the short of it. For many people, casein (the predominant protein in dairy) creates a reaction and I don’t recommend it.

I’ve discussed my thoughts about soy versus whey proteins here. Neither type of protein is horrible like some experts suggest, but they also carry limitations.

Plant-based protein powders – including pea, rice, and hemp – don’t always have the impressive protein profiles that animal-based ones do, plus they absorb more slowly. That makes them fine for meal replacements, but if you want a fast-absorbing powder, whey might be your ticket.

One study found whey more effective than soy protein or similar-calorie carbohydrate supplements to build lean body mass during resistance training. (11)

Whey is high in the amino acid cysteine, which boosts levels of glutathione, a very powerful antioxidant. Whey contains other proteins that boost immune function. And whey contains impressive amounts of the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, isoleucine, and valine. (12)

As a post-workout fuel, whey might be ideal, but a few caveats. Whey powders vary widely in quality. Many commercial brands (like, those massive warehouse-store containers) come with artificial sweeteners, flavors, potential food sensitivities like corn (as maltodextrin) or soy, and other things you most definitely don’t want in a protein powder.

Look for a professional-quality whey that’s not denatured and comes from grass-fed cows. Denaturing means high heat and other processing methods could potentially damage those fragile amino acids, though experts debate to what degree this occurs (or even if it occurs). Most of the benefits of grass-fed dairy lie in its dietary fat, not its protein, but buying a grass-fed whey generally denotes a higher-quality product.

Some dairy-sensitive folks do okay with whey, but for others it can create a reaction. If it doesn’t, whey can be a fantastic, convenient post-workout protein choice. Just make sure you choose the right one.

BCAAs as an Alternative to Protein Powders

In some circles, BCAAs have replaced protein powders as a go-to supplement.

Studies show BCAAs before squats can prevent delayed-onset muscle soreness (13),  attenuate protein breakdown during exercise (14),  and reduce endurance-exercise related muscle damage after your workout. (15)

For muscle building, BCAAs get top shelf and for good reason: These three amino acids make up about one-third of muscle protein. BCAAs, especially leucine, support muscle protein synthesis and inhibit protein breakdown. In fact, leucine has been the most studied because it stimulates muscle protein synthesis. (16)

So why get a complete array of amino acids in a protein powder (whey is especially high in BCAAs) when you can isolate the most effective ones for muscle synthesis?

While it might sound like you’re skipping the middleman by getting BCAAs directly, protein powders like whey provide other benefits like the aforementioned immune-boosting proteins and glutathione-building cysteine.

Truth is, BCAAs are several steps removed from already heavily processed protein powders, which makes them fine as a functional supplement but much less so for getting the benefits whole foods and to a lesser extent protein powders can provide.

But if you insist on trying them, you’ll find BCAAs in capsules, though a powder is more economical plus you’ll have to swallow a lot of capsules to get optimal amounts.

Ideally, they come in a 2:1:1 ratio, so a typical serving might be about 2.5 grams of L-leucine, 1.25 grams of L-isoleucine, and 1.25 grams of valine. Some brands combine BCAAs with L-glutamine, an amino acid that aids in muscle support and immune health.

Be forewarned BCAA powder tastes terrible, and manufacturers typically mask that awful taste with artificial sweeteners and other flavors you don’t want in a supplement. Read your labels and look for one unsweetened or sweetened with stevia.

BCAAs aren’t cheap, nor are they the “miracle” supplement some experts position them as, but if you’re curious whether they work, experiment: Take five to 10 grams of BCAAs before and another five to 10 grams after your workout for a few weeks and see if you notice a difference.

Do I Need to Pair Post-Workout Protein with Carbohydrates?

Whether you opt for protein or BCAA powder, one question that sometimes arises is whether you need to pair that protein with some sort of carbohydrate to get those amino acids into your muscle cells.

That’s why you’ll often see athletes pair carbohydrates – particularly glucose-rich carbohydrates – with their protein: Spiking insulin after a workout supposedly helps get those amino acids into muscle cells.

I’ve read various opinions about this, but overall don’t think carbohydrates are necessary post-workout because protein is itself insulinogenic. (One study showed whey raised insulin levels similarly to white bread.) (17)

And according to Phinney, the primary driver of muscle protein synthesis isn’t insulin, but the availability of essential amino acids, especially leucine. That said, pairing a protein with a nutrient-dense, glucose-rich carbohydrate can’t hurt unless you’re doing a ketogenic diet (more on that in a minute).

Post Workout Meal – Is There A Magic Hour?

Is there an ideal time to get your post-workout fuel?

You sometimes see heavy lifters running – okay, maybe not running – to the lockers and downing their post-workout concoction. It almost seems like if they don’t get their protein within a certain time, they won’t get its benefits or even worse, their muscles will somehow shrink.

Getting those nutrients during the “magic hour,” or the 30-to-60-minute anabolic or muscle-building window after your workout, supposedly optimally delivers protein to your muscles for recovery, repair, and all the other amazing things these nutrients do.

Researchers have more or less debunked that anabolic window. (18)  Alan Aragon and Brad Jon Schoenfeld argue for people who lift heavy (45 – 90 minute session),  pre- and post-exercise meals should not be separated by more than than about three or four hours, and for larger anti-catabolic meals you could even go five or six hours between.

In other words, if you forget your protein powder or shaker cup at the gym, you’ll probably be just fine. All that hard-earned muscle isn’t going to suddenly disappear if you don’t suck down a protein shake within 30 minutes after an intense workout.

What to Drink During a Workout?

You’ll notice I don’t talk much about what to take during your workout. The aforementioned BCAA study showed using them during training might help, but I don’t see much need taking something in the middle of your 45-minute workout. Use that time to work out, not swallow supplements.

The only thing I generally recommend during workouts is filtered water, or if you’re especially sweating profusely, an electrolyte formula dissolved in water (though generally water will provide all the electrolytes you need).

Maybe coffee if you’re going for a caffeine boost, but skip it after your workout, when caffeine could keep your stress hormone cortisol elevated when it should be tapering down.

But those massive jugs of water you see some bodybuilders carry around during their workout? They’ve got the right idea.

I want you to always reflect on how the body was designed to function. Think about it: If you were having to do substantial heavy lifting in nature, would you be doing it right while taking in nutrients? (No.)

How Much Protein Do You Need Post-Workout?

As I noted before, how much protein you get throughout your day probably matters more than what you get around your workout. But then, you’ve found a fantastic whey protein powder, so how much should you use?

You’ll get various answers here, including “a scoop or two,” which is rather vague. Most powders contain various amounts of protein – anywhere from 15 – 25 grams – per serving, which also doesn’t really help.

One study with 48 young men ate a high-protein breakfast. Three hours later, they worked out and immediately took either zero, 10, 20, or 40 grams of whey protein isolate after exercise.

Researchers found 20 grams of whey protein maximized muscle protein synthesis. In other words, they didn’t need any more protein than that to get its benefits. (19)

Another study concluded differently. They divided 30 resistance young exercise-trained males into two groups. One group had lower lean body mass and the other one had higher lean body mass.

Over two trials, these guys did a full-body weightlifting workout and then got 20 grams of whey protein in the first trial and 40 grams of whey protein in the second.

Researchers found 40 grams of whey protein following whole‐body resistance exercise stimulates a greater protein synthesis response than 20 grams in these young resistance‐trained men regardless of lean body mass. (20)

So which is it: Do you need 20 or 40 grams of protein to optimize post-workout muscle synthesis?

Well, both of these studies were rather small, and besides, your protein mileage will vary according to many things like workout intensity or duration, your hunger level, when you last ate protein, size, age, and gender.

In other words, everyone’s different. That said, I don’t see any reason why you would need more than 30 grams of protein even after the most vigorous workout, particularly if you’re getting enough protein at meals (and you probably are).

Thinking back to the Innate design of the body, you’d probably be better able to tell how much you need  (20, 30, or 40 grams) if you’re consuming protein in whole food sources which actually digest with other nutrients and cofactors (and in not powders or supplements which are more likely to confuse your body on its satiety or needs).

Remember: many of these studies measure protein’s effect on muscle synthesis, but protein plays lots of other roles than muscle support.

“Protein is an important component of every cell in the body,” says Neil Osterweil on Web MD. “Hair and nails are mostly made of protein. Your body uses protein to build and repair tissues. You also use protein to make enzymes, hormones, and other body chemicals. Protein is an important building block of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood.” (21)

The After-Workout Splurge?

Let’s go back to that herculean effort you just expended on a 45-minute training session. You have your protein shake or maybe BCAAs immediately afterwards, and after you shower your friend suggests you enjoy a pizza and beer that you’ve “earned” after that intense workout.

Listen carefully after your workout and you might hear something like “I just burned 500 calories on the elliptical machine so I’m gonna try that new fro-yo place down the street.”

I’ve seriously heard personal trainers recommend clients eat pasta after a workout because, you know, you’ve got to get your carbs… Needless to say, the world of fitness comes filled with sometimes bafflingly inane theories.

That said, does an intense workout give you carte blanche to indulge in something maybe not guilt-free but with a little less guilt? After all, your muscle cells metabolize sugar differently after a workout, you’ve burned a crazy amount of calories during your workout, and 30 minutes after you’ve finished, a wave of hunger overcomes you.

And your favorite fast food place or ice cream store is just around the corner. How convenient.

Any fitness routine that emphasizes calories misses the point of exercise. Working out can provide a million benefits, but losing weight won’t be one of them if you make up those calories even immediately following a workout. Keeping an eye on how many calories you’ve burned during a workout becomes an enormous waste of time. You’re better off listening to your favourite tunes on your iPhone, working your butt off, and enjoying the process of making your body stronger and more resilient rather than doing tedious math.

Your primary goals after a workout should be to minimize muscle breakdown and boost protein synthesis. Going down on deep-dish increases insulin, which inhibits growth hormone (GH), a primary player for muscle repair and growth. It creates all sorts of other hormonal and metabolic craziness that basically spells out bad idea.

In other words, don’t undo all your hard work you put in at the gym with a momentary dietary debacle. You’ll thank me later.

Eat Fat Get Thin?

Dietary protein has been the primary focus of muscle synthesis and overall performance, but a surge in ketogenic diets has shifted the focus to dietary fat as performance fuel.

One study published in Metabolism: Clinical and Experimental found low-carbohydrate, endurance athletes burned more than twice as much fat as high-carb athletes during maximum exertion and prolonged exercise.

The 21 – 45-year-old endurance runners were top competitors in running events of 50 kilometers (31 miles) or more.

Ten of them ate a diet consisting of 10 percent carbs, 19 percent protein, and 70 percent fat. The 10 high-carb athletes got more than half their calories from carbs, with a ratio of 59 percent carbs, 14 percent protein, and 25 percent fat.

In other respects, the athletes were similar, yet on average, the low-carb runners’ peak fat-burning rate was 2.3-fold higher than the rate for high-carb athletes.(22)

Pretty impressive, right?

These low-carb runners were what we call keto-adapted: They use ketones rather than glucose as their primary fuel. Phinney notes very few studies involve keto-adapted athletes, therefore they focus on protein and carbohydrate rather than fat as fuel.

A few studies focus on athletic performance and medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), a type of fatty acid that become rapidly absorbed and metabolized to potentially provide an alternative energy substrate to glucose.

They might also be useful after workouts, since your body can also utilize MCTs during the post-exercise recovery phase to rebuild muscles and prevent protein breakdown. (23)

One study among 11 people who completed two 45-minute, moderate-intensity, treadmill exercise found those who took MCTs significantly increased circulating ketone bodies and lowered glucose breakdown. Because they generate ketones, researchers concluded MCTs might increase usable energy supply and improve your heart’s oxidative capacity. (24)

It isn’t just dietary fat that fuels ketosis; so does your own body fat.

“Keto-adaptation allows rapid mobilization and utilization of ‘non-carbohydrate’ lipid fuel sources,” says Phinney. “This affords even a very lean (10% body fat) athlete access to more than 40,000 kcal from body fat, rather than starting a prolonged event depending primarily on ~2000 kcal of glycogen.”

Stop and think about that: Theoretically at least, an athlete can utilize 40,000 calories from body fat once they become keto-adapted. That “wall” endurance runners sometimes hit comes from glycogen (sugar) depletion. Rather than conk out or swallow glucose packets, they could draw on their own fat stores as fuel.

Keto-adaptation requires dedication, and might not be optimal for everyone (though with a quick Google search, you’ll find a few lifters and other athletes doing it).

That brings us back to protein…

Do keto-adapted athletes need as much protein?

“Significantly over-consuming protein can be problematic because some of these extra amino acids can be converted to glucose in the body, raising insulin levels, and thus driving down ketones and suppressing fat burning,” says Phinney.

That doesn’t mean you should completely forego protein post-workout, and as we’ve discussed before, you really don’t need that much protein regardless.

Phinney notes blood levels of leucine increase in the keto-adapted state, so sustaining ketosis protects this benefit. He recommends a good source of essential amino acids after resistance exercise, especially if increased muscle mass is your goal.

Intermittent Fasting and Exercise

Who needs protein powders, pre-workout supplements, or mini-meals when you can go minimalist and go without?

Some people prefer working out on an empty stomach, even on a really empty stomach. Devotees of intermittent fasting, which involves alternating periods of eating and not eating, sometimes swear by fasting for 24 hours or even longer and then performing phenomenally during a vigorous workout.

By that point, you’ve probably depleted most of your glycogen levels and switched over to ketones. Simply put, intermittent fasting mimics being in ketosis by utilizing fat rather than glucose as your primary workout fuel.

But what about protein intake after you’ve gone that long without eating: Doesn’t your body start breaking down muscle tissue for fuel?

“We store food energy as body fat and use this as fuel when food is not available,” writes Dr. Jason Fung in The Complete Guide to Fasting. “Muscle, on the other hand, is preserved until body fat becomes so low that the body has no choice but to turn to muscle. This will only happen when body fat is less than 4 percent.”

In other words, your body preferentially uses fat, not protein, as fuel. Hormones play a role too. Intermittent Fasting lowers insulin and raises adrenaline, which stimulates fat breakdown for energy. And intermittent fasting raises growth hormone (GH), which preserves muscle.

Over time, whether you’re in ketosis or doing intermittent fasting, your muscles get better at using fat as fuel.

“When we deplete our glycogen through fasting, our muscles learn to become much more efficient at burning fat,” says Fung. “The number of specialized fat-burning proteins is increased, and the breakdown of fat for energy is enhanced. After training in the fasted state, muscle fibers show increased available fat. All these are signs that the muscles are training to burn fat, not sugar.”

Studies with intermittent fasting and athletes have yielded mixed results. One divided 18 adult males into one of two groups: Resistance training alone or resistance training plus a time-restricted eating plan where they ate within a four-hour time period in the evening. Both groups followed a three-days-per-week resistance training program for eight weeks.

Researchers found time-restricted eating didn’t improve body fat in these men, although both groups maintained lean mass. One potential reason why: They were allowed to eat whatever they wanted during that four-hour eating window. (25)

Another study randomly assigned 34 resistance-trained males to time-restricted feeding (TRF) or normal diet group (ND). TRF folks ate all of their food within an eight-hour period of time each day over three meals and fasted the remaining 16 hours. The ND group ate their three meals within an approximate 12-hour time frame. Both ate the same number of calories.

Researchers found impressive results within the time-restricted group, including reduced fat mass, and concluded intermittent fasting combined with resistance training provides an impressive combo to lose weight and build muscle. (26)

Intermittent Fasting isn’t for everyone, and it especially isn’t ideal for all athletes. Some feel better exercising fasted: They have better mental clarity and don’t suffer that post-eating sluggish feeling. For others, it might decrease energy and make you a hangry mess in the gym.

But that goes back to what I’ve been saying all along: Your mileage will vary.

Rest and Recovery for Athletes

Whether you run marathons and lift heavy, neglecting recovery can undo your very best efforts. That includes solid sleep every night, managing stress levels, getting proper nutrients, and taking days off between workouts. That last one can be especially challenging: People really get addicted to their workouts!

Look at these recovery strategies as the ideal – really, necessary – way to complement your workouts and give peak performance on workout days. Crash-and-burn, injuries, and adrenal burnout are just some of the problems over-exercise can create.

Put another way: What you do around your workout matters equally – maybe even more – than what you do in the gym.

Revisiting the Macronutrient Debate

For years, protein got all the glory, but today ketogenic diets have become more popular among athletes. And carbohydrates have always been a contentious subject. If it all sounds confusing, that’s because it can be.

“Relying on macronutrient-based guidelines or calorie limits makes eating far more complicated than it should be,” writes Fung. “We do not eat a specific percentage of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. We eat foods.”

Athletes might focus more on macronutrients than the rest of us do, and that’s fine. Just don’t obsess over them by, say, focusing on a high-protein or high-fat diet just because your favorite fitness magazine or trainer says it’s “the” thing to do.

Everyone performs differently. High-carbohydrate vegetarians can be lean and healthy, but they aren’t eating those carbs from chocolate cake and wheat bread. So can Paleo athletes who adhere to a diet high in grass-fed meats with very few plant foods.

What ultimately matters is that you’re eating foods as close to nature as possible. Even if you use protein powders or other ergonomic supplements, you want to get most of your caloric intake from real food.

That doesn’t mean you can’t play around with macronutrient ratios. Try bumping up your complex carbohydrates like quinoa or sweet potatoes and see if your athletic performance doesn’t improve. Do you sleep and feel better getting more protein? Maybe increasing dietary fat increases speed or endurance. Perhaps you’re one of those dedicated few who performs optimally keto-adapted.

In the sports nutrition world where supplements get overhyped, real food sometimes takes short shift. From a marketing perspective, that makes sense because supplement manufacturers can market a protein powder but not a chicken breast. But what benefits them doesn’t necessarily benefit you, and you can’t improve on nature.

FOOD always wins!

What to Eat Before and After a Workout: A Primer for Newbies and Seasoned Athletes

Dr. B.J. Hardick

About Dr. B.J. Hardick

Raised in a holistic family, Dr. B.J. Hardick is an organic food fanatic, green living aficionado, and has spent the majority of his life working in natural health care. In 2009, he wrote his first book, Maximized Living Nutrition Plans, which has now been used professionally in over 500 health clinics. Dr. Hardick regularly blogs healthy recipes and holistic health articles on his own website, DrHardick.com, and speaks to numerous professional and public audiences every year. In his spare time, he invests his keen interest in sustainable living into urban development in his hometown of London, Ontario.

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