Pre-, Post- and Peri-Workout Nutrition - Is It Really Necessary?

Pre-, Post- and Peri-Workout Nutrition

I am frequently asked what people should be eating, drinking, etc. before, during and after their workouts, and my answer usually revolves around THEIR answer to these four questions:

1.  What kind of competition are you training for?

2.  What kind of exercise are you doing, and for how long at a time?

3.  What do you feel you NEED pre-/post-/peri-workout nutrition for?

4.  How do you feel during your training/event WITHOUT specific workout nutrition?

You Don’t Need Workout Nutrition If…

If you are not a competitive athlete, and your primary goal is to lose body fat or just “get in better shape”, you do not need specific workout nutrition, except maybe some BCAA’s (Branched Chain Amino Acids) to assist with maintaining lean muscle mass.  These are NOT necessary, and are far less important than getting a proper overall diet and good eating habits established.

If you do compete, and the answers to 1 and 2 don’t indicate a training or event duration of more than 45 minutes to an hour or so, my answer is generally that you probably don’t need specific workout nutrition, as long as your overall diet is adequate.

This recent research review by Alan Aragon from the Journal of the International Society for Sports Nutrition, and this article from Precision Nutrition both generally concur with the above points.  Both articles were of great value in researching this topic, and are worth a read as well.

You Might Need Workout Nutrition If…

If the training or event duration is more than an hour or so with moderate to high intensity (or involves repeated bouts of less than an hour’s duration throughout the day), then it comes down to the perceived need, and the actual training/competition experience without workout nutrition.

With regards to perceived need, I most often get one of three answers:

“I’m looking to lose body fat”

“I’m looking to build muscle”

“I want better recovery from training”

 “I’m looking for improved performance”

Workout Nutrition for the Purposes of Fat Loss or Building/Maintaining Muscle Mass

Here are the basics:

With a 3-4 hour window between whole food meals (up to 5-6 hours with larger, slower-digesting whole-food meals), working out between meals (E.G. between breakfast and lunch) = no workout nutrition needed.  Spacing of meals before/after can vary by the individual, depending on how you feel training with food in your gut.

If you are performing fasted training (I.E. morning fasted workout, or workouts at the limits of the windows above), you may benefit from 20-30g of fast-acting protein (E.G. whey isolate) immediately pre-, during or immediately post-workout to increase anabolic effects (I.E. muscle building/retention).

Workout Nutrition for the Purposes of Post-Exercise Glycogen Repletion/Recovery

Unless you are repeating training bouts of the same type and/or using the same muscle groups with less than eight hours between sessions and/or your training bouts are more than about 90 minutes in duration, the available research does not indicate a need for immediate consumption of carbohydrate post-workout to return muscle glycogen levels to normal.

Functionally, with a once-per-day or longer training interval, expediting post-exercise glycogen repletion is unnecessary.

However, the feeling of fatigue post-exercise may be another factor to consider, as the “boost” that some people feel from eating post-workout can be significant, and not feeling wiped out after you work out can help with adherence to working out regularly!  As with anything when it comes to training and nutrition, this is highly dependent on the individual.  The best thing to do is experiment.

Workout Nutrition for Longer Endurance Events

With regards to the longer duration endurance events (E.G. runs over 10K distance, cycling events over 1 hour in duration, triathlons, etc.), the only way to really know what your body will need and when is to train for the distance and experiment.

I am certainly no first-hand expert on this type of competition, since I am more of a strength and power athlete, with the odd 5K or 10K once per year or so that I don’t specifically train for, but logically, if your day-to-day nutrition is adequate to maintain your body and support your training, and you are normally adequately hydrated, you may be able to perform well up to even a fast half-marathon distance/90-minutes+ duration without any specific workout nutrition.  All you need is just a regular, healthy meal a couple of hours before, and make sure you are hydrated before and during the event.

That said, again, the only way to really know for sure is to train for the distance and see how your body fares.  At some point, you may “hit the wall” and just run out of energy, in which case one of two things has happened – you tried to maintain a pace you are not capable of sustaining over that duration, or you were inadequately nourished.

Beyond the fast half-marathon/90-minute or so duration, my advice to you, again, would be to experiment by emulating the behaviours of those who are successful at those distances/events.  A good example to look at would be this page on Race Day Nutrition from Mark Allen’s website, and two of the key bits of advice he gives are:

“…customizing the amount of calories you will need during racing can only be determined through trial and error in your training…”

And:

“Experiment now so that race day is second nature. Try your drinks at race heart rates. This is going to be a very different experience than when you try them stopped at a convenience store and your heart rate is a hundred beats lower. Trial and error now will ensure your success at the races later!”

It’s worth noting that he also concurs that anything less than 90 minutes or so in duration doesn’t normally require in-race nutrition.

As always, I welcome any questions or comments!  If you're interested in nutrition coaching or training with The BTG, Contact Us for more info.