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Fuel for Pre and Post Exercise

The human body is very similar to a car.  Without gas cars will not work and without food the human body will not work. Using low octane gas in a luxury vehicle will likely cause mechanical issues over time, just as eating an incorrect balance of macronutrients (carbs, proteins and fats) will cause metabolic issues. Macronutrient imbalances lead to micronutrient imbalances when real food is substituted for processed foods.  Think of yourself as a luxury vehicle, you deserve the best fuel for your body!

“Fueling” for exercise and “refueling” after exercise are vital to optimize efficiency and performance, burn fat, increase lean body mass and recovery. Eating the wrong macronutrients and too little or too much can be detrimental to your fitness goals.  The following general recommendations are for those individuals who are exercising an average of 45-75 minutes/session and at a mild-moderate intensity.  Nutrition recommendations will be different  for competitive, performance, and endurance athletes as well as those individuals who require clinical dietary modifications (i.e. Diabetes).  It is strongly recommended those individuals consult a registered dietitian for specific recommendations.

Pre Workout Nutrition:

What to eat prior to exercise is a highly researched area of nutrition.  The goal of exercise is to increase both fat burning and lean body mass however that can be hindered by which food(s) you choose to eat.

Carbohydrates: In general eating a meal too close to a workout can cause blood flow confusion as digestion directs blood flow to the intestinal tract whereas exercise directs blood flow to the extremities. The result is often nausea and vomiting during exercise if a meal has not been fully digested.  Not eating or fasting prior to a moderate intensity workout is not recommended either as hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) can occur if the body does not have enough carbohydrates on hand. The resulting symptoms of hypoglycemia include nausea, vomiting, dizziness, lightheaded, and fainting.

Research shows that eating carbohydrates too close to exercise of mild to moderate intensity can decrease the body’s ability to burn fat. Carbohydrates, both simple and complex, cause the pancreas to release the hormone insulin which increases fat storage.  Finding the right amount of carbohydrates to eat prior to a workout is the key to maximizing fat burning utilization.   Complex carbohydrates do not raise insulin levels as quickly as simple carbohydrates.  Complex carbohydrates include whole grains, vegetables, fruits and legumes, whereas simple carbohydrates include juices and refined carbohydrates- sugar!

Proteins: Exercise causes an increase in catabolic hormone release.  These catabolic hormones include cortisol, epinephrine, glucagon, and norepinephrine.  Catabolic hormones cause muscles (protein stores) to breakdown, therefore having adequate protein prior to a workout and during a workout is key in order to keep the body in protein synthesis (making of protein), minimize injury and avoid immune issues.  Examples of protein sources include organic grass fed beef, eggs, pork, poultry,  whey protein or yellow pea/rice protein powder for vegans or those with a dairy intolerance or allergy.  Whey protein and yellow pea and rice protein powders are very easy for the body to digest making them a great source of protein prior to workouts.

Carbohydrate: Protein Ratio:  If you have 90 minutes or more prior to exercise, a meal of REAL food is strongly encouraged.  I recommend clients follow meal guidelines of 1/3 carbohydrates (mostly from non starchy vegetables, some fruit and grains such as quinoa), 1/3 protein and 1/3 healthy fats.  The best snack options prior to exercise can range anywhere from 1:1 to 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates:protein.  The level of intensity of your workout will dictate the amount of carbohydrates to include;  i.e. the higher the intensity of the exercise, the higher the ratio of carbs: protein.  For those who are looking to decrease body fat, a low amount of carbohydrates prior to exercise is strongly encouraged.  Again carbohydrates consumed should be complex to avoid insulin spikes.  Simple carbohydrates are generally recommended only for endurance athletic events or training sessions.

Examples of Pre workout Snacks:

  • Yogurt and berries
  • Whey Protein or Yellow Pea and Rice Protein Shake
  • Hard Boiled Egg
  • Protein Bar (low sugar of course!)
  • Cottage cheese and fruit
  • Nut butter and fruit

Post Workout Nutrition

Your recovery from exercise relies almost exclusively on your nutrition.

Carbohydrates:  While a high amount of carbohydrates post exercise are likely not necessary for the individual discussed in this post, this is actually the best time for you to eat carbs!   If you have ever left your heart rate monitor after your workout,  you have likely been pleasantly surprised with your caloric burn rate. This is because metabolic rates remain elevated as much as 2 hours after exercise making the metabolism of carbohydrates easier for the body.  In addition to carbohydrates burning more efficiently post exercise, the role of insulin in the body is also different during this time frame.   When carbs are consumed post exercise, insulin will not only play a role in more efficient glucose metabolism but it will reduce the release of catabolic hormones thus improving protein synthesis.  Complex carbohydrates remain the preferred source regardless of when they are consumed.  The window of opportunity of enhanced carbohydrate metabolism is generally small though, only about an hour or so post exercise.  So, you can’t justify an increased amount of carbs at dinner if  your workout was in the am!

Proteins: Eating protein post exercise is vital for recovery.  While proper pre workout nutrition can help to offset some muscle breakdown, exercise still places the body in a catabolic state .  For example, the simple movement of walking to your car causes a small number of muscle fibers to tear. Now increase your activity level to a moderate workout and you tear thousands and thousands of muscle fibers!  The only macronutrient that will repair those muscle fibers is protein.  Whey protein or yellow pea/rice protein is just as easily digested after exercise as it was before, and it is the preferred source as compared to quality whole food protein sources as they may take longer to digest.   More specifically BCAA (Branched Chain Amino Acids- Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine) can help to jump start protein synthesis the quickest.  BCAA’s are found in whey protein but they are also often used in supplement form in addition to those found in whey protein.

Timing: Have you ever finished a workout and been unusually sore or slow to recover?  Oftentimes this can be associated with not “refueling” properly after exercise.  Our bodies require nutrients to function and those nutrients are at an increased demand post exercise in order to help us recover.  Recommendations are that we refuel within 60 minutes after exercise in order to maximize nutrient uptake and begin recovery.  Following the 60 minute rule and a proper balance of carbs to proteins one can enhance recovery, minimize soreness and maximize metabolism.

Carbohydrate: Protein Ratio: Post workout nutrition recommendations have changed over the last decade.  Older recommendations followed a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates: proteins but research suggests that those who exercise at a mild-moderate intensity for an average of 45-75 minutes are not depleting their glycogen stores enough to warrant high carbohydrate intake.   Note: recommendations are different for endurance events and for those who exercise at a higher intensity and duration.   My recommendation is for individuals to follow a 2-3:1 ratio of carbs: proteins post workout in order to again enhance their recovery, minimize soreness and maximize metabolism.

Examples of Post Workout Snacks:

  • Whey or Yellow Pea and Rice Protein Shakes with Fruit and Milk or Milk Alternative (i.e. Almond Milk)
  • Yogurt Parfait
  • Unsweetened Dried Fruit and Nuts with a glass of almond or coconut milk
  • Greek Yogurt and Berries
  • Egg Salad
  • Vegetable Omelet with side of berries

 Exercise FuelNutrition is integral to exercise performance and the ability to obtain goals.  “Fueling” and “refueling” with high quality foods that provide the proper ratio of carbohydrates to proteins and the correct timing is key.  Oh and dont forget to hydrate! This is the one time you want water in your “gas tank”.

The information provided in this post is for education only and is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor should it be used as a replacement for seeking medical treatment.

Copyright © Jaime Coffey Martinez, Nutrition CPR, LLC

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