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Pre and Post Exercise Nutrition

Pre and post workout nutrition: Do you know the difference?During my years as a trainer, the question often posed to me is “what should I be eating before and after my workouts?”  This is a great question because it is important to fuel your body with the right nutrients to get the most out of your workout.  In this month’s blog, I will tell you why pre- and post-workout nutrition is a key factor in fitness goal achievement and how pre-exercise meals differ from post-exercise meals.

However, before we get into the specifics of what to eat in a pre- and post-workout meal, let’s break down the macronutrients that make up an individual’s diet.  A macronutrient is simply a nutrient required in significant amounts of the human diet.  I would argue the most famous macronutrient of all, and the nutrient that receives the most press, are carbohydrates.  Carbohydrates come in many forms and all forms do a very significant thing for our body, PROVIDE ENERGY.  Carbohydrates are what allow our bodies to continue to move throughout the day and are the only nutrient that can pass the blood-brain barrier to supply the brain with fuel (other than ketones, but we will not get into the science of that in this article).

Carbohydrates or “carbs” have received a very bad reputation in the public media because fad diets ask individuals to cut carbs in order for an individual to lose weight.  I will tell you this today and for the rest of my life, carbohydrates are essential to the human body and should never be completely cut out of a diet without the supervision of a registered dietitian or physician. Carbs should make up 50-65% of an individuals diet, and choosing the right carbs is the key factor in creating a healthy diet.

Next up, protein.  Protein tends to be the macronutrient everyone has their own opinion on because protein is viewed as a healthy dietary supplement. However, protein provides the same kilocalories per gram as carbohydrates do (4kcal/g) and when it is taken in excess can be stored as fat (just like a carbohydrates) in the body.  Protein, on the other hand, is essential in the body for different reasons than carbohydrates; protein allows the body to rebuild itself after workouts break our muscles down.  Protein is the building block for muscle and is made up of amino acids that perform many different duties such as carrying oxygen to the muscle, catalyzing reactions and allowing for muscles to contract.  Protein can come from animal and plant origins, but in order to receive all 20 (or 21 depending on who you ask) essential amino acids, one must eat a healthy serving of both plant and animal source protein.  Vegetarians should meet with a registered dietitian to ensure they are receiving all their essential amino acids in their diet.  The recommended intake for protein is 10-35% of an individual’s diet.

Last, but not least, on the list of macronutrients is fat, also referred to as lipids.  The composition of lipids is similar to carbohydrates; however, they contain triglycerides and fatty compounds that are not as easily broken down by the body.  Fats are still an essential part of the diet because fat lines our internal organs and other cell membranes to allow us to perform normal bodily functions and also serves as a protection layer.  Although most individuals want to completely eliminate fat, we must understand that it is the unhealthy fats (trans fat and high levels of saturated fat) that we want to limit in our diets.  One can receive healthy fat from food sources like avocados, legumes, and other plant-based foods and oils.  Fat, like carbohydrates, provides us with energy and comes with the highest kilocalorie to gram ratio (9 kcals/g).  Fats can be helpful in maintaining a healthy diet when ingested at the most opportune times and should be around 20-35% of the diet.

Now that we have all the macronutrients out of the way, let’s talk about when we should be eating these nutrients to receive the most out of our workouts.  Let’s start with the pre-workout nutrition- we are looking for energy and nutrients that are broken down by the body easily.  Carbohydrates! Our pre-workout meals should consist of carbohydrates and some small sources of protein (some type of plant based, preferably) to help with the start of the rebuilding process during the workout.  Complex carbs (whole-wheat sources, brown rice, etc.) and simple carbs (fruits, 100% fruit juices, jams/jellies, etc) should make up a healthy mix of the meal so there is fast-acting and slow-acting energy available for the individual.  Make sure to avoid fats in the pre-workout meal because they tend not to sit well in the digestion process once exercise is performed.
Post-workout nutrition should consist of protein and carbohydrates as well.  Although there is a strong emphasis on protein at this point in the process, there should be a 3:1 carb to protein ratio in the meal.  Meaning, if you have 15 grams of protein, there should be 45 grams of carbohydrates alongside the protein.  A great way to achieve this ratio is with a post-workout drink, chocolate milk.  The fast acting carbohydrates in the chocolate, mixed with the protein and vitamins provided by the milk make for an excellent recovery drink.  Adding some solid food with this mixture, such as a banana, or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, make for the ideal post-workout meal.

Here at NESTA we hope this article helps broaden your mind about the basics of nutrition and fitness training.  If you are interested in learning more the following continuing education unit courses will help:

Fitness Nutrition Coach (FNC)
Personal Fitness Trainer (PFT)

by Tyler Valencia
NESTA faculty