What you eat before and after your workout determines the results you reap. Not eating enough or eating poorly can work against you. Depending on the intensity and duration of the exercise session, working out without replacing depleted nutrients delays recovery and may even require your body to break down muscle for energy.
“Nutrient timing makes a big difference regarding muscle-building, muscle breakdown, and even immune function,” says Heidi Skolnik, MS, CDN, FACSM, sports nutrition consultant to the NFL’s New York Giants and the School of American Ballet. In general, a combination of protein and carbohydrates works best to repair muscle tissue and restock muscle energy. Moreover, the quality and type of protein determines how fast and how efficiently that occurs.
How Much Protein?
“Most people do not eat enough protein during the day,” says Dawn Weatherwax-Fall, RD, CSSD, LD ATC, CSCS, owner and founder of SportsNutrition2Go.com. “And if they do, they usually don’t portion it out evenly. Counting calories without considering the right mix of macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrates) can undo all your hard work.”
Protein needs vary individually depending on your goals (such as fat loss, muscle gain, and so on), but in general, men need 20 to 30 grams (g) of protein every three to four hours, and women need 16 to 30 g. Eating small meals containing protein and carbs every three to four hours throughout the day likely gives you adequate protein for your workout. An early morning workout or athletic event may require advanced planning, however. Exercising within two hours of consuming a meal with a solid-food protein source won’t give you enough time to digest and could result in gastrointestinal issues. “In that case, protein in a dry or liquid form is best,” says Weatherwax-Fall. Other good choices include yogurt, skim milk and fat-free or low-fat cottage cheese (unless you’re lactose intolerant, in which case a nondairy protein source or drink would be preferable).
Protein building blocks known as amino acids can also boost performance and recovery. The body uses essential amino acids (EAAs) to repair, rebuild, and maintain muscle. Studies show that consuming EAAs before strength training can lead to a greater amount of muscle protein growth. One EAA, known as leucine, plays a particularly large role in building muscle. Leucine not only stimulates muscle building but also inhibits muscle loss.
Top Protein Choices
Whey powder contains an abundance of leucine, making it the protein powder of choice for athletes. “Look for whey protein powders that use cross-flow microfiltration manufacturing techniques,” suggests Weatherwax-Fall. “The whey is processed at lower temperatures, which keeps the bioactive proteins intact.” In one study, 10 g of whey protein with 21 g of carbohydrates was enough to increase muscle protein synthesis after resistance exercise in young men. (Use the guidelines provided here to determine the amount that works best for you.)
In addition to leucine, supplementation with beta-alanine has also been shown to decrease fatigue in athletes and increase the amount of total muscular work done. Try 4 g of beta-alanine 15 to 30 minutes after your workout, recommends Weatherwax-Fall.
For maximum benefit, a postworkout meal should be eaten within 30 minutes after training.
While specific nutrient recommendations vary depending on the type (strength versus cardio), duration, and intensity of the exercise, “fueling your body both before and after exercise is recommended,” says Heidi Skolnik, MS, CDN, FACSM. When choosing a postworkout sports drink or bar, consider the following:
Strength/power athletes: Look for 2 parts carbohydrates to 1 part protein (2:1).
Team sport athletes: Choose 3:1 carbs to protein.
Endurance athletes: Pick a carbs-to-protein ratio of 4:1.