Fueling for Fitness

There is a lot of buzz surrounding the topic of meals before, during and after workouts.  As I’ve talked about in the past, it is very important to ensure that your body has the fuel it needs to recover properly.  This led us to the theory that there is a window of time surrounding your workouts where nutrition has a heightened importance, however we mainly focused on the timing and composition of the post-workout meal.

Along with all the seemingly infinite fad diets that are in circulation, there are just as many theories about when and what to eat throughout the day.  Is fasted cardio the best solution for weight loss? Should we carb-load before every leg day? If we just eat protein can we gain endless amounts of muscle?

As a brief science overview, in the presence of oxygen our bodies utilize carbohydrates and fat to produce ATP.  ATP is then used as energy by the muscles and other body systems to power our bodies through a workout (or any daily activity for that matter) such as curling a dumbbell, pressing a barbell off of the chest or pulling the body up over a bar.  

While the body does contain some energy reserves, mainly fat in adipose tissue, the most readily available fuel source is going to be the carbohydrates and fats that have not yet been converted and stored as fat.  Muscle protein is also available for backup energy, but this only happens in cases of extreme energy depletion.

Interestingly, some studies suggest that certain hormonal changes during a fasted state may be beneficial to fat loss, while at the same time minimizing muscle protein use for energy.  One study by Nørrelund H, et al. builds upon previous research showing an increase in growth hormone levels while in a fasted state.  They go on to show that growth hormone plays a key role in protein preservation during fasted exercise.

So you may not lose muscle when training in a fasted state, but how does this affect energy levels and performance.  Exercising in a fasted state may be beneficial to fat loss, but if you are unable to perform to the best of your abilities in the gym, you will not be able to stimulate muscle growth either.

This ultimately comes down to individual preference and response to eating.  Some people may feel full and sluggish after eating a large meal before a workout, whereas others will struggle to add weight to their lifts without the added energy supply.

The type of workout is also important here.  For example, if you are going into the gym for heavy strength training, your muscles are going to need the added carbohydrates to fuel your progress.  When lifting in a fasted state, you may have more trouble adding extra pounds onto your lifts.

On the other hand, if you are waking up and headed out for a 30-minute run, this is not as big of a concern.  Refer to my post workout meal tips following any fasted exercise!

In terms of what to eat pre-workout, we know that consuming carbohydrate-rich meals an hour or two before exercise has been shown to boost performance.  In particular, carbohydrates with a lower GI index have been shown to increase fat oxidation (Michael J. Ormsbeem et al.). These are foods such as whole grain bread, apples, quinoa or broccoli.

Eating protein before a workout has also been shown to increase muscle protein synthesis (growth), however, the effects are much greater if the protein is ingested with carbohydrates as well (Tipton KD, et al.).

In terms of fat, there is little research suggesting that focusing on fat before a workout will help muscle growth or fat loss.  If you eat foods high in fat before working out, you may feel more full, bloated and sluggish.

Some food recommendations:

  • Peanut Butter Sandwich
  • Overnight oats with protein and berries
  • Greek yogurt and granola
  • An apple and peanut butter
  • Sweet potatoes and chicken
  • Brown rice and broccoli

In terms of food to avoid, we go back to personal preference.  Steer clear of greasy foods such as pizza or burgers, spicy foods or carbonated beverages.  These can all lead to feeling bloated and their digestion will sap away at your energy. Overly sweet items whether desserts or fruit juices should also be avoided.  While they are a source of carbohydrates, they are high on the glycemic index and are therefore digested quickly, giving you a quick spike of energy followed by a crash.

In summary, the key factor in deciding what and whether or not to eat before working out comes down to your personal fitness goals and the type of training you are therefore looking to do.  If you are looking to gain muscle, your body is going to need fuel to allow yourself to progress in your lifts. If you are looking to lose weight, training in a fasted state may work for you so long as you are still able to maintain enough energy to get through your workout, however, when training in a fasted state having a well rounded post-workout meal is paramount to muscle recovery.

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Sick for the Gym

Having just spent a long weekend battling this season’s offering of the flu, I thought it would be fitting to talk about when it is appropriate, or even safe, to train when you are feeling under the weather.

We’ve all been there, once you are in the habit of your gym schedule, nothing can stop you from getting through your workouts in the right order and on the right day.  This is a good thing, it means you have incorporated healthy habits into your lifestyle which is not easy.  However, there are situations where what is best for the body is taking a break and allowing for adequate recovery time.

Advice on this topic is mixed.  You are either instructed to stay as far away from the gym and any physical activity as humanly possible, or to continue your fitness routine as planned and to “sweat it out.”  Other advice will recommend you “listen to your body” which continues to beg the question as to whether or not you should exercise.

The first thing to consider is the type of sickness you are dealing with here.  Of course, if you are fighting something like pneumonia, bronchitis or strep throat you should 100% stay home and allow your body (and most likely some antibiotics from your doctor) to do its job of recovering.  Fever, body aches and excessive fatigue are all signs from your body to take a break.

Something like the common cold, on the other hand, may leave you with a little bit more energy to move around.  If you are questioning whether or not to work out, it is likely that you are in this “grey area.” To be more specific these are strictly “above the neck symptoms,” “such as a runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing or minor sore throat” (Laskowski, 2017).

In this case, a bit of light exercise may be beneficial, helping to clear out nasal passageways to promote ease of breathing.  The key here is light exercise.  This could be a brisk walk or bike ride, preferably outdoors so you can get some fresh air as well.  These activities “aren’t intense enough to create serious immune-compromising stress on the body” (Andrews, 2018).

This gives some credence to the “sweat it out” theory, however, it is important to consider the type of workout you are trying to do.  If you are headed to the gym for heavy weight training, or high-intensity intervals your body is going to prioritize recovery of the immune system before it begins recovery for the muscles you are breaking down in your workout.  So at the end of the day, you should consider whether it will be time well spent.

Another point to consider is whether you are contagious or not.  We’ve all seen someone coughing and sneezing all over the most popular equipment.  The last thing you want to be is “that guy,” potentially putting fellow gym-goers in the same position you are in now.  At the very least, if you do head to the gym, be sure to wash your hands before hitting the floor and wipe down all equipment after you’re done using it!

Heavier resistance training may also weaken your immune system (especially in males), due in part to the effects weight training has on testosterone levels.  The reasons why are not entirely clear, however immune responses to infections such as influenza have been known to be weaker in men than they are in women (Goldman, 2013).  Because heavy strength training has also been shown to boost testosterone levels, it would stand to reason that workouts of this nature would not be recommended while one is sick.

Finally, if you have been working hard in the gym, you may be worried that all your hard earned muscle is going to start melting away if you miss a day or two.  Fortunately, evidence shows that it takes about three weeks before muscle mass begins to atrophy and that taking a little break may actually put you at a greater advantage when you return (Fisher, et al, 2013).

If a visual check of your body makes you think you have lost muscle after just a few days of being sick, it is most likely due to changes in hydration and muscle glycogen levels.  You can combat this by trying to stick to your nutrition goals as closely as possible. Remember, just because you can’t make it to the gym doesn’t mean you should throw your whole diet out the window!

There is nothing worse than starting to feel better, overdoing it and then winding up sick again the next day.  Take things slow and hopefully after a few days you will be fully recovered and ready to continue with your progress in the gym.  Listen to your body, if you start with 10-15 minutes of light cardio and feel overly fatigued, that is your body signalling for more rest.  If you have given your body the time it needs to recover, you should be back to your normal strength and endurance in no time!

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Fitness and Food Timing

Structuring Meal Timing Around your Workouts

The importance of meal timing

When it comes to eating habits and fitness, one factor seems to be given more weight than all others:  when and what to eat in order to maximize muscle gains. Do you eat right after working out? Right before? During?  Many people will tell you there is a small “anabolic window” that is rapidly closing post-exercise, and you, as Indiana Jones runs and dives under the quickly closing door, must put food in your mouth before missing your opportunity for gains.

Like many things when it comes to fitness, it is never as straightforward as an Indiana Jones reference.  Let’s break things down. As we work out, energy is needed to continuously fuel muscle contractions. This is true whether you are lifting weights or endurance training.  This generally occurs through the breakdown of carbohydrates and fat.  In conditions where energy from these sources is not sufficient protein may be broken down as well.

The idea behind the post-workout meal is essentially to prevent the breakdown of protein for energy and restore muscle glycogen levels to expedite muscle recovery and repair. (Semeco, 2016)  To do this, our bodies need adequate carbohydrates and protein, but just how much, and when?  

The main problem with focusing too much on the post-workout meal is neglecting the importance of eating PRE-workout.  In fact, what you eat before you head to the gym could have a greater effect on overall muscle protein synthesis than what you eat after.  As stated in a 2001 study, “the response of net muscle protein synthesis to consumption of an EAC [i.e., a protein/carbohydrate shake] solution immediately before resistance exercise is greater than that when the solution is consumed after exercise.” (Tipton, et al.)

The timing of the pre-workout meal can be up to 2 hours before hitting the gym. (Schoenfeld, et al, 2013)  Within this time frame, rushing home for a post-workout meal is not as critical, as the energy needed is still provided by what you ate before.  However, the longer you go beyond the 2-hour mark, the more important the post-workout meal will become. Because resistance training elicits greater muscle protein synthesis, having these nutrients in the body, ready to go before training will maximize their ability to fuel that process.  

As Jeff Nippard suggests, this points to the idea of a larger window that surrounds the entire workout.  Rather than focusing on just your pre- and post-workout nutrition, think of having a 4-6 hour window with your workout in the middle.  This will ensure that you always have the energy you need to get through your workout, and what is necessary to aid in muscle protein synthesis and recovery after your workout.

Because resistance training elicits greater muscle protein synthesis, having these nutrients in the body, ready to go before training will maximize their ability to fuel that process.  Eating before a workout can be tough though.  Being overly full or bloated while lifting weights, running or cycling can be uncomfortable.  This affects consistency and the amount of effort you are able to put commit.

The key here is balance.  You know you need protein and carbohydrates to fuel your workout, the trick is finding the right combination to give you energy and not slow you down.  I would suggest lighter carbs such as rice cakes, a banana or oatmeal that are quick and easy to digest. They are also easy to pack ahead of time so they are ready to eat when you are.  Since I tend to get my workouts in early in the morning, I try to have a jar of overnight oats with protein powder ready for me.

Fats are not essential for pre-workout meals, and since extra fat can lead to feeling more full and sluggish, I would suggest avoiding it if possible.

In terms of what to eat post-workout, many suggest a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein.  The carbohydrates will help to restore muscle glycogen and the protein will help with the muscle protein synthesis that is already underway. (Zawadzki, 1992)  This could be something like chicken and rice, sweet potatoes and eggs, or beans and rice.  

My go-to post-workout breakfast is three eggs, 1 cup each of black beans and rice and 150g of sweet potatoes.  This tallies up to 115g carbohydrates, 40g protein and 16g fat.  This hits the 3:1 carb to protein ratio, with some fat to help me feel more full throughout the morning and to work towards my daily macro goals.

Remember, just because you worked out and need a post-workout meal does not mean you should rush to the nearest drive through.  The quality of food you put in your body now is more important than ever. If you’re trying to build lean body mass, your muscles need quality fuel.  You wouldn’t put the lowest octane gas in a performance car, would you?

It should be noted too that this is only a small portion of your day, and you still want to focus on achieving your overall daily intake goals for protein, carbohydrates and fat.  

To sum things up, the key here is to look at the big picture.  There is a larger window surrounding your workouts in which your body needs quality fuel in the form of carbohydrates and protein.  If you happen to be training fasted, then the post-workout meal becomes more important. If you’re not going to be able to eat right after your workout, then pad that with a little bit more food before you hit the gym.  

If you’re serious about your training and getting your body to where you want it to be, knowing exactly how to fuel it is key!

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