Stick to the basics… Don’t get caught up in the details… Don’t miss the trees for the forest… Keep it simple, stupid. In a day and age when progressive information is more readily available than ever, it’s all too common for people to preach the benefit of the “basics” and completely ignore the benefit of being detail oriented.
There’s merit in building a foundation and prioritizing focus, after all we can’t build a 3-story mansion without first starting with the basement and foundation. However for those capable of building a mansion, it would seem foolish to build a large structure, only to completely neglect the furnishings and decorations.
If you want to be good at something, then sure- once you have the basics down, keeping things simple will be enough. If, however, you want to be great at something and reach closer and closer to your true potential, the basics aren’t the end- they’re just the beginning. While being consistent with a nutrient dense, daily food intake and performing a regular, progressive training routine can build the foundation of your mansion; some may not be content with an empty collection of walls and stairs.
Below is an in depth guide to structuring your diet around workouts to maximize performance, enhance recovery, and take the guess work out of which details are worth focusing on, and which to let fall simply through the cracks.
The size, quality and timing of pre-workout meals can be great for improving training performance and aiding in the training adaptions achieved through resistance training. Schedules, financial and macronutrient budgets, differences in digestion, preference in food choices and even gender can play into the overall structure of an athlete’s nutrition around workouts.
Generally, sufficient protein for muscle retention and recovery, enough carbohydrates for energy, and adequate dietary fat and water within a reasonable time prior to training can help to ensure consistent gym performance, and greater long-term adaptions to exercise.
We all know just how popular protein is in the fitness community, and for good reason! Protein intake in the meal prior to a workout isn’t much different than any other time of day. Research has shown that 25-40 grams leucine-rich protein is likely ideal for optimizing stimulation of muscle protein synthesis (MPS), which is just what we encourage shooting for in your pre-workout meal as well.
The rationale behind this theory is that 25-40g protein from most lean, complete protein sources will contain 3g or greater leucine content, 3g being the sweet spot for stimulating muscle protein synthesis within a meal based on available research. 
Some common protein sources for bodybuilders, along with the serving size and leucine content of each is listed below for reference.
|Source||Serving Size||Leucine Content|
|Whey Protein Isolate||30g||3.3g|
|Grilled Chicken Breast||175g||3.1g|
Some camps of thought prefer to base daily protein intake off of total body weight, or even lean body mass to help account for differences in body size and thus varying protein needs. This is a valid strategy, however I tend to base athlete intake more off a per meal basis rather than total body weight. The reason being some solid research focused on MPS focuses on the amount needed within a given meal for maximal spikes in MPS, and the subsequent postprandial (period following a meal) elevation for the average size person.
The suggestion of 25-40g per meal, eaten in 4-5 meals spread throughout the day, already allows for some individual variation given the 15g spread in serving efficacy (25g likely for lower weight individuals, and the 40g for heavier individuals, with around 160-180lbs being a good middle mark).
MPS is thought to become elevated then subsequently undergo a refractory period (period of time where a subsequent spike in synthesis is unable to occur) for approximately 4 hours after meal consumption, with the degree of carb and fat content causing a greater variance (higher carb and fat intake with a meal can extend protein digestion and MPS elevation).
This duration of MPS response is the reason why 3-5 daily meals (3-5 meals, 3-4 hours apart would cover a normal 16-18 hour day) may be more ideal than more frequent, smaller feedings that wouldn’t otherwise take into account the understood MPS mechanisms.
Another consideration is that of the Protein Change Theory, which suggests MPS may be maximized by a given amount of protein, but total muscle anabolism may be improved upon by even higher intakes each meal, if adjusted accordingly, through mechanisms that could reduce muscle catabolism- leading to greater net muscle anabolism. 
All of this said to highlight the fact protein needs will be quite individualized, and to encourage athletes to look beyond common body weight-based calculations and consider meal response factors as well. Regardless of how you look at it, it’s pretty safe to say protein intake of around 25-40g leucine rich sources would be great not only before and after workouts, but for your other meals throughout the day as well.
Suggestion: Consume at least 25-40g leucine-rich protein with your pre-workout meal 1.5-2.5 hours prior to training.
Unless following a ketogenic diet, carbohydrate is going to be the primary energy source used in training sessions, so naturally it makes sense to find the most ideal carb intake prior to training, to help ensure gym performance is as productive as possible.
As I will cover more in depth in the post-workout carbohydrate intake section below, glycogen replenishment seems to occur, on average, in a 24 hours cycle- suggesting that the pre-workout meal itself will not likely benefit glycogen levels acutely, but instead lend to the overall glycogen storage of the day.
Pre-workout carb intake will likely most benefit circulating blood glucose levels during training that can help support performance through delaying fatigue which could otherwise occur if glucose availability is reduced and hypoglycemia is experienced as blood glucose is pulled from muscle tissue as fuel during exercise.
In order to provide glucose for retained blood glucose levels during exercise and to prevent hunger which can otherwise be distracting during exercise if experienced, consuming a pre-workout meal contain carbohydrates within the 1.5-2.5 hour range is a good rule of thumb for pre-workout carbohydrate consumption in physique athletes.
The amount will again depend on the individual’s current daily intake, current performance and physique goals, and individual digestion rates. To provide at least some outline, for an athlete currently deep in a growth season looking to maximize performance and whom has the calorie availability to play with, aiming for around 0.75-1.25g/kg bodyweight carbohydrate pre-workout could likely be a good rule to begin basing your individual. (i.e ~63-105g carbohydrate for a 185lbs (84.09kg) athlete)
Suggestion: Consume 0.75g – 1.25g carbohydrate/kg bodyweight somewhere around 1.5-2.5 hours prior to training.
Although carbohydrate is the preferred energy source during exercise sessions such as resistance training or short-term aerobic activity, consuming some fat prior to exercise can be helpful in encouraging better nutrient absorption from the meal and help with providing just enough satiety to reduce hunger of the course of a training session.
My suggestions for fat intake prior to exercise come more from an anecdotal view, based around my own experiences and that of athletes I consult and am friends with. Given the fact that dietary fat slows the digestion of meals, and in itself is digested much slower than carbs or protein, I tend to keep fat intake rather low in pre-workout meals in order to prevent athletes from feeling overly full heading into a training session, and to allow protein and carbohydrate to more readily digest and begin aiding in their respective functions prior to exercise. Not to mention, fat isn’t used as an energy source during high intensity training session to a significant degree.
I find most athletes fare better by keeping fat intake lower around workouts, and higher in other meals when it’s not as much of an issue if they feel full or other nutrients take a bit longer to digest and absorb. Of course, each athlete will have different preferences and experiences, but keeping fat low before workouts seems to have more possible benefits and few drawbacks.
Suggestion: Aim for 10g or less dietary fat in the meal consumed prior to training in order to maximizing protein and carbohydrate digestion and utilization, and to support ideal GI comfort during exercise.
Despite being one of the most biologically important substances in the world, water seems to continue as the most underrated tool in an athlete’s performance boosting tool belt. Unfortunately for most athletes, being “hydrated” means drinking a glass or two of water before leaving to workout, which is far from sufficient, especially for hard training competitors.
In terms of timing, research has shown that water can take up to 1 hour before becoming physiological useful to the body after consumption.  Knowing this can help to point out the disservice many athletes do themselves when only paying attention to water intake just prior to training.
First and foremost, it’s important for athletes to keep water intake an ongoing focus throughout the day. Although outside the scope of this article, it seems aiming for around 1 gallon water per day can be a good general guideline for most athletes.
That said, leading into a training session, beginning to plan water consumption prior to exercise can help to ensure adequate hydration for the upcoming session. The American College of Sports Medicine provides relative hydration guidelines that can be beneficial for most athletes and provide a general outline to work from in determining individual needs.
Along with these minimum suggestions, considering the climate, athletes’ sweat rate, and the hydration status prior to the 4 hour mark can help decide if more or less water would be sufficient for ideal hydration leading into the training session.
4 hours before exercise: 5-7ml/kg bodyweight (14oz-20oz for a 185lbs athlete)
2 hours before exercise: 2-5ml/kg bodyweight (6-14oz for a 185lbs athlete)
Just prior to exercise: Additional water sipped as needed/preferred leading into training sessions
Even more than pre and post workout nutrition, I likely have clients ask about the importance of intra-workout nutrition the most. Between the popularity of supplements within the industry now days, and serious athletes looking to gain every edge possible, intra-workout supplementation is a hot topic to say the least.
The good news is, despite the many questions on the topics, it’s probably one of the easier aspects of nutrition to get down pat. Once you’re found the pre-workout food intake and hydration strategy that works for you, workout performance is already pretty well supported. As the workout gets underway, it’s just a matter of a few extra sprinkles to make the ideal gains sundae.
Intra-workout supplementation is based around the strategy of providing rapidly absorbing nutrients that the body can use as fuel during the training session, without excessively depleting circulating blood glucose levels or pulling amino acids from within muscle tissue.
One of the main theories on the efficacy of BCAA consumption is the central fatigue theory. This theory focuses on affects of free amino acid availability in reducing the uptake of tryptophan across the blood-brain barrier. By reducing its availability, serotonin production is then acutely blunted- which ultimately helps prevent the onset of fatigue.  As athletes focused on maximizing training performance, this can of course be of interest when finding strategies for preventing fatigue as long as possible while training.
BCAAs are absorbed quickly through the gut- reaching circulation quickly and allowing for use by muscle tissue to aid in the maintenance of blood glucose and intra-muscular amino acid retention. It seems that 6-8g of a 2:1:1 ratio leucine, iso-leucine and valine are the best bet for intra-workout use, which not coincidentally is the serving in each scoop of Carbon Recover.
Some argue that sufficient protein intake, and proper pre-workout meal timing is enough to support workout performance. Although a fair consideration, this isn’t definitive. BCAA intake during workouts in itself hasn’t been shown to be harmful to performance but has been shown to be beneficial in many, so for athletes looking to not leave any progress on the table, BCAA intake can be a very good option.
Intra-workout carbohydrate intake is another well-backed ingredient to add to your intra-workout shake to help delay fatigue during training.  The most well supported mechanism behind intra-workout carbohydrate supplementation is that of maintaining sufficient blood glucose availability for use as fuel during training. This helps reduce the chance of experiencing hypoglycemia or for non-carbohydrate substrates being used as fuel rather than other purposes like muscle retention and recovery.
For the average physique athlete, whom likely trains 1-2 hours per weight training resistance, carbohydrate supplementation can help, but isn’t necessary in as large amounts as endurance athletes or sports like basketball may benefit from. Consuming somewhere between 10-20g of a simple carbohydrate such as pure dextrose powder (can be purchased in bulk for cheap online) or if budget allows- some credible carbohydrate supplements currently on the market, or even just Gatorade powder, are ideal choices for providing the body with an easily digested, rapidly absorbed carb source that can be easily used during exercise.
Suggestion: Mix 10-20g simple carbohydrate powder or sports drink mix into your intra-workout shake.
Water consumed from your shaker cocktail of BCAA, carbohydrate and water is likely enough for most physique athletes unless performing additional cardio after training or training in very hot climates. If hydrated properly prior to training, and replenishing fluids after training, it’s probably better to limit extra water intake to prevent excessive bathroom breaks or stomach discomfort.
Suggestion: 16-24oz of water combined with BCAAs & carb powder sipped throughout a workout.
The post-workout “anabolic window” has been one of the most highly discussed, and unfortunately most over exaggerated aspects of diet within the fitness industry. Luckily the old belief that having a post-workout shake jam-packed with simple carbohydrate and protein immediately after performing that last set to avoid wasting the workout is slowly fading. That being said, it’s still a commonly held belief among many new comers to the industry that never seems to get enough actual research-backed information to explain its actual importance.
I’ll spare you another tangent on protein considerations since it was covered in detail earlier in this article. Plan to have another protein rich meal reasonably soon after your workout session. This can once again stimulate muscle protein synthesis and also help reduce muscle protein catabolism since it has likely been around 4 hours since your pre-workout meal was consumed.
Suggestion: Consume at least 25-40g leucine-rich protein with your pre-workout meal 1-2 hours after training.
It’s long been said that glycogen stores must be replenished within a short window of time in order to preserve performance in subsequent workouts and to maximize recovery. However, the truth is that glycogen replenishment tends to occur over a roughly 24 hours period post-training in most athletes. This helps to support that as long as athletes are consuming ample carbohydrates in their diet on a daily basis, the timing of those carbs as it relates to glycogen replenishment is likely not as vital as previously encouraged by fitness professional and profit driven sports nutrition companies. 
This understanding also supports the equal benefit of eating a whole food meal after training rather than constantly feeling the need to consume a post-workout shake after training. Preferences, budget and time constraints can help dictate which is best for the individual, but regardless if the choice is food or shake- there’s likely no need to stress too much of lost gains either way.
The exception to this strategy would be for athletes performing an overreaching program, or that compete in short term, high intensity training sessions for competitions that occur sooner than 24 hours apart from each other. If this is the case, it could be more beneficial for the athlete to consume a greater portion of carbohydrate very soon after completion of training or competition to take advantage of the increased glycogen replenishment rate within muscle tissue seen immediately post-exercise to prepare for following session. 
As glycogen replenishment rate is more understood, the considerations of carbohydrate intake in the meal after training seems to continue evolving. With the stress of consuming carbohydrate purely to ensure glycogen replenishment at least partially put to rest, it can still be helpful to consume adequate carbohydrate after training to help with the restorations of blood glucose levels, begin the process of glycogen replenishment, and simply provide energy for the rest of your day without feeling as “bonked” after training.
Depending on your current daily intake, the actual amount you choose to consume after training can vary considerably. Aiming for something around the range of 30-40g carbohydrate when deep in a diet could be sufficient in supporting the insulin response for better protein utilization. Protein itself is insulinogenic so not as much carbohydrate is needed post-workout to stimulate insulin elevation and help with nutrient transport as once thought. In turn, practically as much additional carbohydrate as preferred when in the growth season and additional calories are available to play with could be included in a post-workout meal.
Suggestion: At least 30g, preferably low-fiber, carbohydrate source in the meal consumed after training sessions for dieters, or as much as 0.75g – 1.25g carbohydrate/kg bodyweight for those in their growth season consumed around 1-2 hours prior to training.
In the grand scheme of nutrient timing, fat ingestion post-workout is not likely something to stress about unless you are the athlete performing multiple training sessions or competitions within a 24 hour period, and glycogen replenishment rate is much more time sensitive. After training, there isn’t a concern of being too full the rest of the day, and if anything adding some fat to a post-workout meal can help with satiety leading into the rest of your day.
However, if you are someone that prefers to absolutely maximize the post-workout glycogen synthesis rate, then keeping fat relatively low post-workout could again help increase the digestion and absorption of protein and carbohydrate after training. Either direction you take, if everything else is in line with your strategies for the day, I would suggest consuming the amount of fat you prefer for your given post-workout meal.
Suggestion: Consume dietary fat based on preference unless competing or training multiples time per 24-hour period, in which case keeping post-workout meal fat intake to 6-8g or less can help with glycogen replenishment rates in preparation for the upcoming bout of exercise.
Monitoring the change in bodyweight between the initiation and cessation of a training session tends to be one of the most prudent and practical methods for replenishing fluid loss after exercise. For athletes looking to maintain adequate fluid balance throughout the day, simply weighing yourself in the gym locker room before training, then again after training, while noting the difference in body weight between the two, will be an easy way to assess how much fluid should be consumed post-workout. Including some electrolytes in your post-workout fluids and/or meal can be helpful in rehydrating sufficiently as well.
Suggestion: Consume 24oz of water for every 1lbs of bodyweight lost during exercise. 
Working Out the Details
Peri -workout nutrition is a great for enhancing workout efficiency and maximizing recovery. As helpful as it can be for the serious lifter, it’s important to not get too flustered if your meal timing isn’t exact or you forget your BCAAs back home. Nutrition around workouts can certainly help, but the benefits are small compared to that of adhering to your daily macronutrient intake, eating a variety of nutrient dense foods, staying hydrated, and working your butt off each and every training and cardio session.
The walls are up, you’ve now got the interior designer’s advice, all that’s left is to start decking out your mansion and begin fully enjoying the fruits of your labor!
- Norton, L. E., Wilson, G. J., Layman, D. K., Moulton, C. J., & Garlick, P. J. (2012). Leucine content of dietary proteins is a determinant of postprandial skeletal muscle protein synthesis in adult rats. Nutrition & Metabolism, 9(1), 67. doi:10.1186/1743-7075-9-67
- Bosse, J. D., & Dixon, B. M. (2012). Dietary protein to maximize resistance training: a review and examination of protein spread and change theories. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 9(1), 42. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-9-42
- Coyle, E. F. (2004). Fluid and fuel intake during exercise. Journal of Sports Sciences, 22(1), 39-55. doi:10.1080/0264041031000140545
- Blomstrand, E. (2011). Branched-Chain Amino Acids and Central Fatigue: Implications for Diet and Behavior. Handbook of Behavior, Food and Nutrition, 865-877. doi:10.1007/978-0-387-92271-3_57
- Ali, A., Moss, C., Yoo, M. J., Wilkinson, A., & Breier, B. H. (2017). Effect of mouth rinsing and ingestion of carbohydrate solutions on mood and perceptual responses during exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14(1). doi:10.1186/s12970-016-0161-8
- Ivy, J. L. (1991). Muscle Glycogen Synthesis Before and After Exercise. Sports Medicine, 11(1), 6-19. doi:10.2165/00007256-199111010-00002
- Pascoe, D. D., & Gladden, L. B. (1996). Muscle Glycogen Resynthesis after Short Term, High Intensity Exercise and Resistance Exercise. Sports Medicine, 21(2), 98-118. doi:10.2165/00007256-199621020-00003
- Manore, M., Meyer, N. L., & Thompson, J. (2009). Sports nutrition for health and performance (2nd ed.). Champaign (IL): Human Kinetics.