The ‘magic’ and science of workout nutrition
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HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:
- In the context of workout nutrition, the concept of nutrient timing refers to the notion of ingesting certain nutrients around workout times in the hopes of facilitating recovery, improving body composition and performance.
- Please note that for the purpose of this article, I allowed myself to commit a mental shortcut of lèse-majesté proportions- the term workout nutrition will be henceforth used to denote strategically timed provision of liquid concoction of amino acids and/or carbohydrates shortly before and/or during exercise. That is not to say that whole foods or post workout nutrition aren't a part of the discussion, of course.
- Under certain conditions, the use of proper workout nutrition might be beneficial for a hard-training trainee.
- Unlike a lot of wishy-washy broscience, nutrient timing has some solid research behind, even if much still needs to be elucidated.
- Make sure to get all your ducks in a row first: no workout shake will do its 'magic' if the rest of your diet is sloppy and you are not sleeping enough.
- Over the past 10 years, I have tinkered with various nutrient timing strategies, ranging from nothing but plain water, post-workout shakes, BCAA, EAAs, all sorts of carbohydrates etc. My current protocol allows me to train as often as 5-8 times per week without much soreness.
- In order to minimise the possibility of personal bias, however, I made sure to adopt similar approach with some of my clients whom I deemed to meet the ‘eligibility criteria’. Much to their contentment, they appear to have benefited from having workout nutrition as a part of their toolbox (as evidenced by improvements in body composition and recovery)
Some of you might have seen me sip on a workout drink during practice or gym sessions. Invariably, this is also happens to be a great conversation starter. You wouldn’t believe the amount of members of the opposite sex I pulled when explaining the many benefits of maintaining proper electrolyte balance!
Okay, I might be getting carried away, but you get the idea: I often get curious looks followed by questions about the contents of that conspicuous half-a-gallon bottle I drag around me pretty much every time I train.
While some claim that curiosity killed the cat, I am fairly sure it was dehydration. This post was created partly in order to honour the curious among us and partly to share my ideas with a wider audience. First and foremost, however, a legitimate question: why would you even drink anything else during training other than water? Hasn’t the concept of post workout ‘anabolic window’ been debunked?
Science or Fiction?
In their book, Nutrient Timing, Dr Jonathan Ivy and Robert Portman first popularised the idea of potential benefits associated with provision of certain nutrients around workout times. At the time (2004), the book (emphatically subtitled ‘the future of sports nutrition’) was a big hit, or at least big enough to warrant more interest in this dietary approach. Considering that insulin is the most anabolic hormone, it was though that ingestion of carbohydrate and amino acid solution might enhance the response to training and facilitate recovery. The topic of nutrient timing has been debated to death ever since, with many high-profile researchers leaning towards the conclusion that ingesting a blend of nutrients in the vicinity of training might be indeed beneficial under certain conditions. The graph below, courtesy of Precision Nutrition, provides a nice summary of the scientific consensus:
If you are interested in a more detailed break-down of conditionally-occurring merits of workout nutrition, the International Society of Sports Nutrition did a terrific job of reviewing the applicability of this approach in their position stand available in their online journal here.
What are the alleged benefits of workout nutrition?
So what is all this fuss about? The proponents and early adopters of workout nutrition tend to revolve their rationale around the following claims:
- Piggybacking on insulin allows nutrients to be shuttled to muscle cells when paired with training. Exercise appears to increase insulin-mediated glucose uptake courtesy of GLUT4. It also increases the stimulatory effects of hyperaminoacidemia on muscle protein synthesis
- High insulin levels tend to minimise the increases of catabolic hormones such as glucagon, adrenaline (or epinephrine depending on which side of the Atlantic you come from) and cortisol which might otherwise occur during training.
- Protein breakdown is halted while ATP and creatine levels maintained.
- Lower levels of muscle damage and free radicals, meaning lower inflammation
- Provision of amino acids and/or carbohydrates before the workout may impact the extent to which post-exercise protein feeding is required.
In theory, this should translate into quicker and more efficient recovery as well as better ‘gains’. After all, as any self-respecting bro-scientist will be happy to attest, you want to be in a positive protein balance (whereby protein synthesis exceeds rates of protein breakdown) in order to stay ‘anabolic’ (as defined by ability to build complex bro-structures such as muscle).
The only catch? In theory, there is no difference between theory in practice. In practice, there is!
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Based on the above, you might be curious why we don’t see more people get ‘workout nutrition’ tattooed across their chest or at the very least, shout from the rooftops about all this liquid goodness.
This might be because:
- The benefits of workout nutrition are contingent on the rest of the diet as well as type of training performed. For example, it stands to reason that individuals with low(er) protein intake will see more benefits (which poses a separate challenge- how to define a low protein intake?). For a more exhaustive list of qualifiers, please consult the JISSN paper and PN graph listed in 'science or fiction'
- Anabolism is not just a function of net protein balance- your overall calorie intake and hormonal status are every bit as important in that regard.
- Not all workout nutrition protocols are created equal: for example, BCAAs don’t even have all the essential amino acids to stimulate protein synthesis to spark an anabolic response.
- Then of course, one will need at least the most rudimentary understanding of energy systems in order to successfully determine the quantities (or even presence) of nutrients included in the workout nutrition drink. This will be a function of the workout structure, its desired training effect as well as nutritional goal- for example, you might wish to skip carbs in your shake if you want to maximise oxidative adaptations and increase mitochondrial density. By the same token, you are likely better off including them if performance and size are your number 1 goal.
- As opposed to a pre-workout, you are not very likely to ‘feel’ the effects of workout nutrition while training.
My own thoughts and experience
Personally, I found it rather easy to make a compelling case for a workout drink. This is because:
I often train at ridiculous o’clock when most people are still asleep or after a bout of extensive fasting.
I do my best to train every day in some shape or form, or even twice per day when I feel particularly frisky
At least several of my workouts per week can be considered high-intensity and glycogen depleting.
I am an advanced lifter perpetually flipping between fat-loss and muscle building- always on the lookout for whatever little nutritional edge I can get.
Simply put, it’s a convenient way of supplying quality nutrients to fuel my training, which saves me from having to scarf down a steak at 4AM!
In order to ‘pre-load’ the nutrients, I will then have a half of my drink 15-30 minutes before my session and finish the other half within the 15-30 min window of my workout. I can now train 5-8 times per week without much soreness at all. With improved recovery and well through-out training plan, the more you train, the more you are likely to progress. For me, this alone makes it a worthy investment. Additionally, I seem to be able to perform with more intensity and I don't get fatigued as fast throughout the session.
If your more advanced clients have all their bases covered (i.e. eating no less than 1.6 kg/bw protein, adequate amount of calories, sound nutritional habits and good sleep hygiene as well as frequent and intense training sessions), you might also want to think about whether they are good candidates for workout nutrition. If all of the aforementioned boxes have been crossed, in my experience, these subsets of populations are quite likely to get the most out provision of liquid nutrients in the vicinity of their workout window:
- The I-need-everything-done-10 minutes-ago high-level executives and other equally busy professionals.
- Advanced athletes and lifters (especially important if competing more than once in a 24 hr window but also during periods when seeking to maximise hypertrophy or fat loss)
- Undersized ‘hard-gainers’ and the elderly as a convenient way of boosting protein and calorie intake
Okay, I know what you are thinking: I have been reading this post for the past 10 minutes and you still haven’t disclosed the actual ingredients!
FYI, the scroll-down button is usually located in the bottom-right corner of your browser. Okay, I kid, I kid. But first, a word of warning: I am the kind of man who likes to know what goes into his workout drink!
If you aren’t, feel free to skip to the next section. You see, with a pre-made workout mix, you cannot really tailor it to your needs. Instead, you are putting your trust in a company to get the right ingredients in the right doses for your specific situation. The probability that this will occur is as about as likely your chance of seeing a snowball in hell. A 30 min conditioning session calls for a completely different protocol (if any at all, in fact) than a 2 hour long, high-volume lower-body session. I have spent non-negligible amount of time researching the best ingredients in order to understand how they work and how they could potentially help me achieve MY training goals.
Currently, I like to use the following ingredients to support MY goal of improving recovery time which, in turn, allows me to train more frequently.
The Bare-Bones Improved Recovery Protocol
Disclaimer: what follows is my personal take on workout nutrition, based on my own experience as well as results of real-life application of this approach with many of my clients. If it sounds like a science-informed personal account then, well, I make no apology for it!
- Water: at least 1 litre. Enough said.
- EAAs/whey hydrolysate/Pepto Pro- 10-20 grams per drink depending on workout duration/type. The good ol’ essential amino acids seem to be the gold standard here. I also had some great results with Pepto-Pro (first launched at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, a patented pre-digested casein hydrolysate with a high contentration of di and tri-peptides, capable of creating a relatively strong hyperaminocademia and hyperinsulinemia response)
Now, there have been some question marks over the fate of casein hydrolysate in the periphery and its uptake in the splanchnic bed, suggesting that it pepto pro might be more likely to be oxidised as an energy source, thus leaving less protein to reach the muscle tissue. I suspect, however, that this might be not such a bad thing if performance is the number 1 goal. Additionally, unflavoured Pepto Pro has a rather distinct bitter taste, much like amino acids, except worse and is not the cheapest game in town. Interestingly, it seems to greatly improve my recovery and pretty much obliterate any residual soreness I might get when ingesting equivalent amount of EAAs or whey hydrolysate. I notice a big difference when I run out, but for all intents and purposes, EAAs should do the trick.
- Highly Branched Cyclic Dextrins/Vitargo - typically 30-40 grams per drink (depending on workout duration). At the risk of painting it with a broad brush, I like to include 25-35 grams of carbs per 1 hour of exercise. Due to faster gastric emptying rate, Cyclic Dextrins do not sit on my stomach like some other cheaper types of carbs. If you can stomach it, maltodextrin, sucrose and dextrose will all get the job done, however with varying degrees of insulin output.
- Citrulline Malate: 6 grams-8 grams. Citrulline is a vasodilator capable of improving nitric oxide and therefore bloodflow- a much more reliably working cousin of arginine. It is also thought to improve nutrient delivery. Additionally, citrulline might confer anti-fatigue and performance enhancing benefits for certain types of training stimulus.
- Coconut Water Extract-/or high quality electrolyte blend/ Coconut Water Extract packs an incredible amount of electrolytes while providing a refreshing flavour to an otherwise barely palatable drink. Beware of the commonly sold electrolyte powders- a lot commercially available formulas include substandard and poorly bioavailable forms such as magnesium oxide and calcium carbonate.
- Recently, I’ve started including 5-10 grams in my drink creatine following an interesting discussion I had with Dr Scott Forbes. It looks like there’s more and more research which suggests that creatine might help improve nutrient partitioning and glucose tolerance.
FAQs and references
- I never use any of those fancy shmancy drinks and I continue to make progress anyway. Why not just use real food instead?
Real food is great and should always be the cornerstone of every diet. As a matter of fact, a large chunk of my weekends is devoted to food prep (shopping, cooking etc.). Chewing on a chicken breast while working out is not very practical though, which is why I like to take advantage of readily available nutrients without overloading my digestive tract. I believe that in the case of a serious trainee, workout nutrition is more about ‘optimal’ rather than ‘necessary’. I know first-hand that I wouldn’t be able to maintain my training consistency and intensity without it. At the same time, if you are not getting at least 7 hours of sleep per night, your diet is so-so and you consider climbing 2 flights of stairs a workout, you would be better off addressing those ‘big guns’ of recovery instead.
-@#!$#@ you, your (sic!) wrong, I have been training for 260 days straight, I never get sore, my recovery is just fine. Actually, I am squatting as I am typing this!
Get back to me once you A) reach the 30 year mark B) start working out with a degree of intensity.
- Holy chemist, I would need to mix 4 powders before training, can’t I just buy a ready-made formula instead?
I completely agree with Dr Tom Bilella that when it comes to nutrition, one size fits nobody. In other words, it’s best to personalise your nutrition as closely to your unique set of circumstances as possible. When you buy a ready-made product you cannot scale it to your needs nowhere near as accurately as you would in the case of individually bought ingredients. What if you are not a DIY’er, however? Personally, I have had success using Biotest’s Plazma (available from UK and US store) in the past, so I’d feel comfortable recommending it as all-in-one supplement. The quality and convenience, however, comes with a relatively high price tag. BulkPowder’s Endure is decently priced and has interesting ingredients profile, even if kind of low on carbohydrates.
- Wow, this workout nutrition is not all that cheap…
Well, I guess it’s a matter of priorities. After all, a lot of people spend more on a single night out. For someone who loves training, forking out 50-70 EUR/GBP/$ per month on something that helps them to achieve their goals is actually reasonable in my view, even when on a budget. If the money is really tight, on the other hand, you are better off taking care of your nutrition and lifestyle first. Just don’t be that guy/gal that drops 3 figures at a bar only to complain that dextrose is too expensive.
- Okay, you talk a good game about the workout nutrition being rooted in science, where are the references?
I am awfully glad you asked:
Cribb, Paul J, Hayes, Alan, "Effects of Supplement-Timing and Resistance Exercise on Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy." Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 38(11). Pp. 1918-1925. ISSN 0195-9131, 1530-0315.
Haff, et al, "The effects of supplemental carbohydrate ingestion on intermittent isokinetic leg exercise, J Sports Med Phys Fitness, 2001, Jun:41(2): 216-22.
Ivy, John, and Portman, Robert, Nutrient Timing, The Future of Sports Nutrition, Basic Health Publications, Laguna Beach, 2004.
Kerksick, Chad M et al. “International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition vol. 14 33. 29 Aug. 2017, doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0189-4
Tipton, et al, "Timing of amino-acid carbohydrate ingestion alters anabolic response of muscle to resistance exercise." American Journal of Physiology - Endocrinology and Metabolism, 1 August 2001, Vol, 281 no.2, E197-E206