The next time you wander around the hinterlands of weight plates and shiny silver barbells, look for the scattered bottles of pre-workout, BCAA, and remnants of post-workout supplements.
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It seems as if everyone these days is dabbling in pre or post-workout supplementation in the gym. Everyone from beginners to advanced, those with non-existent muscles to bulging biceps, is carrying an artificially-flavoured beverage designed to optimise their performance. However, when asked, most people will say that they drink a workout drink purely on the recommendation of a fit friend or personal trainer - but they aren't exactly sure why.
The theory behind workout supplementation is simple: targeted nutrition helps replenish your depleted nutrient stores and improves your post-workout recovery, making you stronger, faster, or bigger over time.
I don't blame anyone for blindly trying workout supplementation. Building muscle and losing weight to achieve the super sleek "effortlessly athletic" physique is challenging work. If you're spending so much time and money in the gym, enhancing your results is an added benefit, especially for those particularly fond of big muscles.
I applaud people for caring. However, workout nutrition is a nebulous subject and is constantly being researched for the latest findings. Workout nutrition has shifting guidelines based on age, sex, fitness level, program design, and time before your next session. Therefore, there is no one-size fits all approach to workout nutrition and supplementation. We also must remember that the workout supplementation industry is based on profits. Marketers may blur the line about who would benefit the most from including a supplement into their diet, enticing the average gym-goer to try it.
Let's discuss the rationale behind including a workout supplement, who benefits the most from them, and how the rest of us can enhance our diet to get a similar effect.
Workout nutrition and timing
Let's set the scene: you've just finished a gruelling sprint session on the track. Your muscles ripped through pace after pace of burning lactic acid, and they now feel wobbly like freshly made jello. Or, you've been practising your deadlift to break your personal best, and your muscles have given up every last ounce of strength you have.
Anytime you tax your muscles, you deplete nutrient stores of glycogen and amino acids and create micro-damage to your muscle fibres. Imagine your muscles being like a sponge. Before your workout, they are full of available energy. Your workout squishes out the available nutrients, and after your workout, they are ready to soak it back up again. Exercise enhances your insulin-stimulates glucose uptake, so your muscles are primed to suck up glycogen to help repair the exercise damage and replenish your energy.
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Additionally, protein is depleted from our bodies as we exercise. We only store protein in minimal quantities, so we must consume a steady flow of protein throughout the day to keep our bodies working optimally. To hit the gym with equal gusto at your next session, you must replenish your glycogen and amino acid stores and help heal the damage. For athletes or fitness professionals to recover effectively and continually perform optimally, workout supplementation can be a quick and easy nutrition solution to this natural phenomenon.
Traditionally, science suggested an optimal window to consume these nutrients was approximately two hours post-exercise. This period is called your "anabolic window," where your muscles are primed to absorb nutrients. During this precious refuelling window, not only does muscle protein breakdown happen faster, your body could, in turn, "super compensate" for the nutrient loss. This super-compensation would result in enhanced performance. This sense of urgency compelled weight lifters alike to load up on post-workout shakes before they left the gym to capture the future potential of their muscles and recovery.
However, studies that researched the anabolic window only looked at someone's results when they worked out in the "fasted state." However, a fasted state doesn't match reality, making the results incomplete. Some of us work out in the evening after work - and our last meal is lunch or a mid-afternoon snack. The nutrients from our previous meal may help carry us through, which is excellent news for people rushing to get in their post-workout before leaving the gym. The pressure is off - you may have time to go home and at least shower first.
Who benefits from workout nutrition strategies?
Also, not everyone is a prime contender for workout supplementation. Fitness professionals who need to consider a well-thought-out workout nutrition plan are endurance runners, bodybuilders, athletes, and fitness competitors. These are people exercising at high-intensity levels for prolonged periods. According to a 2015 paper titled Nutrition Editorial Sports Nutrition: An Evolved Multidisciplined Field for Athletes, published in the Cronicon journal, pre- or post-workout supplementation consumption depends on the athlete's unique physical demands. Depending on their needs, they may require carbohydrate plus protein mixes or essential amino acid supplementation to preserve their muscle. On top of that, they may also require a diet containing a calorie surplus (eating more than your body burns) or calorie deficits (eating fewer calories than your body needs) to achieve their goals. Adding workout supplementation should be a well-thought-out addition to a diet rather than a standard course.
What most of us should do
However, most gym enthusiasts only want to get fit, be healthy, and perhaps trim down a few inches from our waistlines. Adding a workout supplement may not only be unnecessary, but it may also be overwhelming.
As nutrition coach Brian St. Pierre aptly said in an article titled Workout Nutrition Explained: What to Eat Before, During, and After Exercise, for general fitness enthusiasts, focussing on workout nutrition can be distracting and self-sabotaging.
Therefore, for most of us, the general advice is not to get complicated and follow healthy eating practices of mindfulness.
#1: According to the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, the official guidelines are to consume a protein source every 3 hours during the day. You don't need to sit down and eat chicken breast every three hours. Luckily there are a wide variety of plant-based and non-vegetarian sources of protein that you can consume in smaller amounts.
#2: Eat a low-fibre meal/snack 1-2 hours before your workout, containing healthy carbohydrates and protein. By doing so, you are pre-loading your body with available glycogen and amino acids to use during your workout session, which will help jumpstart your recovery. Some of my favourite easy-on-the-stomach solutions are a cup of Greek yoghurt (protein) topped with a spoon of granola and chopped fruit (carbohydrates).
#3: Eat a small meal/snack 1-2 hours after your workout. Your meal should be approximately the same size as the pre-workout meal, containing carbohydrates and protein. This meal will help repair your muscle fibres and restore your energy. It could be a piece of fruit with a spoonful of nut butter or perhaps quick oats with milk or yoghurt.
#4: Focus on hydration. If your session is less than two hours long, bring and sip lots of water to keep your body at its optimal hydration levels. Suppose your workout is longer than two hours. In that case, you may want to consider a sports drink that allows you to replenish vital electrolytes lost in the sweating process.
#5: If your workout is intense, longer than 45 minutes, and requires resistance training intervals or endurance training, you may want to consider a post-workout drink that contains both carbohydrates and protein.
Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight-loss coach