The timing of nutrient intake ranks as one of the most hotly debated issues in fitness. Whether one exercises in a fasted state or post-fueling, carb timing specifically can vary in effectiveness, dependent upon your personal training clients’ goals and personal physiology. Find out the best approach to proper fueling and whether pre- or post-workout carbohydrates are necessary for everyone to consume.
The Physiology of Fueling
Energy from Within
During exercise, hard-working muscles use glucose (readily available) and glycogen (stored sources) for energy. Glycogen stored in muscle cells pulls water inward to increase not only the cell volume but also the fullness within muscle fibers. Research suggests that a greater muscle cell volume can lead to long-term growth.
At some point during an intense lifting session, blood glucose levels and glycogen stores drop so precipitously low that exercise cannot continue. We refer to this state as “going to failure”, that overwhelming sensation of not having enough power/strength to complete another single repetition. Here, the body begins to secrete the “stress hormone” cortisol, a highly catabolic chemical. Cortisol eats up muscle tissue for protein, converting it into usable glucose. A process called gluconeogenesis ensues, producing glucose from these amino acids in the liver. This results in a loss of muscle tissue.
As we know, strength training causes micro-tears in the muscles’ fibers, and sweating causes the loss of fluids replete with electrolytes. Post-workout nutrients, therefore, take on a critical importance, essential for replenishing muscle glycogen depleted from physical demands. In addition, consuming an exercise recovery meal helps stimulate protein synthesis to repair and build new muscle tissue while restoring fluid and electrolyte balance.
Fuel and Adenosine Triphosphate
“…The best way to get a fire going is providing it with fuel” says David Talley, Wellness Coordinator for Indiana University. In the case of the human body, quality calories equal fuel. Talley explains that fueling up before a workout lays the foundation for a day of improved metabolism, which leads over time to sustained energy.
Emilie Burgess, RDN and board-certified Sports Dietitian (CSSD), echoes this opinion. “Muscle glycogen (the storage form of glucose/carbohydrates in the muscles) is the major source of carbohydrate fuel in the body, followed by our liver glycogen stores, and then blood sugar,” she says. “The glucose or carbohydrates that our body stores or that is within our blood is converted into ATP (energy) within our cells.”
Carb Timing Considerations
Timing, Type, and Duration
The timing of fuel intake, as well as the choice of macronutrients, depends to a considerable extent upon the workout itself. Consider endurance athletes, who rarely if ever train or compete in the fasted state. Long workouts (for example, triathlons) demand appropriate fueling for sustained energy. Such athletes tend to opt for a carbohydrate-rich pre-race meal, historically proven to provide the optimal performance advantage.
If one has the luxury of a 2 to 3- hour window of opportunity before a workout, a prudent meal would include a higher amount of carbohydrates, but still some lean protein and “good” fats. Choose a slower-acting carb source, such as oats, whole grains or brown rice. If scheduling only affords the athlete 30-60 minutes before hitting the gym/trails, a fast-digesting carbohydrate source packs the best energy punch. Many cyclists prefer a banana or gel packet (such as “Gu”) to a full meal.
As for post-workout carbohydrate replenishing, meals do not differ too greatly from what bodybuilders choose after a session of heavy lifting. Most experts advocate a meal with a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein. Some individuals smaller in stature (like many females) opt for a 3:1 ratio.
Breakfast Pre-Workout Fueling or Nay?
The notion of early-morning exercising on an empty stomach has a great deal of appeal, particularly for those athletes with a delicate gastrointestinal system and those who have fully embraced intermittent fasting. Running in particular after having eaten often leads to cramping and bowel urgency. However, outside of this realm, does research document the common assumption of fat loss associated with fasted exercise?
In the absence of food consumption since the evening prior, the human body will rely upon fat stores as the primary energy source for morning workout sessions. While this seems like an easy advantage, the long-term impact just does not play out. Studies comparing athletes who trained fasted versus those who ate breakfast before hitting the gym over the course of one month found no significant difference in fat loss.
Following a typical overnight fast, and in the absence of a bedtime meal, most of us awaken having retained only about 20% of our stored glycogen (which originated as carbohydrates). Once a workout has begun, in the absence of a meal, the body tends to utilize this 20% first and foremost. Yes, before the completion of the exercise, some fat gets burned for energy, but so too will protein and, unfortunately, hard-earned muscle. For some, understanding this concept makes fasted workouts a bit less appealing.
A team from the United Kingdom researched this fasting/fueling debate, and reported their findings in the American Journal of Physiology: Endocrinology and Metabolism. “This is the first study to examine the ways in which breakfast before exercise influences our responses to meals after exercise,” says co-lead researcher Dr. Javier Gonzalez. “We found that, compared to skipping breakfast, eating breakfast before exercise increases the speed at which we digest, absorb, and metabolize carbohydrate that we may eat after exercise.” But that’s not all–the body also will more efficiently access the glycogen stores in the muscle after a breakfast fueling.
Apparently, in “jump-starting” the body’s metabolism with a pre-workout meal, more calories get expended all day long. In fact, some individuals can burn up to 10% more calories, even while at rest.
Mid-Exercise Carb Consumption
Marathon runners and Ironman competitors typically refuel glycogen stores in the midst of an event. Studies revealed that, whether subjects had consumed a pre-workout meal or not, ingesting carbohydrate-rich fuel mid-stride led them to report lower rates of perceived exertion (RPE) throughout the duration of the exercise. Timed trials also improved when carbs were taken while exercising, as compared with individuals who received a placebo. Thus, it would seem that consuming a carb-rich fuel source in the midst of an endurance workout can compensate for having foregone a pre-workout meal.
The Beneficial Bedtime Snack
If a client prefers to exercise at the crack of dawn, getting in that pre-workout meal often proves impossible. Nancy Clark, Registered Dietician and author of Sports Nutrition Guidebook, understands this and suggests such athletes “pre-fuel” with a high-quality meal before heading to bed the night prior to an early-morning training session. While not exactly the same as carb-loading, the advantage of a bedtime feeding relates more to glycogen storage, ready for access less than 12 hours later.
Focus on Nutrient Timing
According to research, consuming the appropriate ratio of carbohydrates to protein can greatly impact the success of one’s recovery. When to eat post-workout depends upon the type of exercise in which the client has engaged.
Intense weight resistance workouts, with a goal of increasing muscle size, favor the consumption of 20-30 grams (g) of lean protein with 30-40 grams of clean simple carbohydrates, ideally within 30 minutes of completing training. Shakes work extremely well for such athletes. Following lighter aerobic workouts, with a goal of staying in shape, experts suggest eating a well-balanced whole-food meal within an hour of exercising. The protein/carb ratio remains the same.
Of course, these specific macronutrient amounts vary with the size of the individual, an important aspect to keep in mind. (Always consult a Registered Sports Dietitian for assistance with specific guidelines before counseling clients.)
Proper nutrient balance following training allows for the release of insulin, one of several anabolic or muscle-building hormones in the body. Clients who consistently train with heavy loads, especially in the absence of steroid supplementation, need to maximize the release of the body’s anabolic hormones through any naturally available method.
The Importance of the Glycemic Index
A working knowledge of glycemic index helps trainers convey information regarding post-workout food choices. Glycemic index, or GI, measures how quickly a food raises blood sugar and insulin levels. Typically, we coach our clients to eat lower glycemic foods throughout the day (complex, slow-digesting carbohydrates) so as not to initiate an insulin spike. Foods with an assigned GI rating of <55 are rated as low. But post-workout, the body requires the exact opposite.
Following intense exercise, the body needs carbs and protein shuttled to the muscle cells as fast as possible. An elevated insulin level facilitates the driving of nutrients into these hungry muscle cells. High-glycemic carbs (with a rating of 70 or above) work optimally for this purpose. Insulin attaches to receptors on muscle cells, allowing a greater uptake of carbs, creatine, carnitine, and other amino acids, all of which serve critical processes in muscle repair and recovery.
Carbs consumed immediately post-workout can result in a beneficial “super-compensation” of glycogen. Research has found that delaying the ingestion of carbs by even 2 hours following training can reduce not only glycogen replenishing but also recovery by 50%.
Too Many Post-Workout Carbs to Choose From?
When it comes to high GI, post-workout carbs, you have to read labels. There are lots of unusual and unfamiliar options that you have to know to spot. Here are a few:
Dextrose/maltodextrin combo This rates as the old-school bodybuilder post-workout mix of choice. The combo has a fast uptake and causes less bloat due to the combination of molecule sizes; however, some still suffer from that side effect. The downside to dextrose is that it can cause GI distress due to its low molecular weight and high osmolality – it draws water into the GI tract, leading to the “bloat”.
Sucrose/high fructose corn syrup The debate surrounding whether high fructose corn syrup functions the same as naturally occurring sucrose continues to swirl. Some chemists concur, while others cite the creation of damaging reactive carbonyls, which occurs when the bond between the glucose and fructose is broken. Around 49% of the sugar found in fruits is fructose which, upon consumption, travels to the liver before being converted to glucose. This, in turn, further delays absorption to the critical areas of the body following a workout.
Waxy maize starch This sugar has a low osmolality and high molecular weight, which translates to larger molecules of starch. Thus far, the only proven claims about waxy maize show that its higher molecular weight classifies it as a long-chain complex (redundant) carbohydrate. Studies show that the greater the molecular weight of a carbohydrate, the more chains of glucose it contains and therefore takes longer to break down, delaying absorption. Waxy maize may prove beneficial for the endurance client, who out of necessity favors a steady supply and release of energy over time, compared to the rapidly digesting maltodextrin.
Side-by-side comparative research indicates that the bloodstream absorbs maltodextrin better and faster than any other simple carbohydrate sources. In order to “refuel” glycogen to the muscles, glucose must be delivered to the bloodstream, traveling on to the liver and muscles for conversion to and storage as glycogen. Maltodextrin provides an insulin spike far superior to any other source. Upon ingesting a carbohydrate food source, absorption occurs through the intestines, the majority taking place in the duodenum. Maltodextrin begins to degrade in the mouth and stomach, the work of salivary amylase, which easily breaks the weak hydrogen bonds holding the chemical together.
A Fun New Option
Many lifters I know have abandoned the “real food” simple carbs post-workout in favor of seizing the opportunity to satisfy a sweet tooth. Of all things, they gravitate toward gummy bears! I immediately dismissed this as empty calories. However, surprisingly, the research advocating and supporting this choice really exists! It turns out that playfully enjoying 15-20 of the ever-popular Haribo Gummi Bears provides 30-40 grams of simple carbs! (And if you choose not to eat them, at least read the reviews and questions on the Amazon listing for a good laugh)
Don’t Shake Off the Whey Shake
The whey protein shake, often touted as the ideal source of immediate post-workout supplementation, still offers tremendous muscle-recovery potential. With so much talk regarding the importance of simple carbohydrates, where might the shake fit in? A 2011 study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise investigated this very question.
Researchers compared the effects of consuming 25 grams of whey protein against 25 grams of whey protein plus 50 grams of carbohydrates, to note whether the carbs played a significant role in raising insulin levels. They did not. The concurrent ingestion of 50 g of CHO with 25 g of protein did not stimulate mixed muscle protein synthesis or inhibit muscle protein breakdown any more than 25 g of protein alone, either at rest or after resistance exercise.
In another study, 12 healthy volunteers were served drinks consisting of either pure glucose (reference drink) or glucose supplemented with free amino acids or whey proteins. The beverage containing the branched-chain amino acids isoleucine, leucine, valine, and threonine (BCAA’s) elicited a significantly higher insulin response than the glucose drink alone. In fact, the insulin peak mimicked the glycemic and insulinemic responses observed following consumption of a high-quality whey protein shake.
Where should we go with these seemingly controversial results? It remains my strong conviction that, for starters, whey protein sources vary in quality, depending upon processing. I always counsel clients to take the time necessary to seek out the highest quality product they can comfortably afford. The BCAA’s typically found in such products also lend a significant hand in facilitating muscle recovery and rebuilding.
Regarding the simple carbohydrates post-workout, I continue to support the necessity of this macronutrient, and especially the timing of its ingestion. Learn as much as you can about the different types available, in addition to those presented here. Remember, what happens “in the kitchen”, so to speak, often exerts an even more dramatic effect than the workout upon the long-term success of a bodybuilder.