man doing exercise

Workout Nutrition That Helps Muscle Gain and Recovery

If you are like me, you want to know the how and why behind you do what you do. The workout nutrition we are going to talk about is steeped in physiology; science works, so let us take advantage of it.

The best way to optimize performance and recovery is to “hijack” the body to promote an anabolic state while training (which usually is considered a catabolic state). You can achieve this by giving the body the proper nutrients at the right time to stimulate hormones that promote growth and activate metabolic pathways that optimize fuel use.

There are two major sources of fuel for your body: carbohydrates and fats. You have an insulin metabolic switch, which determines what fat is used. Unfortunately, due to a rise in type 2 diabetes, and a lot of fear mongering by internet warriors, insulin has been deemed the “fat hormone”.

This is an oversimplification. Insulin is also a key promoter of muscle growth, and it is crucial in training adaptations. Your body will also experience an increase in non-insulin dependent glucose absorption immediately after exercise. This means that your muscles will absorb sugar and use it to fuel and recover without insulin. A super cool trick!

What we want to do with our workout nutrition is optimize insulin response to prevent muscle breakdown and promote muscle synthesis while still optimizing fat oxidation. Sounds like a dream come true. Fortunately, some smart nutrient timing makes this possible.

Workout during fasted state

Here is what such a scheme looks like physiologically. During a fasted state (i.e. you haven’t eaten in a while) your body has low levels of insulin, is burning fat, and has low levels of blood sugar. This is great for people who are sedentary all day and do not engage in intense exercise. Let’s see why training in a purely fasted state, especially high-intensity training may not optimize performance, recovery, and body composition.

Your muscles depend heavily on muscle glycogen (stored glucose) during a high-intensity exercise. After 20 minutes of intense work, the muscle glycogen/glucose levels begin to decline. Your body still needs glucose to fuel this intensity of work so it pumps out hormones like glucagon or cortisol.

Glucagon and cortisol break down muscles for amino acids so it can convert them to the glucose that the muscles need for fuel. To add insult to injury, levels of other catabolic hormones, like epinephrine and cortisol, begin to rise. The harder and longer your workout, the more muscle gets broken down for fuel…. And here I thought we were trying to perform better and get leaner

How to prevent muscles break down

This situation can be avoided with a simple and easy trick. You should bring a slight increase in insulin and blood sugar to your workout. This will flip a metaphorical metabolic switch towards carbohydrate utilization, and it prevents the catabolic storm described above. This is what happens if you consume nutrients that stimulate insulin and increase blood glucose before a training session.

You can consume 30 grams of carbohydrates and 15 grams of protein, thirty minutes before the workout. When you are training, your body starts to break it down and produces insulin. Both glucose and amino acids get absorbed into your muscles cells.

Essentially, you are ensuring the body’s most anabolic hormone, insulin, is working optimally and that there are plenty of glucose molecules and amino acids for insulin to carry to hard-working muscle cells. You have essentially shut down the glucagon/cortisol response.

Just as importantly, muscle cells are most sensitive to insulin during and after a workout. This result means that almost no nutrients are stored as fat during the workout period. What I haven’t mentioned yet is that this approach also speeds recovery.

Instead of trying to deplete or replete your muscles’ nutrients, you are actually supplying them with the nutrients they require as they are being depleted. Recovery of your muscle tissue occurs much more rapidly.

If you are able to, I would recommend doing the following to ensure that you are optimizing this process to the highest degree. Make your workout-based snack/meal a liquid kind (this is where a high-quality whey protein makes perfect sense to me), and drink half of it about 30 minutes before your training session, sip on it occasionally during training (I take a small sip every 5-10 minutes), and then finish it after.

My typical one looks like the following: 30-35grams of Whey, 1 large banana, a cup of ice, and a cup of whatever liquid works for you (sometimes I do 1/2cup almond milk and 1/2cup coffee), all blended together.

Summary: Consume carbohydrates and protein ~30-15 minutes prior to a high-intensity training session and another small bit post-workout.

For me, the liquid, supplement based approach works best.

As with all things, there are nuances to workout nutrition. If you want to focus on fat loss you can tweak the protocol slightly.

Fat Loss Focus

One thing to note about including carbohydrate immediately prior to and after a training session is it may reduce overall fat oxidation. This does not mean it causes fat gain, simply that it reduces the overall amount of fatty acid that is oxidized. If you are focused more on fat loss than performance and recovery, you can still get benefit from workout nutrition, with a slight modification.

Keep your workout nutrition strictly protein based. The amino acids will provide a small insulin response, the raw materials for glucose, and will help speed recovery, just not to the same extent as a the protein and carbohydrate combo.

I utilize this protocol when I am in a deload or hypertrophy based training program that is “less intense” and I am focused on fat-loss and not increasing my strength or size. Here is what workout nutrition might looks like for me with this protocol: 30-35 g Whey, 3-5g Leucine OR 20 g Whey, 15g BCAA. I usually consume half of it before a training session, a few sips during, and the rest after.
You might notice that I only included supplement-based workout nutrition in this explanation.

This is because there is a reason. It is difficult for me to eat whole foods before training. It’s too hard for my stomach to digest it in the time required and makes me feel like trash during training. It may also help you recover faster and perform better. You can eat small meals if you are able to eat whole foods.