A real live lifter drinking her actual protein shake. DO try this at home! Read on and as Colin explains what’s important (and what isn’t important) about nutrition for lifting recovery.
If you’re an active lifter, which I’m assuming you are just by clicking on this article, there’s no doubt you want to get the most out of your training. So often we talk about different styles of training, how often we should train, different splits, etc. but the problem is if you aren’t properly fueled for your workouts or recovering properly you aren’t getting the most out of your hard work. Which is why I want to talk about nutrition for training performance and recovery today.
First, I want to take you back, way back, 20-25 years ago when I was a teenager first getting into weights. I was really skinny back then, sitting around 5’10” 120-130 lbs I was often picked on for my size. As someone who became desperate to put on size, naturally I started lifting weights. Into the gym I would go, working hard, going to the gym every day. I LOVED lifting but there was a small problem, my muscles never got any bigger. What gives? Why am I working so hard and not seeing results for my efforts? Well as I look back on things it was pretty obvious. I knew NOTHING about the importance of nutrition for building muscle. So I didn’t change my eating habits at all. I was doing endless amounts of cardio for all the sports I played. I wasn’t recovering and I wasn’t fueling myself properly. Strangely tons of cardio coupled with a diet of nothing but pizza, hot dogs and hamburgers doesn’t get the job done (not that you can’t ever have those foods.)
With this became several years of on again off again lifting patterns. It wasn’t until I was 29 years old that I became serious. This time I started looking into how to build muscle more efficiently. I found out protein builds muscle, so I began eating a ton of protein (more than I need really.) I discovered you had to eat enough food to efficiently build. Wouldn’t you know it, I started seeing results! With this my love affair with weights finally stuck. Looking back I was still incredibly ignorant but at least I was getting somewhere. Anyway, here I am 9 years later, doing this stuff for a living, and I’ve gained some knowledge on the subject, or at least I sure hope! So I want to pass on some of that knowledge so you too can hopefully start achieving better results for your efforts in the gym.
Step number one to properly recovering from the gym is to not only make sure you’re getting sufficient calories but also sufficient protein. I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about macro breakdowns because I’ve gone over setting macros before. Keep in mind this article is NOT about losing weight, this is about optimizing nutrition for performance and recovery. But the moral of the story is if you want to recover and perform your best you have to be fueling your body properly. It needs enough protein to repair the damage you’re doing to your muscle and grow. It needs sufficient carbs to provide energy and fuel your workouts (that’s right, better get over that fear of carbs.) Fat also aids in digestion and plays a role in hormone support so we can’t just avoid fats either. Bottom line, you need enough calories.
How many calories should you be eating? I can’t say that without knowing a lot more information about you because every individual is unique and needs to be treated as such (again read the article about setting macros for more detail here.) But at the end of the day before we look at anything like meal timing/frequency, supplements, or anything else, your total macronutrient intake is going to be the most important thing for your results, by far. Regardless of when and how often you eat. Once you get that down, then we can start looking at some possible ways to take it to the next level.
One of those things? Meal timing. I’m sure at some point you’ve heard (probably by supplement companies) that you have to slam a protein shake right after your workout is done or you’re not going to recover and build muscle effectively. While this is wildly untrue, I do think it’s wise to get some decent nutrition in after (as well as before) your workout. I actually do recommend you get a good protein source within an hour or two both pre and post-workout and I also recommend getting around 25% of your total carbs for the day in both meals as well. The reason for pre-workout is to be properly fueled for your work so you can perform at your best and post-workout the body is primed to absorb and utilize nutrients better so it only makes sense to take advantage of that to me.
When it comes to protein I recommend around 1 gram per pound (or per pound of lean body mass if you’re more overweight) splitting it up fairly evenly 3-5 times per day every 4-6 hours to take advantage of the “leucine threshold” (the amount of leucine, the primary amino acid in protein responsible for muscle-protein synthesis, that can be used at one time for anabolism.) There also appears to be a possible “refractory” period with increasing protein synthesis, meaning we can’t elevate it too soon after taking in protein, which is why I recommend spacing out your protein rather than constantly feeding it. For what it’s worth, by the way, I don’t buy into your post-workout protein needs to be a shake. It’s an easy and convenient way to get it in, but if you just come home and eat a meal with a good protein source that’s every bit as effective.
For carbs outside of the pre/post workout window it doesn’t really matter when you eat the rest. It might be a good idea to get a decent amount, maybe around 15%, in your first meal just to get things going, but really whatever you like is fine. When it comes to fat it doesn’t really matter when you eat it, but I do recommend limiting fat (as well as fiber) pre-workout to avoid any potential gastrointestinal issues during training.
Now, I know I’ve already said this but it’s worth repeating. How and when you split up your nutrition is nowhere near as important as your totals for the day/week. So if trying to split everything up perfectly causes you stress/anxiety and knocks you off your plan then just eat in a way you enjoy that will help you reach your goals. Or start with working on hitting macro goals and slowly move towards timing as you get better. But it doesn’t matter how “optimal” something is if you aren’t going to follow it. That said if you don’t mind and want to get everything you can out of your nutrition, the above strategy would be my recommendation.
Besides that a couple of often overlooked factors with regards to nutrition for performance and recovery are sodium and water. Sodium is often looked at this horrible thing that should be avoided but the truth is sodium is not only necessary (you would literally die without salt) but it’s an electrolyte that aids in performance. If your sodium levels are low you will not be able to perform your best. Understand that your sodium input today is what you output the next day. Unless you are salt sensitive (about 5-10% of the population) or have a medical condition that requires you to keep sodium low there’s no need to limit it and you may even find you do better by adding in more. As far as water goes, well you probably know the importance already but dehydration is not going to help performance at all and without enough water your nutrient uptake will suffer as well. I think 80-120 of ounces per day is a good spot for most people, but it depends on many factors including how much you typically sweat (same with sodium.)
As far as supplements go there aren’t a lot that play a major role in performance or recovery. But if there was one I would pretty much universally recommend to any lifter it would be creatine monohydrate. Creatine has been shown time and time again to aid in muscle size, strength, and performance. Because creatine is a stored energy it doesn’t matter when you take it, only that you take it daily to saturate your muscle cells. If you’re going to take creatine aim for 3-5 grams daily. There is also whey protein but I don’t really even consider whey a supplement, I consider it food. No matter what you want to call it though, it can be a great way to get your protein up if you struggle to eat enough, but it’s certainly not necessary.
Other than that there are a couple other things I want to briefly touch on here. If you want to perform your best and if muscle or strength are important to you there are a couple of pitfalls you’re going to want to avoid. You can’t be undereating or doing excessive amounts of cardio. Neither of these things are going to help you towards your goal. Yes, there are times when you’re going to decrease the amount you eat and/or increase your cardio to cut down on some of the fat, but it can’t be a perpetual thing. You should be spending MUCH more time working on building than you are dieting. Constant dieting patterns absolutely ruins people, not to mention what it does to your metabolism. That said I do think it’s good to keep some cardio in your routine as it does have benefits for things like heart health and even work capacity in the gym. But you can’t go out there training for marathons expecting to build muscle much less recover properly.
So these are some of my tips to use nutrition to your advantage to aid in recovery, perform your best in the gym, and get the most of your training. Keep in mind when it comes to recovery and performance there are more factors than JUST nutrition such as sleep, stress management, proper training protocols, etc. If you have any questions feel free to leave a comment and I’ll be sure to get back to you!
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Colin DeWaay holds a personal training and fitness nutrition specialist certification with the National Academy of Sports Medicine. He’s the owner of Colin DeWaay Training LLC, an online strength and nutrition consulting business that fully customizes training and nutrition programs for those interested in general fitness all the way up to advanced powerlifting programs. He specializes in helping people with a history of yoyo dieting create a more sustainable healthy lifestyle, improving metabolism through reverse dieting if necessary, and helping make binges a thing of the past by creating a healthy relationship with food utilizing flexible dieting. His goal is not to produce quick results, but to help produce realistic, sustainable results that last.
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