Much of this article is adapted from Nutrient Timing by John Ivy combined with my own experiments and consultations with top strength coaches and athletes.

When it comes to ‘peri-workout’ nutrition, the correct nutrients are only useful if the muscles are receptive at that time so the effectiveness of any protein is largely dependent on when you take it.

Three phases of nutrient timing

Those who give any consideration to nutrition and supplementation around workouts often focus solely on ‘getting some sugars in’ before and afterwards.

The fact is that there is a lot more to maximising the effects of these sugars and utilising their potential.

For instance, we can utilise the insulin spiking effect of some simple sugars in the post-workout phase to drive amino acids (from protein) into the muscles.

If we go for just carbs or protein on their own, we won’t see nearly the same recovery and rebuilding potential.

If we rewind to the start of the workout, it takes about 10 minutes for simple sugars from carbohydrate drinks to enter the bloodstream for use by the working muscles.

If we take these sugars in any earlier using the philosophy of having some fruit an hour before, we are not going to utilise the sugars in the same way and may in fact just leave them available for conversion to body fat.

With this in mind, here is a good way to approach nutrition around your training session.

Phase Time Objectives
Energy 10 minutes prior to and during training – Increase nutrient delivery to muscles and spare muscle glycogen and protein– Limit immune system suppression typical after intense training

– Minimise muscle damage

– Prepare for faster recovery

Anabolic 45 minutes post-training – Create anabolic environment– Removal of metabolic waste

– Replenish muscle glycogen

– Tissue repair and muscle growth

Growth Part 1 – 4 hours after training 

 

Part 2 – Up to next session (16-18 hours)

– Maintain increase insulin sensitivity– Maintain anabolic environment

– Maintain positive nitrogen balance

– Promote muscle development

 

Hormones and muscle development

Let’s look at what nutrients we need to be taking in and what the objective is.

Overall we are looking to optimise what our hormones are doing.

Anabolic hormones stimulate rebuilding and repair actions in the muscle whereas catabolic hormones stimulate the breakdown of carbohydrate, fat and even protein for energy

Hormone release occurs in response to other hormones, nerve fibre stimulation (training) and changes in the levels of certain nutrients in the blood. Proper training and nutrient timing enables you to control all of this.

Catabolic hormones Effect Anabolic hormones Effect
Glucagon Stimulates fat and liver glycogen breakdown and gluconeogensis Testosterone Blocks cortisol and stimulates protein sysnthesis
Epinephrine (adrenaline) Stimulates fat, liver and muscle glycogen breakdown Growth hormone Stimulates bone and cartilage growth and protein synthesis
Norepinephrine Stimulates fat and liver glycogen breakdown IGF-1 Stimulates growth of bone, cartilage and muscle
Cortisol Stimulates fat, liver, glycogen and muscle protein breakdown Insulin Multiple effects on muscle protein synthesis

 

The harder a workout is, the more cortisol is released leading increased breakdown of all fuel sources and increased plasma levels of amino acids especially glutamine and BCAA’s (taken from the muscles). The primary trigger is hypoglycemic conditions as is typical in prolonged aerobic exercise.

Cortisol is often the reason for athletes who push themselves hard, reaching plateau’s in results.

In daily life, high levels of insulin due to high carb intake increase fat synthesis and reduce fat breakdown leading to excess body fat and diabetic conditions.

However, after intense exercise insulin is highly effective in suppressing protein degradation, restoring muscle glycogen levels and increasing muscle protein synthesis with very little fat synthesis.

Moderate carb diets rich in fibre combined with intense training increase muscle sensitivity whereas permanently low carb, high fat diets can have negative effects on muscle mass and strength.

The energy phase – peri-workout nutrition

When you consume carbs with protein, specific amino acids and vitamins you spare muscle glycogen thus improving muscle endurance. You also slow the rise in cortisol which is a catabolic stress hormone thus reducing muscle damage and preparing the muscles for faster recovery following training.

If you combine the amount of ATP in the muscle and the amount of Creatine Phosphate available to replenish ATP, you only have enough to drive exercise for 12-18 seconds. During intense strength training, a lot of muscle glycogen is used – this is often underestimated as typically only anaerobic and long aerobic training is deemed to need high levels of muscle glycogen.

During prolonged stressful exercise, glutamine stores can be almost completely depleted leaving the immune system weak and the body more vulnerable to infection.

We must also consider that the very objective of weight training is to damage muscle fibres for rebuilding. Eccentric loading in particular causes high levels of tearing and inflammation.

Hormonal changes (in particular the rise of cortisol) also contributes to muscle breakdown, along with the release of high levels of free radicals which damage cell membranes and disrupt key enzymes in immune system function.

Immune system suppression can last for up to 72 hours after intense training.

We must also consider dehydration during this phase as just a 2% loss of hydration can compromise performance and this is very common in most sports. Unfortunately simply drinking more water or even carb-based drinks doesn’t provide the complete nutrition spectrum for the working muscle.

Key objectives of peri-workout nutrition:

Increase nutrient delivery and spare muscle glycogen and protein

The addition of protein to a carbohydrate supplement promotes metabolism of ingested protein and lessens demand for amino acid release from muscles.

When done before exercise even begins, this will result in greater protein synthesis after the exercise.

Limit immune system suppression 

Most of the immunosuppressive responses result from increased cortisol levels but these fluctuations can be regulated significantly by controlling glucose availability.

Minimize muscle damage

Carbohydrate supplementation during exercise can dramatically reduce cortisol increased and the associated rise in inflammation.

Supplementation with Vitamin E and C and BCAA’s may help minimize muscle damage.

Set the stage for optimal recovery

Without appropriate nutrition around training you are likely to experience weak training responses.

Consuming protein and carbs during exercise reduces protein degradation.

Also the faster muscle glycogen supplies can be replenished, the faster the body will turn to rebuilding the muscle fibres.

RECOMMENDATIONS

The best solution I have found is to take an amino acid – citrulline mallate – D-Ribose complex around 45-60 minutes before.

My personal favourite is Amino Work Capacity from Phil Richards Performance.

Taking in amino acids pre-workout has been shown to increase the availability of amino acids for muscle repair compared to taking them just afterwards thus preventing the same levels of muscle breakdown as is often the case during intense exercise when we don’t load amino acids beforehand.

The citrulline malate has been shown to improve removal of the waste products of intense exercise such as ammonia and lactic acid and increase ATP production.

All in all this means improved aerobic function, improved energy production and better recovery afterwards.

Finally the D-Ribose helps ‘energy salvage’ by your cells, helping you go harder and faster for longer.

Making your own? Try this:

High glycemic carbs – 20-25g

BCAA’s 5-10g

Vitamin C – 30-120mg

Vitamin E – 20-60 IU

Sodium – 100-250mg

Potassium – 60-100mg

Magnesium – 60-120mg

 

Notes:

BCAA’s may be taken separately reducing the need for the addition of leucine – Sci-Mentor BCAA’s are a great product.

Magnesium is best absorbed through the skin so rubbing transdermal magnesium in to the target muscles prior to training is highly effective. 

The anabolic phase – 45 minutes after a workout

During this time (after an intense session), muscles are extremely insulin sensitive therefore anabolic activity can take place with no fear of adding body fat.

Muscle glucose uptake following exercise may be 3-4 times faster when supplementation is taken immediately after exercise compared to three hours later and fat oxidation is likely to be higher leading to lower abdominal fat in various studies.

Waiting a couple of hours before supplementation and refueling may result in little to no hypertrophy at all.

Several hours after training, muscle cells may actually become insulin resistant so the post-training period is vital.

Protein consumed without carbohydrates in the anabolic phase is far less efficient and the consumption of cabrs during a workout reduces the cortisol response thus reducing protein breakdown.

When insulin is stimulated in the presence of protein, greater protein synthesis will occur so a high glycemic-protein drink is favourable.

This is the only time when consumption of simple carbohydrates is preferable. Fruits may be used but Vitargo has found to be the optimal per-workout carbohydrate source due to its rapid absorption.

Also, after intense training, catabolic hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine remain elevated for 30-60 minutes after training ceases so action must be taken to create an anabolic environment.

Key objectives:

Create an anabolic environment

A carb-protein supplement will stimulate insulin and retard the release of cortisol in a synergistic manner.

Carbohydrate drinks alone do not get nearly the same insulin response as when protein is added. This results in a powerful anabolic drive which can be maintained throughout recovery.

Elimination of metabolic waste

Nitric oxide increases vasodilation of the blood vessels as a precursor to the amino acid arginine and insulin has also been shown to be a strong stimulator of the NO pathway perhaps more so than arginine.

This increased vasodilation enables better removal of lactic acid and influx of oxygen to the muscles.

Citrulline mall ate may be even more effective in these waste disposal mechanisms hence earlier recommendations.

Replenish muscle glycogen

The rate of muscle glycogen synthesis after exercise is directly related to the blood insulin response but simply increasing the carb content of supplementation is not sufficient.

When carb content of supplementation exceeded 1g per kilogram of bodyweight per hour, both the blood and insulin response and the rate of muscle glycogen synthesis plateaued.

RECOMMENDATION – Aim for 1g of carbohydrates per kg of bodyweight for every hour the training session lasts.

Initiate tissue repair

A carb-protein supplement immediately after exercise may increase protein synthesis 5-6 times over carb only causing a significant increase in the net protein balance.

It is also likely to prevent any real decline in glutamine levels as well thus reducing immune-system repression.

Immune system bolstering

A carb-protein drink which includes Vitamin C and E and glutamine can lead to a significant reduction in free-radical formation compared with carb-only.

RECOMMENDATIONS:

–       Include whey protein or rice and pea protein in the post-workout drink at a ratio of 1g of protein for every 3-4g of carbs remembering to aim for up to 1g of carbs for every 1kg of bodyweight for every hour of intense exercise.

–       Use high-glycemic carbs but not fructose or galactose due to gastrointestinal issues and because they are weak stimulators of insulin.

–       Include glutamine to aid the immune system

–       Include sources of Vitamin C and E to reduce the effect of free radical release.

–       Aim for calorie content of around 250 calories for a person of up to 75kg with additional calories as lean muscle mass increases.

Ideal supplement composition for 350ml of water

High glycemic carbs – 50-100g

Whey or rice and pea protein – 15-20g

Leucine – 1-2g

Glutamine – 1-2g

Vitamin C – 60-120mg

Vitamin E – 80-400 IU

You may also add 5g creatine if engaging in a lot of strength and power-based training and heavy lifting.

You may also add chromium picolinate to increase insulin sensitivity. About 200mg is sufficient.

 

The growth phase – the time between workouts 

Consumption of carbs and protein is essential to maintain optimal muscle growth during this phase.

There are two key segments. The first runs for approximately 4 hours from after the anabolic phase. The second continues up to the next session and is hugely affected by diet.

Supplementation in one phase affects the effectiveness of the next phase and the ability to replenish muscle glycogen 2 hours after exercise may be up to 50% less than immediately after. Protein synthesis is also much lower when refueling occurs 2-3 hours after.

Key objectives of Part 1

Maintain insulin sensitivity

When supplementation doesn’t occur, blood insulin levels will remain low and blood cortisol levels will remain elevated.

A high carb-protein supplement in the anabolic phase straight after exercise should replenish up to 75% of muscle glycogen meaning a lower carb intake with protein should be sufficient to replenish the rest.

Insulin resistance can occur if no post-training supplementation is given and this can last for up to 16 hours. However, insulin sensitivity can be extended for 3-4 hours after the anabolic phase enabling greater gains in lean muscle mass and strength.

Maintain the anabolic state

The aim is to maintain the anabolic state for up to 4 hours afterwards.

Supplementation at two hours and four hours afterwards can help maintain a high blood insulin level and rapid rate of muscle glycogen synthesis for up to 6 hours.

Ideal supplement composition for 350ml of water

High glycemic carbs – 2-4g

Whey or rice and pea protein or BCAA’s – 15-20g or 10g

Key objectives of Part 2

Maintain positive nitrogen balance

The aim is to excrete less protein than you consume by eating well at all meals.

Strength athletes should aim for 2-2.75g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day when training intensely.

NB High levels of animal protein have been linked to high acidity and potentially illness and disease.

Eating two to three portions of animal protein per day should be sufficient unless targeting very fast muscle building.

During this time, a moderate to high fat intake with moderate levels of protein will be sufficient for most people.

If you are naturally lean and skinny, you may increase you carb intake in meals.

For anyone looking to gain size, the meal after your training session should be high in carbohydrates and protein.

 

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