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You’d think that eating or drinking during a workout would be a sure bet for packing on unwanted pounds—because, after all, the more calories you consume the more weight you’ll gain, right? But you almost never see an overweight person eating in the gym, while you often see fit people downing shakes mid-workout. Coincidence, or is there something to this?
“Much is made of pre- and post-workout nutrition, but eating during your workout can be beneficial as well,” says Jim Stoppani, Ph.D. “Even if you’re not trying to get bigger like bodybuilders are, you need protein and carbohydrates to at least maintain your muscle mass. You would never want to lose muscle, even if you’re trying to lose weight. If your goal is to add muscle, then eating during a workout is especially helpful.”
The first thing to keep in mind is that whether or not to consume a bar or drink during your workout depends on what you’ve eaten beforehand. If you hit the gym on a relatively full stomach, scratch the bar or shake during the workout and wait until afterward. The nutritional guidelines during or around training are simple: Consume around 20-40g of protein and around 40-80g of carbohydrates either within 30 minutes prior to training or during the first part of your workout. Ideally a 2:1 carb to protein ratio is recommended, but many drinks and bars are closer to 1:1, which is acceptable, too. If weight loss is your goal, aim for the lower end of these ranges. If you’re trying to add size, hit the upper ends.
The reasoning for consuming protein is obvious: You use amino acids (the building blocks of protein) during both weightlifting and cardio, and you need to replenish these stores as quickly as you can. Carbs help keep cortisol levels down. High levels of cortisol in the body, which is a natural effect of exercise, breaks down muscle instead of building it up. Pure protein drinks are not enough—you need carbohydrates to maintain and build muscle.
“It’s hard to find a bar these days that has the amount of carbs you need during and following exercise,” says Stoppani. “Most bar manufacturers are sticking to low-carb, high-protein bars. But around exercise is the time when you most need to get carbs in you.”
1. Your best bet for nutrition during a workout is some type of bar or drink, as opposed to whole food. Convenience is the key. As far as drinks go, a ready-to-drink or protein powder mixed with water in a shaker bottle is the way to go.
2. The ideal form of protein during a workout is whey (again, 20-40g of it) because it’s fast-absorbing and gets to your muscles quicker for repair and recovery. Look under “ingredients” on the label to determine what type of protein is in your drink or bar.
3. As for carbs, look for a combination of fast-absorbing carbs, like dextrose, and slower-absorbing ones, like maltodextrin, to keep cortisol levels down and provide sustained energy without insulin spikes.
4. The longer the workout, the more important it is to consume protein and carbs during training. If you’re working out for less than a half hour or so, you can wait until after your workout; if you’re one of those guys who favors the marathon workout, get something in you midway through.
5. Drinks are a better choice during a workout than bars because they absorb faster; bars take longer for your body to digest. However, “a bar consumed at the beginning of a workout can give you a jumpstart on your post-workout nutrition,” says Stoppani.
6. The higher your sets and reps when lifting, the more critical it is to down protein and carbs. “The more volume performed the more you rely on muscle glycogen, so the more likely you are to use muscle for energy,” says Stoppani. For a short, heavy-weight/low-reps day, you can probably get away with waiting until after your workout to eat or drink.
7. Low-carb, high-protein bars—which are the current trend these days—are good, but you’ll need more carbs during a workout than those provide. Down a Gatorade with the bar to balance things out.
8. Keep the fat content as low as possible, as fat slows the absorption time of protein and carbs to the muscles.
9. Go with a bar or drink that your taste buds can tolerate—taste is as important as anything.