What to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat can be a source of confusion for many people. There are many diets that claim to increase your health and energy, and eating advice experts who claim to have all the answers to your individual dietary troubles. From intermittent fasting to no-carb dieting, it can be hard to discern what actually is beneficial to eat and why.
The solution to this challenge, as well as to most other matters, is to try out different ways of eating and see how you feel. If you feel great when fasting, then fasting is probably a good addition to your lifestyle. If you feel good when eating a low-fat diet, then a low-fat diet is most likely a good form of dieting to do for you.
Intra-workout nutrition is another example of a “see for yourself” kind of area of fitness. The science generally says that easily digestible carbohydrates are beneficial to consume intra-workout if your workouts last longer than 60 minutes. Most people are going to find this to be true, but there will also be some people who find that either they need more carbs or have to avoid any food entirely during their training.
For most people, carbohydrates have a positive influence on energy levels, mood, and performance during workouts. Any food eaten during a workout should be comprised mostly of low volume carbohydrates, no fat, and a minimal amount of protein. The most effective, science-based intra-workout snack should consist of 20-30 grams of carbs, electrolytes, and 4-6 grams of essential amino acids.
How Different Foods Affect Your Performance
The kind of food you eat has an effect on your performance during workouts. A light dose of carbs is going to have a very different effect than a protein heavy meal like steak or chicken breast that is going to take a lot of energy to digest.
During training, you should avoid any high volume foods that contain macros other than carbohydrates and a small amount of protein. Even protein is not necessary during a workout unless your workouts last for more than 2-3 hours at which point the efficiency of your training may need evaluation.
When eating carbohydrates, your insulin levels increase which lowers your levels of cortisol. Cortisol is a catabolic hormone and increases the rate of muscle protein breakdown. To build muscle, the rate of protein synthesis needs to be higher than the rate of muscle protein breakdown, so lowering cortisol by consuming carbs can have a positive effect on making gains.
This study found that men who consumed carbohydrates and essential amino acids during resistance training had cortisol levels that were 112% lower than men who did not consume anything during training.
The study also found that while those who did not consume any intra-workout food gained 4.5 pounds of muscle after 12 weeks of resistance training, those that consumed carbohydrates and essential amino acids during the workout gained about 9 pounds of muscle, almost double the amount of the group not taking any intra-workout nutrition.
The Best Intra-Workout Nutrition for Maximizing Results
During a workout, you should only eat proteins and carbs that are mainly low volume. Eating high volume foods during a workout can rob energy from your lifts, slow you down, and speed up the digestive system which is not ideal for lifting at an optimal level of intensity.
The best type of carbohydrate to eat during a workout is cluster dextrin, a synthetic super-carbohydrate. The advantage of eating cluster dextrin during a workout is that it delivers an increase in energy without requiring any energy to digest. Cluster dextrin also does not spike your insulin, but rather causes a gradual increase which offsets cortisol, replenishes glycogen, and keeps you in an anabolic state throughout your training session.
For electrolytes, gatorade is a great source. Gatorade usually supplies around 160mg of sodium and 45mg of potassium per 1 serving. The drawbacks to gatorade are that it has more sugar than you need as well as other chemicals that are associated with adverse effects on health.
Alternatives to gatorade include spinach powder, kale powder, and coconut powder since they all contain high amounts of electrolytes without the added chemicals and sugars in gatorade. Among these three, coconut powder has the highest concentration of the 5 primary electrolytes (sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and phosphorous).
The third component of an effective intra-workout shake or meal is essential amino acids. Essential amino acids are amino acids which the body is not capable of producing on its own. These are isoleucine, histidine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, valine, and tryptophan. It’s best to get them all in one place, such as from this supplement, and take 4-6 grams along with the carbohydrate source and electrolytes midway through your training.
Do You Need To Consume Intra-Workout Carbs?
While you can benefit from a small amount of easily-digestible carbohydrates, electrolytes, and essential amino acids, there is not a definitive need to consume anything during your workouts. Unless you are working out for more than 3 hours, you will be completely fine with just a pre-workout and post-workout meal.
If you workout for less than 60 minutes, then intra-workout nutrition does not have much benefit at all since the benefit from the extra carbs during the workout is if you are training for more than an hour and are depleting your glycogen stores while elevating cortisol. Once the glycogen stores in your muscles are spent, your performance will not be optimal so getting a quick carb hit in will overall facilitate building muscle.
For anyone who is cutting and eating in a caloric deficit, intra-workouts are more advantageous because carb intake will already be low and a catabolic state is more likely to occur from the cortisol response to working out. Ultimately, everyone who works out at a moderate to high intensity can benefit from optimal intra-workout nutrition but it is not needed to build muscle.
Overall, eating during your workout can help build muscle. If your workouts are more than an hour long, lowering the cortisol increase from training by consuming carbohydrates will help you stay in an anabolic state.
Electrolytes and essential amino acids are also helpful and both can contribute to better performance, training recovery, and results. For electrolytes, good sources are spinach, kale, and coconut powder, or gatorade if you want to get both your carbs and electrolytes in the same place.
The best carbohydrate to take intra-workout is cluster dextrin and the best source of essential amino acids is a supplement that contains all of them together.
For more on diet and training, such as how nasal breathing can improve performance in the gym and how to stay motivated to workout at home, click here.