By Adam Biseck
Chances are if you find yourself reading this article you have already read its primer “Making Your Around-the-Workout Nutrition Worth It.” If not, you may want to take a gander at it to bring you up to speed as the rhetoric to come is for the advanced. I will try not to get too technical, however, if you’re in the 95 plus percentile of advanced lifters who this speaks to your fluency is probably right on par. I also feel it’s important to note that my narrative is directed at those wishing to change their body composition through training, not necessary for those trying to increase sports performance. Now, before I dive deeper into peri-workout nutrition I want to outline some quick pre-requisite-like notes below from the article that preceded the current.
-For aesthetic-based athletes total calories and protein consumed are the #1 areas of focus
-Once the above bullet point is catered to a Protein Pacing strategy of consuming 20-40 grams of a high-quality protein source every ~3hr will maximize your daily muscle building potential
-Around the workout nutrition (aka, peri-workout) is then a function of your meal timing
-When a meal falls near, or even during, your workout window digestibility becomes integral
For the vast majority of weight trainers getting in the correct amount of calories and protein during the day, alongside implementing a relatively consistent protein pacing strategy will help them meet any aesthetic-based goal they would ever pursue. However, for the 95 plus percentile of advanced, battle-tested trainees that partake in higher volume weight training and are reaching closer to their genetic limits every little advantage needs to be tended to; this is a case for optimizing peri- and, more so, intra-workout nutrition. It is important to note that as we venture into this territory research becomes a bit blurry and anecdote married with an ample understanding of nutrition and human physiology takes the driver seat. Research has only come so far in this area and there are far too many contexts that have not been explored. With that being said hopefully I have garnered a bit of your trust and you can jive with the relatively articulate banter to follow.
Trying to gain size?
If you’re “bulking up” strategically increasing calories over time is the goal. With increasing food consumption comes a larger gastrointestinal burden and with eating every ~3hr many find it difficult to get in calories via whole-food options. This is one area where peri-, and more specifically, intra-workout nutrition can aid in the process.
For pre- and post-workout meals that fall closer to your workout (within ~1hr) much more easily digestible foods are desired, and possibly even liquid nutrition. This is a “two birds with one stone” type of situation where we can take out the digestive load of the larger daily whole-food meals by placing a bulk of more readily absorbed, liquid calories during this time, and aid in recovery at a theoretically greater time of need.
Whether your workout falls smack dab at a designated meal time or not your intra-workout concoction can serve as a vehicle to take up some of your total protein and calories for the day. Not only that, but even if it’s not a designated meal time a mix of essential amino acids and carbohydrates can serve to create an anti-catabolic, muscle protein breakdown dampening effect (ISSN) whilst also chipping away at total calories.
Dropping Body Fat your main goal?
Intra-workout nutrition during a “cut,” or period of caloric deficit really serves to do the same thing as it would otherwise; facilitate hydration, maintain or increase performance, dampen muscle protein breakdown, and improve recovery. However, the only time it seems advisable to have a more appreciable amount of calories and carbohydrates is if your workout falls at a designated mealtime. If you have meals paced evenly around your workout window simply having ample fluid may be enough, and the addition of amino acids and electrolytes may also be warranted for recovery. Placing a paramount emphasis on intra-workout nutrition during a “dieting” phase is, practically speaking, limited to those who are advanced, higher volume weight trainers. The aforementioned principles of total food and timing weigh heaviest in important here, while intra-workout nutrition will serve mostly to hydrate and dampen muscle breakdown for better recovery.
So, what should go into your Intra-Workout shake?
Protein: We know getting in 10-12 grams of Essential Amino Acids (EAAs) containing 1-3 grams of Leucine is enough to create a muscle protein synthetic (MPS) effect (ISSN). Thus, getting in a free-form amino acid supplement of that amount or a whole protein powder such as Whey Isolate or Whey/Casein Hydrosylate is warranted. If choosing the latter, a ~20+ gram serving is a sensible amount and can be tempered to meet your daily needs.
Carbohydrates: The type and amount of carbohydrates you choose for your intra-workout shake will be based on your budget, tolerance, and your current goal (i.e. a dieting phase may exclude carbohydrate inclusion). Cheaper forms of carbohydrate such as dextrose, as found in Gatorade, and maltodextrin are plausible options, but can cause GI distress for some. In the case, more refined commercial supplements such as Highly Branched Cyclic Dextrins (HBCD’s), Karbolyn, and Vitargo may be used. I wont go into the nuances of molecular weight and osmolatlity here, for the purpose of this article these latter carb sources are more easily digested and well-tolerated.
As far as the amount of carbohydrate there is limited data as to how much is warranted for resistance training, the bulk of the research here has been done in the endurance arena. However, most studies in have used a 6-8% solution of carbohydrate. I will help with the math here, that is for every 100 milliliters of water you would add in 6-8 grams of carbs. In practice, you would take the desired amount of carbohydrate you want to add in and then divide it by .06-.08. This doesn’t mean that you need to take in that much but would rather serve as a governor, a practical upper limit for carbohydrate concentration of your shake. For example, if you are tossing in 30 grams of carbs you would want 375-500ml of water (30/.06=500, 30/.08=375).
Electrolytes/Minerals: As far as intra-workout nutrition is concerned the addition of electrolytes/minerals is a bonus but by no means a necessity. These can certainly be consumed via your whole-food meals and even through a multivitamin/mineral supplement. Minerals such as sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium, and calcium for instance aid in muscle contraction, fluid balance, enzymatic processes, and much more. For the most part, many pre-designed intra-workout, amino acid, and even carbohydrate powders will already be fortified with appropriate amounts of these minerals.
Honorable Mentions: After water, protein, carbohydrates, and to a lesser degree, electrolytes are taken in you’re not left with much more that may be worthwhile. Due to multiple factors uptake of performance aiding substances like L-Carnitine and Creatine may be increased and warranted at this time (Stevenson). Caffeine can also facilitate greater restoration of glycogen (ISSN). And while it may seem intuitive to take in anti-oxidants such as Vit C at this time it may not be advisable as the exercise-induced oxidation caused by training may have a positive hormetic effect that facilitates better adaptation to resistance training (Gomez)(Stevenson).
Take Home Message
There you have it, more or less the entirety of what your during-workout fluid could or should consist of. While peri- and intra-workout nutrition strategies can serve many people to improve their recovery, muscle-building, and performance goals, total calorie and protein consumption paired with evenly spaced, or paced, meals will be sufficient for the greater majority. More nuanced intra-workout nutrition strategies have very limited, yet highly warranted contexts when it comes to aesthetic-based training. For those who have trained for years, have a high frequency and volume of training, or are truly closing on their genetic potential these strategies can have a massively positive impact. When it comes down to it, however, I think it is important to understand that enlisting a peri- or intra-workout shake/strategy will have a relatively neutral effect at the least, and a positive effect at the most. This should help give you some perspective if you’re truly struggling to figure out what and/or if you should be sloshing down a special potion around your workout.
Campbell, B., Kreider, R. B., Ziegenfuss, T., Bounty, P. L., Roberts, M., Burke, D., … Antonio, J. (2017). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14, 20.
Gomez-Cabrera MC, Ristow M, and Vina J. Antioxidant supplements in exercise: worse than useless? American Journal of Physiology, Endocrinology, and Metabolism. (2012) 15:302(4); E476-7; author reply E478-9
Kerksick1, C., Harvey3, T., Stout1, J., Campbell4, B., Wilborn5, C., Kreider6, R., … Antonio12, J. (2017). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: Nutrient timing. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14, 33.
Stevenson, S. W. (2018). Be Your Own Bodybuilding Coach.