The Lowdown on Intra-Workout Nutrition: What you should really consume when you workout

We’ve all heard about BCAA, electrolytes, Vitargo/Karbolyn and other touted substances to put into your system throughout training to get that extra push or prevent muscle loss. But how do you know which one is right for you, your goals, training style and length of session?

​Not only can intra-workout nutrition help you perform better, but also help you get a handle on recovery early, nipping that soreness in the butt. 

Why is intra-workout nutrition important?
What you eat or drink during exercise is important and can be crucial under specific circumstances. We put importance on nutrition during exercise to stay hydrated, provide immediate fuel, boost performance, preserve muscle and improve recovery. For many people, hydration is the main focus of intra-workout nutrition but for others who are competitive or training for endurance/high intensity exercise there are other variables to consider

Priority #1: HYDRATION 
Its important to make sure you are drinking water throughout the time prior to training, but also during your workout too. We also want to look beyond just water as well. If you are working hard (as most of us do!), you sweat, and as a result lose electrolytes and water. Electrolytes are essential to muscle contractions, and for the best performance your electrolyte levels should be optimized. Having salt in our food away from training and focusing on potassium can help, but sometimes during our sessions adding some electrolytes into our water can make or break our workouts. You’ll know if you are lacking electrolytes – you might experience muscle cramps, abdominal cramps from having water on its own, feel faint or not be able to give it your all. 

Priority #2 – CARBS 
Eating carbs during exercise can provide an immediate fuel source. This helps boost performance and facilitate faster recovery. It keeps our stress hormone cortisol down, and beneficial hormones up. This being said, not everyone needs carbs DURING sessions, and pre/post-workout is more than enough fuel. That depends on how long it’s been since your last meal, your goals and the length/type of exercise you’re planning on.

If your training sessions are 60-90 mins
For training that’s 60min OR less, the main focus should be hydration. So make sure you bring plenty of water. If we look at session 60-90min, there might be some need to add intra-workout carbs in the form of liquid or gels. If you’re exercising in the heat and sweating a lot, regular, full sugar sports drinks may be useful with the carbs for energy, and electrolytes that help speed hydration and recovery. If you’re going to be competing or training again in less than eight hours, carbs during your workout in the form of a sports drink or juice or gel may jumpstart recovery before the next session. If you’re trying to gain maximum muscle, then including a carbohydrate drink during training could provide a small advantage. Finally, in a competition setting, it certainly won’t hurt to sip on a sports drink or carb drink with electrolytes during to ensure maximal hydration and energy supply.

If your training sessions are longer than 90 mins 
For training that is longer than 90 minutes, adding in sports drinks or carb sources can be a huge help. This could be a longer weight training session, endurance training or competition with back-to-back events. Usually beyond 90 minutes, the suggestion is that every hour you’ll want to consume 30-45 grams carbs depending on gender and level of exertion. Many endurance athletes prefer to drink water and eat fruit and other foods to supply their energy even on really long runs. Either approach is fine, as long as you ensure you’re getting enough carbohydrates and electrolytes, especially sodium. If training lasts longer than 2 hours, you could also consider adding in a BCAA/ EAA or 15g protein per hour to emphasize recovery.

If you are exercising intensely for longer than two hours, especially in the heat, do not rely on water alone. This will decrease your performance and your recovery. 

What about BCAAs?
BCAA or branched chained amino acids play an important role in muscle protein synthesis, and induces glucose uptake into cells. For people with low protein intake such as those with food intolerances or following a plant based diet, BCAA supplementation during training can promote muscle protein synthesis and increase muscle growth over time. Supplementation can also be used to prevent fatigue in novice athletes. However, for most of us, we get more than enough BCAA on a daily basis from our protein sources, and supplementation is unnecessary. 

The bottom line…
If you are coming into the gym for an hour class, don’t stress about needing any intra-workout nutrition like sports drinks, gels or fruit. Instead, focus on hydration and electrolytes. If your sessions are lasting longer, plan in advance and have an easily digested carb source and electrolyte ready to go. 

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