Eating around training - A food focused approach

Updated: Aug 30, 2019

Training creates the stimulus for results, but proper nutrition is essential to make the most of each session. Training sets the scene for your body to shuttle the nutrients in your food to your muscle. It’s not that brutal legs session alone that builds strong quads and glutes - it’s the training in addition to the nutrients, hydration and rest that triggers adaptation and leads to results.

So, cue the protein shakes, post training macro split and pre training supplement stacks, right? Here's the catch. Your nutrition isn't actually limited to your meals before and after you train! How you eat all day, every day matters more than how you eat around training. Sure, you can chase the final 5 to 10 % based on your nutrition before and after your session, and that's going to boost your performance, recovery and results. But before you focus on the minutia of your training protocol, make sure that you consistently master the basics first. For example, it’s more important to consume adequate protein each day than it is to fret about adding a protein shake and timing it to complement your final sets.

Let’s face it. Even the most meticulously planned pre and post training nutrition protocol can’t salvage an inconsistent and nutrient poor diet. What you eat and drink for the other 23 hours of each day will have a huge impact on your body, training and performance. Let's say that your aim is to put on size. Your pre and post training meals will certainly matter, but you won’t see optimal results unless you eat enough total food to support building tissue. And not just any calories, but calories from real, nutrient dense and bioavailable foods. Food quality matters for all of us, from recreational lifters to trained athletes. A diet that features ample processed, refined and pro-inflammatory foods is only going to hold you back and undercut your training.

For peak performance, your body needs to be properly hydrated, nourished and rested all of the time. Not just the day of your brutal squats session. It's one thing to enjoy a free meal and eat to satiety, or a late night for a celebration. A change in your routine or a single slip isn't going to derail your training and ruin your results. But it's another thing to entirely neglect your nutrition for days at a time on a repeat basis. There's no magic button that you can press after eating terribly from Friday to Sunday to reset things come Monday. If your food choices are mediocre, you are fuelling your body to settle for mediocre performance. If all you're looking for is a string of training sessions that loop in a pattern of 2 steps ahead, 1 or 2 steps back, that's fine. But it's far more exciting to set your standards around bigger goals and chase your potential.

Guiding principles

Before you complicate things, check that you have your basics set up first.

  1. Is my daily nutrition on point? Even the most meticulously planned training nutrition protocol can’t save you from a poor diet. Don’t fret the details too early if you haven't mastered the basics.

  2. Food first, supplements second. Don’t drink your calories if you can eat real food.

  3. Choose easily digestible foods that your make your belly happy. Your body needs to dedicate its resources to your training, not digestion and tummy troubles.

  4. Adding or increasing carbohydrates in your diet? Start here. Try boosting your carbohydrate at your pre - or post - training meal first.

  5. ‘Eat carbs around training’ is not a free pass to load up on highly processed, packaged or fast foods! Don’t let macros distract you from quality.

Food first

I focus on real food to support your training and recovery. Food supplies the natural materials that your body needs to rebuild, repair and recover.

While there is a role for supplements, this is secondary to food – that’s why it’s called a ‘supplement’! No doubt the health and fitness industry would like you to believe that results come in pill form, and that if you don’t have a shake on hand at all times then # doyouevenlift. But it’s mostly profit fuelled smoke and mirrors. Supplements can certainly enhance your results, but only if you already have a foundation in place. I've used different supplements at different times to support my training and daily nutrition, but I consistently put food first. I also rotate any supplement protocol so that I don’t develop intolerances or inefficiencies that undermine its value.

What's on my plate?

It depends. Your meals, food choices and nutrition protocols should frequently change, just like your body, your training and your circumstances.

My post training meals are not usually this pretty. Most of the time, it's a concoction of rice, beef, a small side of veggies, salt, spices, maybe a little cheese, sometimes a side of fruit. I'm more focused on eating than preparing a stunning plate.

Here's one of my current meals after training.

  • Beef steak or mince. Grass fed and usually a leaner cut (this is a BBQ steak). My favourite steak is a juicy T-bone or rump cut, but I prefer to keep fattier cuts of meat for another meal so that I can focus on fast digesting foods before and after training.

  • White rice. Rice is a great source of carbohydrate that tends to be easier to digest than gluten based food choices or other rice varieties that contain higher quantities of phytic acid. It's also simple to titrate up to increase your calories if you need to, and easy to eat even if you're lacking appetite. That said, I don't rely on rice for other nutrients; it's purely a source of energy from glucose that I can quickly supply to my body. In comparison, a food like potato is also carbohydrate dense, but it also supplies fibre and other nutrients too (eg, like potassium). I sometimes substitute rice cakes for rice mainly just based on preference.

  • A small side of vegetables. I eat plenty of vegetables in my other meals across the day, so a little less in one meal is fine. Again, this is mainly to promote faster digestion and absorption of the amino acids from the animal protein and the glucose from the rice to replenish muscle glycogen, promote an anabolic response and help my body build and recover. Roast caramelised pumpkin is a favourite to accompany rice.

If you are training hard don't be afraid to add more and monitor the results. Building your nutrients takes patience and analysis, and also depends on your training phase and goals.

If I just want to lose body fat, then does all this apply to me?

Absolutely! You lose body fat because you are in a caloric deficit (and because your body is hormonally balanced and able to oxidise its fat stores, but that’s another topic). If you’re in a caloric deficit and you don’t take steps to protect your muscle mass, your body will turn to that lean tissue first as a precious fuel source.

Training is a valuable tool to encourage your body to maintain its lean mass while in a caloric deficit. Fat loss may be your priority, but don't focus on that while you're lifting. I learned this lesson from physique athlete and coach John Meadows – training is a stimulus for building muscle, not a tool to create fat loss. Losing fat is about body recomposition, not just loss of body fat. You know that strong, lean shape you admire? That’s muscle mass! Use the opposite part of your day to prime your metabolism for fat loss, not your training session.

Ultimately, eat to complement your body and goals

There’s no single approach to 'optimal' nutrition. Optimal is different for each individual, for a particular purpose and at a certain time. You should eat to suit your body, training, goals and preferences. Trial different nutritional protocols and monitor how your body responds.