How to Fuel Your Brain: Pre and Post Workout

Knowing what to eat before and after a workout can sometimes be tricky. The right choices should prepare your brain and nervous system for a taxing stimulus before, and to help aid in the growth and recovery process after. While the answers aren’t perfectly black and white, there are ideal foods that have their place and benefit. Read on to learn what they are, and why!

Pre-Workout Nutrition:
When it comes to the mental side of workout preparation, a lot of time is spent talking about stimulants and other supplements to help you “turn it on.” While those products certainly have their place and benefit, we never want to overlook the importance of our pre-workout meal to fuel your brain.

The right choices in your pre-workout meal can prepare your brain and nervous system for a taxing stimulus, but what qualifies as the right choices? The late Charles Poliquin (world-renowned trainer of over 800 Olympic athletes) spent a lot of time discussing this topic. The goal with workout preparation should be to facilitate the availability of two neurotransmitters in your body: dopamine and acetylcholine. Dopamine is referred to as the pleasure chemical. When we do something enjoyable, have delicious food, et cetera, dopamine positively reinforces the behavior. But dopamine is also what gives us our sense of drive. I’m not talking about a jittery feeling that you get from a double dose of caffeine. I’m referring to a steady motivation to engage, initiate, and achieve.

Acetylcholine, on the other hand, is essentially a messenger that carries the signal between the brain and a muscle. Having plenty of acetylcholine in your body will ensure strong muscular contraction and recruitment to optimize performance and the “mind-muscle connection.” So, what foods maximize the availability of these two chemicals in the body? Thankfully, they are both readily available in dairy products, red meat, oils, chicken, nuts, fish, or even in something like a Lean Body Shake. Nuts like almonds, pistachios, or walnuts along with cheeses make for one of my personal favorite pre-workout snacks. If you plan to cook meat for your pre-workout meal, try adding a handful of nuts and some oil to the pan. It’s a quick, easy, and tasty combo.

Lastly, something I like to do when I want some pre-workout caffeine is to add some coconut oil and part of a Lean Body RTD to a cup of coffee. This will allow you to have some healthy fats and protein as well as a dose of dopamine and acetylcholine even closer to your workout.

Did you notice that the foods I mentioned are concentrated sources of fat and protein? But what about carbs?

Post Workout Nutrition
The usual conversation about post-workout foods often involves the “anabolic window.” There is currently some debate about this window and how big it really is. Whether it’s actually thirty minutes or three hours, this is an ideal time to kickstart the growth and recovery process. Right after your workout is the best time to have a high carb meal! A large amount of carbs will provoke a massive insulin response, which does two major things important to this post-workout discussion.

First, insulin is anabolic. Insulin causes your body to soak up sugars that replenish the glycogen stores that were depleted during your workout, as well as to absorb essential amino acids that are used for protein synthesis. Creating an insulin response after your workout will make sure that your cells have all the necessary materials to rebuild and grow. But insulin does something else that is important in this context. Insulin greatly increases the brain’s absorption of the materials that are required to make serotonin. Serotonin is another neurotransmitter that regulates mood, memory, and sleep. A surplus of serotonin will help to transition your nervous system from a state of excitement (due to the workout) to a state of calm relaxation. Note to self: You are not in an anabolic state when you’re excited or adrenalized! You must first be in a rest/digest mode to support anabolic pathways, and the sooner you make this transition, the better.

After finishing a hard workout, look to have meals that include pasta, white rice, spaghetti, quinoa, bread, or other starches. And, if you have trouble eating right away after a workout, try having a glass of juice. The simple carbs in juice can be a quick way to initiate the transition mentioned above, but eat when you can!

Tying Things Together
If you sum up the points from above, it essentially sounds like you should have your fats and proteins pre-workout and your carbohydrates post-workout. Exactly. But it doesn’t have to be perfectly black and white. Experiment! For instance, if you’re carb sensitive, you definitely would want to avoid large carbohydrate meals before a workout, since it may make you sleepy or lethargic. But some people feel better with a small amount of carbs pre-workout. The summary is, make your pre-workout meals predominantly protein and fats, and your post-workout meals predominantly carbs. This will fuel your brain, nervous system and support muscle recovery all at once. Train smart!


About the Author:
Brett Deters is the son of former editor-in-chief of Weider publications, Dr. Tom Deters. Brett has been training and living a fit lifestyle under the tutelage of his father for over a decade.  Brett has been published in scientific peer reviewed journals and will begin medical school in 2020.

Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only and is not meant as medical advice, nor is it to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Please consult your physician before starting or changing your diet or exercise program. Any use of this information is at the sole discretion and responsibility of the user.

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