By James Brown & Sebastian Balcombe
Some days, you hit your workout feeling energized and powerful. You finish knowing you gave it your all, leaving nothing on the table.
Other days, you struggle immensely. You work as hard as you can, but you’re exhausted. You try to shake the fatigue and grogginess, but it feels like you’re just going through the motions and there’s nothing you can do to change how your body is responding. You desperately need some kind of edge to fight this struggle.
Why does this happen? Maybe you’ve researched some of the reasons why, but you still haven’t figured out how to combat that fatigue—until now.
No matter what type of training you’re passionate about, there are key nutritional strategies and supplements available to give your body its best chance to work out at the highest level possible. This two-part roadmap, broken down into stage one and stage two, is your plan for exactly what to do and how to do it.
Stage one is an optimally composed pre-workout solid meal, eaten two to three hours before you train. Stage two follows up with a liquid source of nutrients and performance-enhancing ingredients, consumed 60 minutes or less before exercise. Take these two steps and you’ll go into your workout with the energy, motivation and intensity you need.
The proper pre-workout nutrition puts your body in an optimal state to build and protect muscle, ensures you are optimally hydrated and your blood sugar remains steady, keeps the hormones cortisol and insulin in proper balance to reduce your body’s fat-storing, assists in mental recovery, and maintains your immune system.
STAGE ONE (two to three hours prior to training)
Eat your pre-workout meal two to three hours before you’re going to train, along with drinking 14 to 22 ounces of water. This allows enough time for your body to digest and absorb the nutrients, as well as the glucose and elevated hormone insulin in your blood to go back to baseline before your workout. You don’t want to go into your workout with elevated insulin, as insulin directly reduces your body’s ability to burn fat.
Your pre-workout meal should be light and comprised of protein and carbohydrates. How much protein and how many carbohydrates you should take in will vary, based on how long you train, what type of training you do, your fitness level and your current diet, so keep in mind that these numbers are not set in stone and you should experiment to find what works best for you.
You also need to be properly hydrated, which is the reason for the recommendation of 14 to 22 ounces of water with your meal. If your body is not in optimal fluid balance prior to exercise, expect to experience a big drop in performance and loss of energy, as repeatedly proven in sports nutrition research. Staying optimally hydrated is a simple step, but it’s an essential piece of the performance puzzle that’s all too often overlooked.
To start building your Stage One meal, follow this example to calculate your protein and carbohydrate needs:
1. Take your weight in pounds and divide it by 2.2 to get your weight in kilograms. Example: If an individual weighs 180 pounds, his or her weight is 81 kilograms.
2. To calculate your protein requirements, multiply your weight in kg by .15 grams for your low end of the range and by .25 grams for your high end of the range. Example: An 81 kg individual should take in between 12 and 20 grams in his or her pre-workout meal.
3. To calculate your carbohydrate requirements, multiply your weight in kg by .25 grams for the low end of the range and by 1 gram for the high end of your range. Example: An 81 kg individual should take in between 20 and 80 grams in his or her pre-workout meal.
In this example, an individual weighing 81 kg will likely find a sweet spot of 12 to 20 grams of protein and 20 to 80 grams of carbohydrates for his or her meal.
You’ll want to avoid fat as much as possible in this pre-workout meal, which has been shown to cause more fatigue and less cognitive arousal two to three hours after ingestion—another reason why the composition of your pre-workout meal is so crucial.
With protein, it’s simple: Consume lean, low-fat sources of protein that are high in tyrosine and other amino acids that promote stimulant neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters, such as adrenaline and dopamine, help you feel energized, alert and motivated to get your workout started.
Some examples of lean, high-tyrosine content foods include:
• Egg whites
• Cottage cheese
• Fish—tuna and cod are your best choices. Pink salmon is also acceptable but slightly higher in fat (approximately 5 grams of fat per 3 ounces).
• Seaweed, spirulina
• Chicken breast
• Game meat—bison, elk
With carbohydrates, you want to eat slow-digesting sources that are not high in fiber. While fiber is highly beneficial at other times during the day, taking in large amounts pre-workout is not optimal and can lead to gastrointestinal upset. Aim to take in carbohydrate sources that are high in amylose (slow-digesting starch) and low in amylopectine (fast-digesting starch).
There are significant differences in the carbohydrate make-up of food sources, even between foods that seem similar. For example, a standard white potato provides 20% amylose, while a red sweet potato has 32% or more of amylose—a big difference.
Some high amylose examples include:
• Potatoes, including yams, red sweet potatoes, white sweet potatoes
• Whole wheat bread
* Ground rolled oats
• Wheat pasta
• Rice, including long-grain brown rice, jasmine rice, wild rice blends
Tip: Do not rely on the terms “complex carbohydrate” versus “simple carbohydrate.” There are many so-called complex carbohydrates, such as maltodextrin, that are actually rapidly digested and absorbed and cause a quick insulin release similar to a simple sugar.
STAGE TWO (60 minutes or less before training)
In this stage, you’re giving your body one powerful extra round of nutrients and fatigue-fighting ingredients to provide energy and focus, bring the maximum amount of blood flow to your muscles for optimal nutrient delivery, and prime your body for recovery.
There are two paths you can take depending on your prior muscle and liver glycogen status, the type of training you do and how long your training session is. Try each path, regardless of which set of parameters you may fit into, and find out which works best for you. You know by now that there’s always variability among individuals so recommendations aren’t a one-size-fits-all. The first two points below, along with one variable listed as a tip, are most important and will supersede any of the training factors that follow. If you fit into either of these two groups, go straight to Path Two.
1. For those on a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet, in which your liver and muscle glycogen stores are low, take Path Two.
2. If you’re training first thing in the morning in a fasted state, take Path Two.
Tip: If you are sensitive to reactive hypoglycemia, where you feel lightheaded, dizzy and lethargic after ingesting a fast-absorbing carbohydrate, take Path Two, but move up your ingestion to within 10 minutes or less pre-workout.
Follow Path One if your training session comprises of:
• Weight lifting (resistance training) and is 1.5 hours or shorter in length.
PATH ONE Protocol: Take 7 to 10 grams of essential amino acids high in the branch chain amino acids (BCAAs), with the ergogenic ingredient supplement concoction outlined further down in this article, mixed into 8 to 16 ounces of water 60 minutes or less before your workouts.
Tip: You do not want to ingest a slow-digesting intact protein (any typical protein powder) at this point, as that takes time to digest and is filled with non-essential amino acids. Make sure to get a full spectrum of all essential amino acids, not just the branch chain amino acids.
Your best choices for amino acids are:
• Free-form essential amino acids
• Whey or casein protein hydrolysate, containing 50% or more di- and tripeptides. (If you do not see the percent of di- and tripeptides on the label, don’t waste your money.)
• If you must drink a regular intact whey protein shake, go with whey protein isolate, which is thin and easy to digest.
Tip: Don’t be confused by the percent of the proteins hydrolysis versus the percent of actual di- and tripeptide content. For example, some protein hydrolysates state 90 to 100 percent hydrolyzed. This does not tell us what percentage of it is compromised of the beneficial rapidly absorbed di-and tripeptides, which is what you’re looking for.
Strictly based off research, it’s unlikely that ingesting carbs in this time frame is going to have a significant change in your performance. But we know research and real-world results don’t always perfectly line up, so give Path Two a try and see if you notice an improvement.
Follow Path Two if your training session comprises of:
• Weight lifting (resistance training) and is 1.5 hours or longer
• High-intensity intermittent/sports specific 30 minutes or longer
• Endurance training 60-90 minutes or longer
• High-intensity interval training (HIIT)
PATH TWO Protocol: This path includes a fast-digesting carbohydrate in addition to your peptide/amino acid/ergogenic concoction outlined in Path One. Take an additional 10 to 15 grams of a fast-digesting carbohydrate 30 minutes prior to your workout, mixed in with your pre-workout amino acid and ergogenic concoction.
Examples of fast-digesting carbohydrates include dextrose, maltodextrin and waxi maize starch. Some of these carbohydrates may be included in your pre-workout product. If they aren’t, there are carbohydrate powders at your local supermarket, including Gatorade and others, that contain dextrose and/or maltodextrin and dextrose.
Here’s an example of an optimal ergogenic ingredient concoction to be mixed in with your personalized amino acid and carbohydrates concoction from above and taken 60 minutes or less prior to training. Experiment with the timing ingesting this cocktail; you likely will find 20 to 30 minutes prior to training is optimal.
This mixture of the amino acid citrulline and malic acid can help increase your performance in high-intensity exercise, as well as longer endurance-training protocols. Other key benefits include increased nitric oxide (NO) and blood flow enhancement. The most recent research shows it can even decrease muscle soreness by 40 percent at 24 hours and 48 hours following exercise.
Optimal pre-workout dosing: 3 to 4 grams. Most of the research shows 6 to 8 grams per day is optimal, split into two doses. Timing your 3 to 4 grams pre-workout means the citrulline and malic acid will be circulating in your body, fighting off fatigue-causing ammonia build-up, allowing you to push harder for longer. Taking higher doses pre-workout brings about stomach upset, so do your best to stick in the 3 to 4 gram range for your pre-workout dose, instead of taking 6 to 8 grams all at once and having to run to the bathroom.
Ashwagandha Root & Leaf Extract (Sensoril)
Supports neurological and immune system recovery post exercise, largely through helping control and reduce cortisol levels—important areas that are often overlooked in exercise performance and recovery. In addition, it’s shown in research to support the body against stress and anxiety.
Optimal pre-workout dosing: 100 to 250 mg
Acetyl-L-Carnitine & Choline Bitartrate
Research shows diminished levels of the neurotransmitter actylcholine could be a contributing factor in muscle fatigue and poor workout performance. Acetyl-L-Carninte and choline provide the two major building blocks to insure optimal levels of actylcholine in our bodies.
Optimal pre-workout dosing: 500 to 1000 mg of each
The second most research-backed ingredient in sports nutrition, following creatine. Repeatedly shown in research to delay muscular fatigue by fighting against our muscles’ drop in pH (becoming more acidic) during exercise.
Optimal pre-workout dosing: 1.6 to 2 grams
The most effective and research-backed ingredient in sports nutrition to increase strength, power and lean body mass.
Optimal pre-workout dosing: 2 to 3 grams
Contains a methyl component that our bodies use to synthesize a substance called SAM-e. SAM-e is used to make both adrenaline and dopamine to support and maximize mental and physical stimulation, bringing about increased force and power production. Additionally, TMG is shown to protect cells from dehydration by increasing water retention. It’s an ingredient that has strength and power benefits, along with powerful endurance and hydration benefits.
Optimal pre-workout dosing: 1 to 2 grams
Pre-workout energy stimulant that helps blunt pain related to exercise. To get the most out of your caffeinated pre-workout, avoid consuming caffeine at other times in the day and do your best to skip ingesting caffeine on non-training days. This will help you stay sensitive to the energy stimulation from your pre-workout caffeine, giving you the largest energy kick when you need it most.
Optimal pre-workout dosing: 200 to 350mg
You’re on a mission. You know it’s going to take hard work to reach your goals, and you know the best things in life never come easy. You have to earn it—there aren’t any miracle pills or shortcuts—but there are strategies and tools that can have a big, positive impact on your progress and performance. We are on this mission with you, fully committed and dedicated to sharing the knowledge, strategies and tools that will give you the edge you need to fight against your challenges, train with passion and achieve your fitness goals.
If you follow both the timing and the nutrient composition of these research-backed suggestions, you’ll greatly reduce—and often eliminate—the daily battle you fight against low energy and mental fatigue.