How to Care for Yourself Before & After Training
Notice how the title isn’t “How to Have Your Best Training Sessions Ever!” If I were better at the internet, that would be a more marketing optimized title. (Random fact: In my previous life I was a Marketing Manager. I wore suits, had a Marriott Rewards card, and a lot of airline miles.) The truth is, not all of your training sessions are going to be great. And that is ok. Training is sometimes just showing up for yourself (whether that’s at the gym, taking the dog for a walk, or taking care of that one nagging task you’ve been putting off to the point of feeling anxiety and guilt every time you think about it.)
Training is acknowledging where you are today and taking steps (of any size) toward where you want to be. It is investing in future you. Sometimes there is extra cash lying around to save up. Some days the car needs new brakes, the dog ate a rubber band, and you just bought a new bed. (Does this sound oddly specific and personal? It is.) Some days you’ve got more to give, other days there isn’t as much.
I invite you to look at training as a spectrum rather than black and white. (I’d argue these skills could be applied to most things in life, but that is out of my scope.) Get above the trees and see the whole forest rather than getting lost in the details of each individual tree. It can take years to figure out the “Best way” to train. But once you find that, you’ll change. Take it bird by bird, session by session, and keep you future self in mind.
Eat to Fuel Your Body
(Please note this is general nutrition advice for beginners. For more specific advice or if you are recovering from disordered eating, please consult a dietician or therapist.)
There are three macronutrients that make up every kind of food. Carbohydrates (our body’s primary fuel source), Protein (our body’s bricks and building materials), and Fats (our body’s hormone and nervous system regulators). Carbs digest the most quickly, followed by proteins, and fats are last to be absorbed by the body and leave our digestive system. Consuming only carbs is going to leave us hungry and consuming only fats is going to leave us feeling sluggish and weighed down.
In general, you want to consume 15-25 grams of protein and 30-45 grams of carbohydrates 1-2 hours before your workout. Avoid fats 1-2 hours before your workout, (see almonds, peanut butter, etc.) as they can sit in your stomach and leave you feeling nauseous or weighted down while your body is working hard. The reason for this is that when you are using your muscles, blood supply deviates from the digestive system to the muscles to replenish glycogen and keep you working. Once activity dies down, digestion returns to normal.
How are you feeling today? Taking an honest mental inventory of where you’re at can help you set expectations for the session. Feeling low energy? Budget more time to warm up. Often times showing up and starting a warmup routine will increase energy. If it doesn’t then you know that you may need to adjust your plan for the day. 9/10 times taking extra time to warm up and get in my body is enough to get me going. But on the days where it isn’t there, I have set the expectation and planned ahead to adjust. This way I don’t feel like I am letting myself down or like I failed (a trap I’m personally susceptible to.)
If you get through your warmup and you still aren’t feeling it, adjust your workout using the Proportion Method (a method that may already exist but I just made up this poor substitute. Got a better name? Comment below.) Feeling 70% good? Do 70% effort. Start with simpler movements, then build to a place that feels challenging for today.
Create an Intention or Goal for Your Session
Once you’ve assessed the landscape, set a realistic goal for your session. Maybe you’ve been training for a 1RM on a lift you’ve been building for awhile. If the gym is new to you, maybe it’s trying out a new piece of equipment or the next progression of an exercise. Or, if external goals aren’t working for you, a goal could be as simple as breathing between reps, staying more present during your session (not checking your phone or the clock is a good way to do this.), or introducing yourself to a familiar face. Do one small thing to move your training and time in the gym forward. Success isn’t always PR’s and linear progress.
Gather Your Materials
For folks newer to lifting (or new to trying anything in general) it can be overwhelming to navigate a new space. It is completely understandable to feel as though people looking at you or are waiting for you to move so they can take your space. Feeling self conscious when we are not confident is normal. One thing I can assure you is that most people don’t notice or care what you’re doing in the gym. They’re there to do their work and get out. If you are in the rare situation where someone is actually watching you, it could be because they are curious. The simple question of, “Can I help you?” weeds out curious peer from straight up asshole. Most of the time it is someone that is curious or wants to help. If they’re an asshole, that question will be enough to make them walk away and move on.
So how can you feel more confident in a new space? Take the time to gather your materials and map out your session. This 5-minute step can be a huge anchor for easing anxiety and helping you own your space. Know what you need before you head to the gym. Before you warm up, walk around and take note where all of your equipment is.
What if my equipment gets stolen?
It happens. Again, most people mean well. They probably didn’t know you were using it. These lines have helped me in the past:
When someone takes your equipment, ask them, “Hey I was using this too. Did you want to work in with me?”
Most people will apologize and either come back later or work in with you. Problem solved!
If they say “No” That doesn’t mean you have to back down. Say, “Ok. I’ll just finish up here then you can use it.”
Eat to Fuel Your Body Part Deux
Post workout, the body wants to replenish what was lost. This is why we can feel so hungry after training, especially when we first start. A good way to curb this before it starts to feel like we haven’t eaten in three days is to eat 15-25 grams of protein and 30-45 grams of carbohydrates within 30 minutes of completing our workout. This is enough to replenish what was used during training and tide you over until you can sit down and have a full meal.
Reflect On Your Session
What did you learn? What did you accomplish? What can go better next time? I suggest keeping a small journal with what you did each session as well as these “Soft” metrics to look back on later. In times where we feel demotivated or like we are regressing, looking back is always a great tool to help us out of a training rut.
Exercise is a stressor on our body. Stress isn’t always bad, as it facilitates change. However, our body doesn’t know the difference between stress caused from a looming deadline at work versus a hard session in the gym. In order for our body to rebuild and adapt, rest and recovery need to be taken seriously.
If you are new to exercise or aren’t sure where to start, introduce new stimuli gradually (30 minutes - an hour at a time once or twice a week.) When you first start exercising or introduce a new movement to your routine, you may feel sore for 1-3 days after. This is normal, and it is ok to continue exercising while sore. In fact, movement is one of the best ways to ease soreness. Another helpful tool is the epsom salt bath. Epsom salts break down into magnesium and sulfate. When you soak in these minerals, they enter your body through the skin, which helps relax muscles and calm stiff joints.
Helpful Supplements (That Are Proven by Science)
This isn’t necessarily an after training item nor is it as important as basic nutrition. Get the basics down first before you use time and energy on supplements. However, I am asked about supplements often and this seems like a good place to include the information.
A lot of people make a lot of money peddling supplements that don’t work. Here is a list of what I have used personally and what is proven to work in published journals. This is not meant to be advice for what you should take nor is it an exhaustive list of what is available (and proven to work).
Whether it is preworkout (powder caffeine that works within 10-30 minutes of taking it) or coffee (slower digesting and more gradually released), caffeine is proven to improve focus and performance in the gym. Preworkout is too intense for me personally (though there is nothing wrong with taking it), but a cup of coffee will do just fine. If using preworkout, look for a brand with the NSF label. This means it is certified for sport and the ingredients don’t contain any crazy vasodilator or other ingredient you may want to avoid beyond your caffeine fix.
Creatine is proven to increase lean muscle mass. I’ll leave it at that. If you want a summary of the metabolic systems and the “why?” behind this, comment below and I’ll hook you up. Basically it encourages your muscles to retain water, carbohydrates, and creatine. Fuller muscles = heavier and bigger muscles.
When you lift heavy, you need a lot more protein than what’s recommended on nutrition labels. To get my pre and post workout protein, I use protein powders mixed with a simple carbohydrate (like orange juice or gatorade powder). Whey protein isolate is the most common high quality protein. However, if you’re lactose intolerant or vegan, plant based proteins (like Vega) will get the job done. I recommend Optimum Nutrition for whey and Vega for plant-based protein.
If you eat a lot of wild caught fish, you could skip this one. Fish oil helps with inflammation. Inflammation isn’t always bad, is it is an indication that our muscles are adapting and growing. However if your blood panel has lower Vitamin D levels, you don’t get enough fish, or you’re feeling particularly creaky before warmups, fish oil can help. Be sure to get quality fish oil. Cold pressed, wild caught. I use Krill oil, but there are many out there.
If you eat a lot of dark, leafy greens, you could skip this one. I recently started taking it to help me manage stress. Magnesium is a muscle relaxer and can have a calming effect to help with recovery. This is low on the totem pole, but worth mentioning. Be careful to start magnesium slowly and space it out over the day. In addition to being a muscle relaxer, it is also a stool softener. Everyone reacts a bit differently.
Thanks for reading! Let me know if you have any strategies that have worked for you or if you have any questions in the comments below.