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Your Ultimate Guide to Pre and Post Workout Nutrition

As a Sports Nutritionist, the question often posed to me is “what should I be eating before and after my workouts?”  This is a great question because it is important to fuel your body with the right nutrients to get the most out of your workout.  In this post, I will tell you why pre- and post-workout nutrition is a key factor in fitness goal achievement and how pre-exercise meals differ from post-exercise meals.

All your hard work in the gym or a workout or in any sport is meaningless if you don’t have proper pre- and post-workout nutrition.

Before we get into the specifics of what to eat in a pre- and post-workout meal, let’s break down the macronutrients that make up an individual’s diet. 

Let's break it down.

Variety of micro nutrients
Whole Foods

Macronutrients are essential nutrients needed in large amounts by the body. Carbohydrates are one of the most well-known macronutrients, providing energy to keep us going throughout the day and fueling our brain.

Despite their bad rap in fad diets, carbs are crucial for our bodies, making up 50-65% of our diet. Choosing the right kinds of carbs is key for a healthy diet.

Protein is another vital macronutrient, providing energy and aiding in muscle repair and essential functions like oxygen transport. Balancing protein intake from both animal and plant sources ensures we get all the necessary amino acids.

Fat, or lipids, also play a crucial role, lining our organs and serving as a protective layer. Healthy fats from sources like avocados are important, but it's essential to limit unhealthy fats like trans fats. Fat should make up around 20-35% of our diet for optimal health.

How Important Is It To Have A Pre-Workout Meal?

What you eat before a workout determines whether or not you will have the energy to achieve your greatest potential during each session. It can make a big effect in getting a extra couple reps, or increasing the amount of weight during your lifts.

Pre-workout nutrition is very underrated.

Eating before training fuels your body for ideal performance. Failing to eat before you work out means you are missing a huge opportunity to keep your body in an anabolic (muscle-building) state.

By paying special attention to nutrition before you train, you can also maximize how much of your food is used to build lean mass, and minimize how much of it becomes body fat.

What To Eat Before A Workout

Eating the right foods before a workout makes all the difference. A pre-workout meal should increase glycogen levels in the body and help prevent catabolism.

Protein is made up of individual amino acids. These are the building blocks of muscle, help prevent catabolism, and fight off hunger cravings. Calories from carbohydrates affect your blood-sugar levels, giving you a quick burst of energy if they are simple and quick-digesting, and lasting energy if they are more complex. Fats help maintain optimal hormone levels and provide slow-burning fuel for longer sessions.

Your pre-workout fuel should be composed of medium- to fast-digesting proteins and slower-digesting carbs.

Meal option before a workout
Pre workout meal

How Much Time Should There Be Between Your Pre-Workout Meal And Your Workout?

Pre-workout meal timing is an important piece of the picture. For most people, the perfect time for a pre-workout snack or meal is 1-2 hours before training. This depends on your metabolism, how big the meal is, and perhaps what type of exercise you're doing. This provides the perfect opportunity to feed your muscles strategically while you work out. During resistance exercise, your muscles will fill or "pump up" with blood and become extremely sensitive to the nutrients you've consumed.

What Foods Should You Eat While Working Out?

Eating mid-workout doesn't make much sense, unless you are an ultra runner. It's not only because it's inconvenient, but also because your body would expend energy digesting food when it should be focused on the workout.

A proper pre-workout nutrition plan can take care of all of this. By timing the pre-workout meal appropriately, you should already have these essential macronutrients for growth entering your bloodstream when you walk into the gym, ready to feed those hungry muscles. If this is the case, then all you need during your session is water.

What To Drink During Your Workout?

If your workout lasts longer than ninety minutes, consider having something to drink during it to keep your energy up and maintain steady blood sugar levels.

During long workouts, your body might start breaking down muscle tissue, which is why BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids) are popular to drink while exercising. They provide essential amino acids and energy instantly without needing digestion, preventing your body from diverting blood to your digestive tract. Plus, they're usually low or no calories.

While eating during a workout isn't necessary if your pre-workout meal was adequate, there's no harm in having a shake or amino acids if your stomach can handle it. This is especially useful for longer, intense training sessions.

The Importance Of Post-Workout Nutrition

If you want the best results, proper post-workout nutrition is essential. Refueling your body after a workout is one of the most important parts of building muscle and recovering.

If you don't eat the right foods after training, or you don't eat them at the right time, your performance the next time will suffer, your gains will not be as good as they could be, and you could end up losing mass along the way. Plus, you're setting yourself up for extra soreness—not fun.

The most important reason to eat something after you work out is to elicit an insulin response. Insulin is a highly anabolic hormone, and spiking it halts protein breakdown and helps encourage protein synthesis.

Skipping this meal means you will miss out on these anabolic effects. You will only encourage further protein breakdown, which over time leads to a loss of mass.

To put it simply: Eating after you work out helps builds muscle and end protein breakdown for better recovery.

What To Eat Or Drink Immediately After Exercise or Workout

After intense training, your body's glycogen stores run low. To stop protein breakdown and boost protein synthesis, you need to refill them.

Unlike before your workout, opt for simple, easily digestible carbs post-workout. These trigger insulin release, helping build muscle, reduce soreness, and speed up recovery.

Choose fast-digesting proteins and moderate-to-high-glycemic carbs right after exercising. Avoid fats as they slow down digestion, which is not what you want at this time.

Post-workout nutrition should include both protein and carbs, with a ratio of 3:1 carbs to protein. For instance, if you have 15 grams of protein, aim for 45 grams of carbs. Chocolate milk is an excellent option because it offers fast-acting carbs from chocolate and protein and vitamins from milk. Pair it with a banana or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for the perfect post-workout meal.

What to Include in Your Post-Workout Protein Shake

Whey Protein Shake
Protein Shake

The aim here is to refuel your body and aid recovery. While carbohydrates can restore glycogen levels solo, combining them with protein enhances the response.

Liquid nutrients are ideal for quick digestion, perfect for post-lifting. If you're serious about gains, a post-workout shake is a must.

Timing isn't critical, but having your shake right after your workout allows it to start working sooner. Whey protein is top choice for quick absorption.

For weight gain, aim for a 2:1 ratio of carbs to protein; for fat loss, 1:1 or less is sufficient. Simple carbs like dextrose can boost the carb-to-protein ratio, but go easy to avoid overdoing it.

Adding a banana to your whey protein shake is a simpler alternative. Mixing whey with water is usually fine; avoid milk as the fat can slow nutrient absorption.

Skip the high-fat, high-fiber smoothies post-workout, as they can delay nutrient delivery to your muscles.

When To Eat Your Post-Workout Meal

Time your post-workout meal for no longer than 1-2 hours after you work out. If you consumed a shake during your workout, skip the shake immediately afterward and eat a meal about 30-45 minutes after that last sip of your intra-workout shake.

Your post-workout meal should include veggies and other whole foods, and not be just another protein shake. Your body needs fiber and vitamins from real foods!

Once again, pay attention to protein, fat, and carbohydrate content as this will have an effect on how your body recovers and rebuilds tissue. Since you've already consumed the nutrients your body needs quickly with your shake, you can include a little bit of fat in this meal.

SourDough with Proteins and micro greens
Post Workout Meal

Choosing Carbohydrates Post-Workout

After a workout, your carbohydrate choice can either induce a quick insulin spike with simple carbs or provide sustained energy with complex carbs, regulating blood sugar and minimizing fat gain.

Insulin, crucial for muscle building, can prevent protein breakdown post-exercise and promote muscle growth when spiked with your meal. However, this effect requires consistent exercise and cannot solely rely on dietary choices.

Opting for complex carbs like oatmeal over simple sugars like candy can maintain stable blood sugar levels, reducing the risk of excess fat storage while promoting muscle mass. Some individuals report "leaner gains" with this approach.

Ultimately, the choice between fast-burning simple carbs and slow-burning complex carbs depends on your goals and body's response. Recent research suggests a wider window for protein consumption post-exercise, extending up to several hours after your workout.

Additionally, the benefits of pre-workout meals rich in whole carbs and protein may extend into the post-exercise period, enhancing recovery and muscle repair.

Remember, recovery is an ongoing process, requiring consistent nutrition. Eating balanced meals of carbs and protein every few hours supports optimal recovery and muscle growth, ensuring your body has the fuel it needs to thrive.

Let's Summarize

  • Your body needs carbs to fuel your working muscles.

  • Protein is there to help build and repair.

  • Get a combination of the protein and carbs in your body 1 to 4 hours pre-workout and within approximately 60 minutes post-workout.

  • Never try anything new on race or game day — it's always best to experiment during training to learn what works best for your body.


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