What you eat before and after your workout can make or break your performance. Depending on what type of activity you enjoy, you may benefit from slightly different foods. One thing remains the same, incorporating a variety of foods in your everyday eating pattern will ensure a wide array of nutrients for your body.
While exactly what and when you eat will depend on your activity of choice and goals, there are some prevailing facts when it comes to pre-and post-workout fueling. Every person is different, so keep in mind there still should be individualization in your fueling strategy!
Carbohydrates are an important component of pre-and post-workout fueling. Consuming carbohydrate-rich foods during the four hours before exercise helps with a multitude of things, including restoring liver glycogen when liver glycogen is depleted, restoring muscle glycogen stores if they are not fully re-established from a previous exercise session, and preventing hunger, which could impair your performance.1
When you eat carbohydrates, they are quickly metabolized into glucose to be used as energy for your workout. This is why eating a meal or snack with carbohydrates before a workout can help maintain blood glucose levels to enhance your performance.
Because our muscles can only store a limited amount of glycogen, the carbohydrates we get from our diet are vital. For short bursts of high-intensity exercise, muscle glycogen stores are the muscles’ main energy source. However, for longer exercise, it will depend more on intensity, type of exercise, and your overall eating pattern.
Eating carbohydrates post-workout will then help to replenish your muscles’ glycogen stores to aid in recovery and prepare you for the next time you workout.2 Whether you choose fruit, grains, legumes, or starchy vegetables, you will be doing your body good!
It was once thought that there was a 30-minute window of time that protein needed to be consumed after exercise in order to support the body’s recovery and muscle building. However, research now suggests that it is more about consuming enough protein throughout the entirety of the day rather than a small window of time.4 Protein is vital for many bodily functions, including: muscle growth, improve muscle recovery, increased strength, and performance.3
Your daily protein needs will depend on activity type, intensity, and overall goals. As a general recommendation, the everyday athlete should aim for 1.2-1.4 g/kg/day of protein. If you are working on building muscle, the aim should be closer to 1.6-1.7 g/kg/day of protein.1 Again, these recommendations may need to be personalized based on your activity level and goals.
When it comes to pre-and post-workout fueling, fat does not have as big of a role. That doesn’t mean it should be skimped in your daily eating pattern, however, it won’t be as necessary right around the time of your exercise. Fat is a fuel source for longer-lasting lower-intensity activity. If there happens to be fat in your pre-workout meal or snack, just make sure you have enough time to digest it to avoid any GI upset, giving yourself approximately 2-3 hours.1
Overall, when it comes to macronutrients, carbohydrates will help maximize your glycogen stores to help with high-intensity workouts, protein will aid in muscle recovery and building, and fat will help fuel you through longer, lower-intensity workouts.
Pre-Workout Snack Ideas:
When it comes to fueling before a workout, there are a couple of options. What you choose will depend on how much time you have to allow the food to digest. Timing of your pre-workout snacks is an important factor to consider to help determine what macronutrients to focus on for optimal performance. The more time you have to digest before your workout, the more complex the meal can be. However, the less time you have before your workout the smaller and simpler you will want your snack to be. If you have 3-4 hours, a full meal is just fine. However, if you have less than 2 hours, focus on a snack that contains simple carbohydrates and a little protein.
Your workout is within 3 hours or more
- Sandwich on whole-wheat bread with lean protein
- Spinach and sweet potato omelet
- Grilled chicken, brown rice, and roasted vegetables
Your workout is within 2 hours
- Protein smoothie
- Greek yogurt and fruit
- Cup of oatmeal with banana and nut butter
Your workout is within an hour or less
- Applesauce or 2 dates
- A piece of toast with nut butter
- A piece of fruit (banana, orange, or apple)
Post-Workout Snack Ideas:
What you eat post-workout is important to help replenish your glycogen stores and repair and build your muscles. Post-Workout carbohydrates are needed to restore muscle and liver glycogen to help recovery between sessions. The reason protein is promoted for your post-workout fuel is because it gives your body the amino acids it needs to begin to repair and rebuild your muscles.
While the window of time you have to eat post-workout is much longer than once thought, there is increased blood flow to your muscles after you workout. This allows nutrients to become more readily available for your body to utilize. Ideally, then you would get in your post-workout fuel between 45 minutes to 2 hours after your activity. This snack should include both carbohydrates and protein, ideally at a 3:1 ratio.1
You had a morning workout:
- Peanut butter toast
- Greek yogurt and fruit
- Protein smoothie
You had an afternoon or evening workout:
- Chocolate milk
- Half of a turkey sandwich
- Hard boiled egg and crackers
As a reminder, these are general guidelines as we will tolerate foods differently, especially before a workout. Additionally, a lot will depend on what type of workout you choose and the intensity. Make sure to fuel in a way that feels the best to you and helps you perform at your best!
- Sports Nutrition, A Handbook for Professionals.
- Gollnick PD, Matoba H. Role of carbohydrate in exercise. Clin Sports Med. 1984 Jul;3(3):583-93. PMID: 6571232.
- Tipton KD, Elliott TA, Cree MG, Aarsland AA, Sanford AP, Wolfe RR. Stimulation of net muscle protein synthesis by whey protein ingestion before and after exercise. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2007 Jan;292(1):E71-6. doi: 10.1152/ajpendo.00166.2006. Epub 2006 Aug 8. PMID: 16896166.
- Schoenfeld, B. J., Aragon, A., Wilborn, C., Urbina, S. L., Hayward, S. E., & Krieger, J. (2017). Pre- versus post-exercise protein intake has similar effects on muscular adaptations. PeerJ, 5, e2825. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.2825