Workout Nutrition Guide: What to Eat Before, During & After

One of the great truisms of nutrition is that you are what you eat. Everything you eat ultimately becomes part of you or passes though you and affects your body at a cellular level.

If you eat good, healthy food then that is what you’re likely to be – healthy. If however, you eat mostly fatty, sugary junk – your health will inevitably suffer. 

There is another nutritional truism but this one tends to be less well-known – you should eat for what you are about to do and what you have done. This is especially true for exercisers.

Workout Nutrition Guide

What you eat in the hours leading up to and immediately after your workout can have a profound effect on your performance, your response to training, and your recovery from exercise.1-4 That’s why it really pays to pay attention to what you eat at these times.

Follow these simple tips on what to eat pre and post-workout.

1. Pre-workout meal

When: 2 hours before exercise

This meal is vital for ensuring you have plenty of energy for your workout. Although some people can train without having eaten much beforehand, it’s not ideal if you’re looking for maximum performance.

What to eat: Your pre-workout meal should consist of low glycemic/slow-releasing carbohydrates such as brown rice plus lean protein and some healthy fats. This provides a slow and steady release of energy, while ensuring that complete gastric emptying has occurred by the time you start your workout.

Workout stomach cramps are a real bummer. So experiment with the exact timing of this meal and move it forward or back according to your ability to digest food.

2. Pre-workout snack

When: 15 to 30 minutes before exercise

If you were unable to eat a proper pre-workout meal two hours before exercise or have a gruelling workout planned, you can top up your energy levels by eating or drinking a fast-acting, high-glycemic drink or snack just before starting your workout. This is a good strategy for early morning exercisers.

What to eat: A ripe banana or sports drink are ideally suited for this window of opportunity. Fluids may be best if you are running or swimming, but food is probably fine if you are doing resistance training or riding a bike.

3. Workout snack

When: during exercise

For workouts less than 60 minutes in duration or for low-intensity workouts, you’ll probably only need water (or try some infused water for more variety) during your workout.

On the other hand, if you are going to be training long and hard, an isotonic sports drink may be useful as it will ensure your energy levels remain stable and prevent an energy crash. On very long workouts, you may actually need to take some food with you to keep you going.

What to eat: Easily digested carbs is the name of the game. Dried fruit, bananas, or energy bars are all good choices for very long endurance workouts. Remember though, only very long or very hard workouts warrant ingesting calories – for the vast majority of exercisers, water is all you need. 

4. Post-workout snack

When: immediately after exercise

On completion of your workout, your muscles are like wrung-out sponges and are desperate to be re-nourished – especially after weight training, interval training, or endurance training lasting 45 minutes or more. Insulin sensitivity is at its highest and most – if not all – food consumed at this time will be shunted directly into your muscles to replace what you have used during your workout.5

Fast acting carbs and protein consumed immediately after exercise will help ensure your muscles get exactly what they need to kick start the recovery process, replenish energy stores and ensure you are good to go and fully refuelled when you next head out for a workout.3

What to eat: Although real food is a viable option, one of the most efficient ways to get your calories in at this time is in the form of sports drinks or homemade smoothies.6

Shoot for a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein and try to consume it either during or immediately after your post-workout cool-down.3

Read on: Post-workout recovery guide

5. Post-workout meal

When: within 2 hours after exercise

The mechanisms responsible for shunting nutrients into your cells to facilitate post-exercise recovery are active for a couple of hours after your workout has finished.7 That means that your first proper post-exercise meal should be the biggest meal of your day.

Your body will make use of most of the nutritional content of this meal to repair and recover from the preceding workout.8 And before you get carried away. That doesn’t mean chowing down on a burger and fries.

Remembering the first “law” of nutrition – you are what you eat – you should make this, and every other meal you eat, as healthy as possible.

What to eat: Plenty of fresh vegetables, lean protein and healthy fats plus some unrefined complex carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes, wholemeal pasta or brown rice is the order of the day.

What you eat can have a huge impact on how you perform and the results you’ll reap from your workouts. Pay attention to what you eat and when, and you’ll get the best results possible from your training.

8 sources

  1. Neufer PD, Costill DL, Flynn MG, Kirwan JP, Mitchell JB, Houmard J. Improvements in exercise performance: effects of carbohydrate feedings and diet. J Appl Physiol (1985). 1987;62(3):983-988. doi:10.1152/jappl.1987.62.3.983
  2. Tipton KD, Rasmussen BB, Miller SL, et al. Timing of amino acid-carbohydrate ingestion alters anabolic response of muscle to resistance exercise. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2001;281(2):E197-E206.
  3. Ivy JL, Goforth HW, Damon BM, McCauley TR, Parsons EC, Price TB: Early postexercise muscle glycogen recovery is enhanced with a carbohydrate-protein supplement. J Appl Physiol. 2002, 93: 1337-1344.
  4. Hawley JA, Burke LM. Effect of meal frequency and timing on physical performance. Br J Nutr. 1997;77 Suppl 1:S91-S103. doi:10.1079/bjn19970107
  5. Ivy JL. Glycogen resynthesis after exercise: Effect of carbohydrate intake. Int J Sports Med. 1998, 19:S142-S145.
  6. Millard-Stafford M, Childers WL, Conger SA, Kampfer AJ, Rahnert JA. Recovery nutrition: timing and composition after endurance exercise. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2008;7(4):193-201.
  7. Kerksick, C., Harvey, T., Stout, J. et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: Nutrient timing. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2008;5,17.
  8. Rasmussen BB, Tipton KD, Miller SL, Wolf SE, Wolfe RR. An oral essential amino acid-carbohydrate supplement enhances muscle protein anabolism after resistance exercise. J Appl Physiol. 2000;88(2):386-392.

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