Whether you’re a full time athlete or a casual gymgoer, you need to understand the importance of peri workout nutrition: what you eat before and after your workout.
There’s a strong argument to be made that what you eat before a workout matters more than what you eat afterwards, but the recommendations surrounding pre and post workout meals are surprisingly similar. In this article, we’ve gone deep into the research and spoken with a registered dietitian to get a better handle on what is and isn’t ideal to eat when you’re hitting the gym.
1. Pre and Post Workout Calories and Macronutrients
2. Sample Pre Workout and Post Workout Meals
3. Should You Limit Fat Around a Workout?
4. Pre Workout Vitamins and Minerals
5. Pre Workout and Post Workout Supplements
6. Hydration and Electrolytes
7. Is There a Post Workout Anabolic Window?
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems.
Pre and Post Workout Macronutrients
- The standard recommendations are for medium protein, high carb, and low fat meals
The rules are not as rigid as you might think, but there are a few rules of thumb.
Long story short: medium protein, high carb, and low fat is the typical recommendation for meals both before and after a workout, and it’s one that will probably suit you just fine.
“Post workout is the best time to replenish with carbs and provide protein for recovery,” says Sylvia North, MS, RD, a New Zealand-based dietitian. “Carbs included here help to provide a good surge of insulin to promote growth and deliver carbohydrate to be stored as glycogen in muscle. If you’re picking one meal to go high carbs in, this is it.”
That doesn’t mean any other eating plans are off limits — some people just prefer working out on an empty stomach, others prefer a bowl of cereal, and so on.
“If an athlete can train fasted, this can be a good strategy for enhancing fat adaptation and metabolic flexibility,” adds North. “If it’s not a competition or game day and if the session is less than 90 minutes in duration, I often advise athletes to “train low”, meaning show up either fasted or after a low carb meal. This means by having stable blood glucose and lower insulin coming into a session, you’re more likely to burn fat.”
Still, the “protein and carbs” attitude is pretty standard and may be easier for the average person to follow. People are advised to have food that’s easier to digest as your workout approaches: whey and a couple of bananas would be fine in the hour before you lift, a richer meal of beans, rice, and meat might be better consumed a couple of hours before your first rep.
Sample Pre Workout and Post Workout Meals
Here are some suggestions that North likes to employ herself.
– Oats, Greek yogurt, fruit
– Eggs, spinach, and potatoes
– Meat, rice, vegetables
– Smoothie with berries, avocado or nut butter, and protein powder
– Greek yoghurt, fruit, and grain-free granola
– Two bananas with a shake made with whey + whole milk
[Work out your ideal macronutrients in our guide to the IIFYM diet!]
Should You Limit Fat Around a Workout?
- If it doesn’t affect your performance, there’s likely no problem
Fat tends to digest more slowly than simple carbohydrates and protein, so there are some concerns that eating a bunch of fat before you workout may have you feeling sluggish. It’s not uncommon to hear that the fat may blunt a spike in blood sugar, an effect that some people want from their pre and post workout meals.
Data suggests, though, that whether or not your peri workout meal has fat in it or not, your total calorie and macronutrient intake for the day is far more important and that fat in a post workout meal doesn’t hinder glycogen resynthesis.(6)(7)
This doesn’t mean that you don’t need carbohydrates or protein. It’s still smart to base your peri workout nutrition around protein and carbs, but it seems that fat isn’t very likely to cause problems. What’s more important is how you feel after eating these meals and that you make adjustments accordingly.
[Read more and bust some myths in our full article: Should You Eat Fat After a Workout?]
Pre Workout Vitamins and Minerals
- Pre workout micronutrients are unlikely to acutely affect your workout
- A possible exception may be antioxidants
Generally speaking, vitamins and minerals are only going to improve your workouts if you’re low in those nutrients. Vitamin B12, for example, is important for energy production, but taking a bunch of pre workout B12 won’t give you extra energy.
A possible exception here is antioxidants like Vitamin C or Vitamin E.
Exercise seems to cause an increase in free radicals, and there’s some limited evidence that consuming antioxidants around a workout could reduce the cell damage that occurs during exercise.(8)
It certainly won’t make or break your workout, but it’s always a good idea to have a source of Vitamin C with a meal anyway, particularly since it makes it easier to absorb iron.(9)
[Don’t miss the 7 micronutrients that are important for athletes.]
Pre Workout and Post Workout Supplements
- Caffeine is the simplest and most reliable pre workout
The world of pre workout supplements is enormous, complicated, and outside the scope of this article. We strongly recommend you take a look at our list of the best pre workout supplements to get a handle on which compounds might be most useful for you, but here are a few that have the most research behind them.
Caffeine: No surprises here. This stimulant promotes wakefulness and alertness and has strong links better reaction time, working memory, power output, and endurance.(10)(11)(12)(13)(14) One hundred milligrams is the amount you’ll find in a small cup of coffee; some pre workouts contain up to 350 milligrams. Choose wisely.
Beta alanine: Research published in Amino Acids, the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, and elsewhere has concluded that 1.6 to 5 grams may increase endurance and help with strength training sets in the 8- to 15-rep range.(15)(16)(17)
Citrulline: Several studies, like one published in the European Journal of Sports Science, have found that about 5 to 8 grams of this amino acid may improve blood flow and circulation, which could potentially help with endurance and power output.(18)(19)
Creatine: An amino acid that’s really strongly linked to power output and muscle size, it’s a great way to improve performance, but it doesn’t need to be taken before or after a workout — just get 5 to 10 grams per day.(20)
[Interested in learning more? Head over to our best pre workouts article.]
Hydration and Electrolytes
- Drink enough water that your urine is lightly tinted
- Proper hydration requires sufficient intake of sodium and other electrolytes
“Drink when you’re thirsty” is a simple but controversial approach to hydration, with experts hotly debating the truth of statements like, “If you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.”
The word “dehydrated” really refers to a condition in which the body doesn’t have enough water to carry out its normal functions, so you likely aren’t dehydrated just because your tongue is feeling dry.
But being well hydrated is critical for athletic performance.(21)(22) If your goal is to perform at your best, it’s not a bad idea to follow the pee test: drink until your pee is lightly tinted.(23) You don’t want dark yellow, but don’t stress about having perfectly clear pee at all hours of the day either.
What a lot of people don’t understand is that a proper balance of electrolytes is crucial for performance and proper hydration. Potassium, magnesium, calcium, and phosphate are all electrolytes that help maintain the balance of fluids inside and outside your cells, and sodium is a tremendously important electrolyte because when you sweat, you lose more of your sodium than you do of any other electrolyte.
Some research has found that an hour of sweaty activity can produce 7 grams of lost sodium; the FDA’s recommended daily intake is 2.3 grams.(24) Those recommendations are made for the average, sedentary person, so make sure you consume enough sodium to support your athletic goals.
[Read more: The Benefits of High Sodium Intake for Athletes.]
Is There a Post Workout Anabolic Window?
- Consuming the right amount of calories, macronutrients, and micronutrients is vastly more important than when you eat them
- Focus more on fueling yourself pre workout than when to eat post workout
Is timing your post workout meal all that important here? For a long time, there was an idea that every athlete at any level must dash to their kitchen to consume a whey protein shake within a half hour of finishing their workout.
The thinking is based on the notion that eating a decent amount of quality protein (25 grams or more, generally speaking) stimulates muscle protein synthesis, and you might as well start that sooner rather than later. The more time MPS is initiated, the more muscle you’ll grow.
While there are some studies that have suggested as much, recent (and more rigorous) research has called into question whether this has real, practical impact for the average gymgoer.(25)
“We don’t necessarily need to hammer in the food immediately as there is a natural delay in gastric emptying post training,” says North. “As far as my understanding, the ‘60-minute window’ for consuming protein post workout has been debunked. Eating nutritious food across the day is important for muscle recovery, and it’s not necessarily going to be negated if you have to wait over an hour to eat your next meal. Immediately after training it’s best to prioritize hydration then get on to eating within approximately 90 minutes.”
What experts do agree on is that whether or not timing matters, it’s much, much more important to consume enough calories, protein, carbs, fat, and micronutrients in a day.
It’s also more important to get enough sleep. It’s also more important that you do the right workouts.
Timing your shakes may have some slight impact that might be worth thinking about if you’re a full-time athlete, but you probably aren’t. Prioritize what needs to be prioritized and don’t stress over small stuff.
[Learn more about the debate in our full article: Is There a Post-Workout Anabolic Window?]
Many sports nutritionists will tell you that when you eat is not as relevant as what you eat and how much of it you eat — peri workout nutrition, in the grand scheme of things, is not as important as it’s sometimes made out to be. However, there is data to suggest that consuming plenty of carbohydrates and protein surrounding your workouts can be beneficial, and that ensuring you’re well fueled before your workout can make a much bigger difference to your performance and recovery than what you eat afterwards.
Consume enough protein, carbs, and micronutrients, and results will follow both during and after your workouts. Consider seeing a dietitian or a nutritionist so that you know what numbers you need to be hitting.
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