What To Eat Before, During & After A Workout

It’s time to train, you’re fired up and ready to rock.

There’s no doubt that the mental edge you take to the gym is key.

If you’ve allowed recovery to take place, you should also feel physically refreshed and ready. 

What about your nutrition?

Have you thought about a pre workout meal?

What about intra workout and post workout?

It takes more than gulping a pre workout or protein shake. It’s not only about supplements.

This article will cover what you need to eat before, during and after a workout.

Let’s get going!

Nutrient Timing

As you may have noticed, nothing in sports nutrition stays the same for long!

Nutrient timing as applied to bodybuilding/weight training is the concept of eating smaller meals every few hours.

It also refers to the idea of drinking a post workout shake within 20 minutes of your training and eating a meal within two hours. 

Post workout, this time frame is called “the anabolic window”.

However, recent research suggests that ‘’it doesn’t matter when you eat post workout, or if you follow a strict every-few-hours eating plan”. (1) 

OK, but here’s the thing.

We know how important nutrition is to our progress. We understand that protein is not stored in the body as are carbs and fats.

It’s well-known that the sooner you can start to recover after a workout, the better. (2)

If that means you can eat every few hours, drink a shake post workout, wait an hour or two and then eat a well balanced meal, then why not?

It’s not hurting anything.

What it is doing is supporting your physique goals. If you can do it, go for it. 

Pre Workout Meal

Oatmeal, fruit and coffee for breakfast

You never want to eat a heavy meal before a workout.

Think small feedings so you avoid potential gastric discomfort while training.

With that in mind, about 2 to 2 ½ hours before hitting the gym, you’ll want to eat medium to fast digesting proteins and medium to fast digesting carbs.

This could consist of oatmeal with some protein powder mixed in and some fruit. It could also consist of an omelet with fruit.

If you work out early or don’t have time to eat a couple hours before your exercise, faster digesting sources such as low fat yogurt and a banana are a great choice. 

It’s suggested to have a small fast digesting meal like this about an hour and ½ before you train.

If you use a pre workout, that will set the timing of everything else. Why?

To get the full effects of a good pre, and to avoid any potential gastric discomfort, it’s best to take your pre workout on a nearly empty stomach.

If you eat as suggested, you shouldn’t experience any problems. 

Let’s break it down:

Option 1

  • 2 to 2 ½ hours before training: small meal of slow to medium digesting carbs and protein 

Example: oatmeal, protein powder mixed in, small piece of fruit. 

  • 30 minutes before training: Take your pre workout, if you use one. 

This timing allows your food to digest and your pre to kick in.

Option 2

  • 1 to 1 ½ hours before: Small serving of Greek yogurt. This provides a quality protein source and fast digesting carbs. You can use one with fruit mixed in, or you can use a plain yogurt and add in your own fast carb source. As an example, I use a plain Greek yogurt for the protein and lack of sugar, then I will add in blueberries or a banana. This way, I control the carb sources. 
  • 30 minutes before training: Your pre workout, if you use one.

It’s all about timing and knowing your body.

You should do your best to train at a time when you can properly prepare. That being said, you have to work with what your lifestyle gives you.

I train at home, and I can remember many occasions of eating a granola bar or two on the 1 ½ commute home, getting in the door, and hitting the weights.

It was at night, so I didn’t use a pre. I did use creatine, so I drank that during my workout. 

Currently, I train in the morning about 4-5 hours after I get up.

So, I can have oatmeal and a protein shake and eat a small meal consisting of yogurt a couple of hours later if I get hungry.

I still have time for all that to digest before I take a pre workout.

If I had less time, I’d eat a simple carb/protein source and then use a pre. 

Again, it’s all about your schedule and when you train.

The take home point is that you need to ingest most of your carbs in the hours surrounding your workout and maintain good protein timing.

By this I mean consume protein with your pre and post workout meals and stick to a protein schedule of every few hours.

Check out this great video to learn more about the pre workout meal:

How Many Grams Of Protein And Carbs 

Your pre workout meal should consist of 30-45g fast digesting protein and 30-45g fast digesting carbs. (3)

It’s important to note that these numbers support bodybuilding and strength training workouts. That makes it more goal dependent. 

If you are an endurance athlete that expects to train for several hours, you may want to add even more carbs.

It’s important to realize that the body can only digest up to 6o grams of carbs per hour. (4) 

If you are training for fat loss, you still want carbs even if you follow a lower carb eating plan.

With that in mind, I would stay at the low end of the suggested totals. 

Intra Workout 

Handsome muscular guy resting and drinking water at the gym

During a workout, you don’t want to eat, unless you’re an endurance athlete undergoing a long training session.

In a case where your training session is a couple of hours long, you’ll need quick digesting carb and protein sources.

Fruit, such as a banana, intra workout drinks high in Essential Amino Acids (EAAs), and carb powders all qualify. The best intra workouts include premium carb sources. 

If you don’t use an intra workout, it may be a good idea to start.

That applies to both regular weight training or long duration endurance training.

The reason is because the EAAs help the body maintain an anabolic environment. This is important because training is a catabolic event.

You want to short circuit that as much as possible by ingesting EAAs.

The addition of carbs to an intra workout drink is essential if you are an endurance athlete.

Otherwise, focus on your protein via EAAs, and use the opportunity to use a product that supports strength and the pump. 

Make sure your drink includes electrolytes, so you stay hydrated. This is where the combo of a good pre and intra can set you up for a great training session.

Add in a good pre workout meal, and you’ll be training better than ever!

Let’s break this down:

  • Endurance athletes: Water, fruit, optional intra workout drink containing carbs.
  • Bodybuilding/Strength oriented athletes: A complete intra workout that includes creatine. If you choose not to use an intra, water. 
  • Fitness Enthusiasts: Water.

Post Workout

Proteins and dumbbells. Fish, cheese, eggs, meat, chicken and heart on a black wooden background

This is where recovery really begins, even if you use an intra workout.

As soon as your last rep is over, you should be thinking about recovery.

The process of recovery includes glycogen replenishment, the halting of catabolism and the stimulation of an anabolic state.

This is the state that allows protein synthesis to take place. Protein synthesis ties directly into muscle growth. (5) 

With that in mind, what should you eat after a workout?

Current trends suggest that it’s not necessary to ingest a post workout shake.

Still, it makes sense to stick to the concept of nutrient timing and have a shake within 20 minutes of your workout.

Your shake should consist of fast digesting protein and fast digesting carbs.

This should be whey protein because of its fast digestion speed, and fruit such as bananas. You could also use juice in place of water, such as orange juice. 

The take home point here is you want whey protein and a fast digesting carb source.

Even if the latest insights from the online fitness gurus suggest otherwise, what’s the harm? Think about it.

You’ve depleted some (perhaps a lot) of your body’s stored glycogen, and you’ve broken down muscle tissue by the physical act of working out.

What does your body need to begin the repair process?

Yep, you guessed it – carbs and protein.

So, why wait? If you want, go ahead and have a shake. 

Within a couple of hours of the shake, you should have a meal. This is your major post workout meal.

It should consist of a mix of slower digesting carbs and protein, such as lean meat and sweet potatoes or brown rice.

You’ve had your fast digesting shake, now you need a meal that will stick with you for a while.

How Many Grams Of Protein And Carbs 

The general recommendation for protein post training is 20g. (6)

The best protein powders are whey isolate or a blend of whey isolate and whey concentrate.

While a protein blend that includes slower digesting sources such as casein makes sense, this is not the time for that.

Save it for ingestion during your day at work or school, and at night. 

The other key to a good protein shake is that it contains at least 5 total grams of BCAAs (Branched Chain Amino Acids) as part of a total EAA complex.

You should see the BCAA/EAA content advertised on the label. The BCAAs consist of three of the nine essential amino acids (EAAs).

They have been shown to have a strong impact on protein synthesis.

Specifically, the branched chain amino acid Leucine has been suggested to be the most anabolic of any amino acid. 

Your shake could also include 20g of fast digesting carbs. The research is mixed on the benefits of carbs post training. (7)

Even so, as discussed before, you have depleted stored carbs during your workout, therefore it will not hurt anything if you want to add in some carbs post workout. 

What About My Post Workout Meal

Your shake does not have to be huge because you eat your after training meal within 2 hours of your workout.

Your meal should consist of lean meat and a mix of fast and slow digesting carbs.

You should be avoiding healthy fat in the hours around your workout since they slow digestion.

At this stage, you can add some into your meal. 

Let’s break this down: 

If you train in the morning: 

  • Omelet with cheese and veggies, multi grain bread. 
  • If you avoid dairy, you can try oatmeal pancakes with fruit and protein powder mixed in. 
  • Greek Yogurt with fruit mixed in. 

If you train later in the day:

  • The old standby of chicken (or the lean meat of your choice, yes this means beef) and sweet potatoes or brown rice works perfectly. 
  • Turkey burgers with veggies and either sweet potatoes or brown rice.
  • Fish such as salmon, sweet potatoes or brown rice, and veggies.
  • Vegan options include a veggie burger (many of these are high in protein and taste delicious) with brown rice, quinoa, or sweet potatoes. 

The bottom line is that you want to eat normally.

This should mean eating healthy and should include a good ratio of lean proteins to slower digesting carbs and healthy fats.

This meal caps off your workout nutrition. 

Check out this video to learn more about the post workout meal:

To Wrap Up

The concept of workout nutrition does not need to be complicated.

The goals are simple: you want to eat fast digesting carbs in the hours leading up to your training session.

You want to be sure you are ingesting adequate protein.

This should not be a problem if you are utilizing a nutrient timing plan that allows for protein every few hours.

This makes sense because protein is not stored in the body the way carbs and fats are.

This is because protein is used by the body to perform virtually hundreds of functions every day. 

Depending on your training goals, you can use a pre workout supplement if you would like to.

Also, during your workout, you can ingest an intra workout drink to help the body maintain an anabolic environment.

If you are an endurance athlete, you need more carbs.

You have the choice of such fast digesting carbs as fruit or intra workouts that include carbs. This type of product is designed for this specific purpose. 

Once the workout ends, you can have a shake that includes fast digesting protein and fast digesting carbs.

Some may argue that you don’t really need one but why not? Cover your ground, don’t neglect any edge that can help you achieve your goals.

Finally, no more than 2 hours post training, have a balanced meal consisting of a lean protein source, slower digesting carbs and healthy fats.

When you break workout nutrition down and look at it, it’s about timing and eating quality food.

It’s time to make the most of your goals by making the most of your nutrition!

References:

  1. https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1550-2783-10-5
  2. Kraemer, W. J., & Ratamess, N. A. (2005). Hormonal responses and adaptations to resistance exercise and training. Sports Medicine, 35(4), 339-361.
  3. https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/professional/expert-articles/5096/strength-training-pre-workout-nutrition-guidelines
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4008807/
  5. What Is Protein Synthesis. (2015, December 27). Retrieved May 02, 2017, from http://www.proteinsynthesis.org/what-is-protein-synthesis/
  6. Moore, D. R., Robinson, M. J., Fry, J. L., Tang, J. E., Glover, E. I., Wilkinson, S. B., … Phillips, S. M. (2009, January). Ingested protein dose response of muscle and albumin protein synthesis after resistance exercise in young men. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19056590.
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3577439/
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jim Brewster

Jim Brewster

Jim is a Certified Personal Trainer and Certified Sports Nutritionist with 40 years’ experience in bodybuilding and fitness. He has been writing articles for numerous bodybuilding sites since 2004, winning "Bodybuilding Article Of The Year" in 2009 on Bodybuilding.com. He also has numerous published articles in Ironman and Physique magazines.

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