Are you confused about pre workout vs post workout nutrition? This post will review some of the key differences and the imporatnce of pre and post workout nutrition, and how you can strategically plan your nutrition around each.
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Many of my clients want me to give them a list of foods about what to eat in the pre workout vs post workout realm. There seems to be a lot of confusion about pre vs post workout protein, carbohydrates, fasting and more.
It does differ whether you’re eating or snacking to fuel versus recover, so let’s discuss some of the differences.
Firstly, exercise is great for us for many reasons, but working out does cause stress on the body. Therefore, it’s important to consider what foods we’re putting into our body before and after doing so to try to counteract this extra oxidative stress. Nutrition is so so important for performance, endurance and recovery, like we preach in our Nail Your Nutrition Fueling Course.
While running is my go-to exercise, I’ve tried to provide some general information for all workouts, though it will vary depending on the length, intensity and ins-and-outs of your exercise of choice.
Pre Workout Vs Post Workout Nutrition
Pre and post workout nutrition are not one in the same.
What’s the main difference here? Well, in pre workout nutrition, we’re talking about the foods that will fuel you up before your activity. And hence, prevent glycogen depletion and give you sustaining energy.
In post workout nutrition, we’re mainly referring to foods for recovery. These foods will help your muscles replenish and rebuild so you can feel good for subsequent exercise.
It’s also important to mention that pre workout vs post workout nutrition goals may be different for adults vs children and teenagers. Here’s a good post about nutrition for teenage athletes!
Pre Workout Nutrition
Before working out, you want to focus on carbohydrates since these macronutrients provide “instant” energy (aka break down into glucose the quickest). Carbohydrates prevent our blood sugars from dropping too low and help prevent those feelings of hunger during exercise.
They also translate to direct fuel that our muscles know how to process and use. And, that’s not all! They also help us work out harder and more efficiently, so we’re not fatigued or burning through our muscles while we’re working to build it up.
Following a low carb diet for athletes while engaging in endurance exercise is not always the smartest decision.
The main difference in a pre vs post workout meal is typically the size of the meal, and the amount of protein and fiber!
Another important part of pre workout nutrition is hydration. I love and strongly recommend NUUN electrolyte tabs and Skratch hydration, which add flavor and electrolytes like potassium, sodium, calcium and magnesium. They have so many great flavors!
What Are Good Carbohydrates To Eat Before a Workout?
While normally you would aim to eat complex carbohydrates, this may vary slightly before exercise. Some people may be able to handle small amounts of fiber and whole grains, while others may not and may be prone to gas, bloating or upset stomachs, which we call runners stomach.
This ultimate guide to race day nutrition may be helpful!
You also don’t want to eat anything too high in fat before exercising because like fiber, it will take longer to digest and may cause discomfort. A little protein (<10 grams) should be okay but this will depend on the person!
I typically tend to recommend:
- toast, english muffin or bagel with peanut butter or fruit
- a waffle
- glass of juice and fruit
If you’re eating shortly before working out (within 30 minutes to an hour), it’s fine to grab carbohydrates with a higher glycemic index (meaning they are absorbed more quickly). Some ideas would be half a bagel, ½ cup of cereal with low-fat milk, or a piece of white toast with nut butter.
These “quick” carbs require less digestion and are converted to sugar (energy) quicker.
Generally, I aim to snack about 1-2 hours before a run, particularly if I’m running in the afternoon or after work.
I usually pack portable snacks because I don’t know where I’ll be running or if I want to stop at the gym or an exercise class on the way home, I like to be prepared. I also hydrate like it’s my job. In the case that I exercise in the morning, I’ll have something small to fuel my run, even if it’s half a banana or some coffee with milk.
My body feels stronger when I have fuel and I bet yours will too!
What to Eat Before a Long Workout
If you’ll be working out over 30-45 minutes, you may want to add a little protein in your snack as well because that will prevent your body from just relying on carbs and provide a steadier amount of energy.
The harder or more intense and time consuming your workout will be, the more protein you may want to add in as well, but try to incorporate it earlier in the day as it takes longer to digest. Or, allow your body some extra time to digest it.
I’d suggest some easy-to-digest proteins, like eggs, peanut butter and even yogurt.
Post Workout Nutrition
The main goal of post workout nutrition is to refuel your muscles and cells. While the ideal time frame may not be 30 minutes for refueling like we once thought, I always tell my athletes the sooner the better. See more about that in this post debunking sports nutrition myths.
After a workout, your body is primed and ready to:
- replenish glycogen stores
- absorb and use nutrients
- help the muscles recover and rebuild
You primarily want to focus on re-hydrating yourself. Drink plenty of water. There are also lots of foods you can include with high water content, such as watermelon or cucumbers (my favorite).
If you have trouble drinking water, I highly recommend investing in an infuser water bottle!
How Much Water Should You Drink After a Workout?
The general recommendation is 16-24 ounces for each pound lost, which is likely higher during longer endurance workouts and in summer months. Therefore, running and cycling post workout nutrition may have higher rehydration needs than a strength session.
Why Eat Carbohydrates After a Workout?
Again, carbohydrates are the nutrient of priority to replenish your glycogen stores. Since carbohydrates are the main form of energy we use to power exercise, we need to eat consistent carbohydrates, both before and after a workout (and during a longer workout).
After a workout, carbohydrates will help stimulate the hormone, insulin, which will help our bodies take in both carbohydrates and protein, important for nourishment (Source).
How Much Protein Do I Need After a Workout?
Should you drink protein shakes before or after a workout? Definitely after!
There is also a stronger focus on protein in the post workout nutrition space, in comparison to pre workout nutrition. The carbohydrates will refuel the muscles and the protein will help repair, rebuild and prevent any further breakdown of muscles, so you experience less soreness the next day.
The recommendation is either a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein (typically 20-30 grams of protein). Chocolate milk is such a coveted option because it has a natural ratio. I love chocolate milk after a workout.
When we talk about protein, we specifically want to include the amino acid, leucine, which helps with muscle growth and repair, decreased muscle soreness, blood sugar regulation and more. Leucine is mainly found in aminal products, eggs and smaller amounts in soy and pea protein.
When thinking about pre vs post workout protein, know that more will be utilized in the post workout period when the muscles are depleted.
Unless you’re exercising right before dinner, try to add a larger, regular meal 1-2 hours after your snack, or when needed. If you’re hungry, eat!
Some other examples of leucine-rich post workout options that I like include:
- homemade protein shakes (optional: add in spinach for extra micronutrients)
- greek yogurt with fruit/cereal
- whole wheat pita with tuna/chicken/turkey
- trail mix
- peanut butter/jelly sandwich
- hard boiled eggs
- easy veggie quiche
- omelet with veggies or vegan sweet potato hash
- skillet breakfast scramble with toast
Macronutrient Breakdown for Athletes
For normal exercising individuals (3-4 times/week for 30-60 minutes), your diet should be at least 45-65% carbohydrates. If you’re exercising more than this, you’ll want to up your carbohydrates to provide sufficient energy for these workouts and adjust meals and snacks accordingly.
There are also benefits to carb loading before a race, as we discuss in our Fueling Course.
The general recommendation for protein is about 10-35% of your diet. Normal people need about .8 grams of protein per kg of body weight, but active people may need to increase it to 1.2-1.4 g/kg for endurance athletes, and as high as 1.7 g/kg for power athletes (source) to repair muscles.
Fat typically makes up the difference in a person’s diet. Remember, if you’re increasing one macronutrient group, you’re likely decreasing one or both of the others to counteract it.
You want to be eating the right distribution of macronutrients to have steady energy and prevent constant hunger, which is common among athletes!
My Hunger EBook helps athletes spot their hunger and ensure they’re eating enough for both pre workout vs post workout nutrition.
Some other posts that may be helpful:
Campbell B, Kreider RB, Ziegenfuss T, et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2007;4:8.
Institute of Medicine Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes: Energy, Carbohydrates, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids. Washington, DC: National Academies Press; 2002.
Phillips SM. Dietary protein requirements and adaptive advantages in athletes. Br J Nutr. 2012;108(Suppl 2):S158-167.
Powers SK, Jackson MJ. Exercise-induced oxidative stress: cellular mechanisms and impact on muscle force production. Physiol Rev. 2008;88(4):1243-1276. doi:10.1152/physrev.00031.2007
Thomas DT, Erdman KA, Burke LM. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance [published correction appears in J Acad Nutr Diet. 2017 Jan;117(1):146]. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016;116(3):501-528. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2015.12.006