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What to Eat Before, During and After a Workout : Nutrient Timing Explained

Do you ever feel tired and sluggish going into a workout? Maybe you feel too full or stuffed while training and it affects your performance? Or maybe you are just looking to optimize your energy and results in the gym. Well, this post will fix all those things.

Nutrition and exercise go hand in hand, and once you figure out how to properly fuel your body for your activity, you can only go up from here. The timing of when you eat and what you eat before and after a workout has more of an effect on your body than you may think. Eating the optimal nutrients before and after exercise help your body perform better, recover faster, and minimize muscle damage after exercise. This is known as “peri-workout” or nutrient timing - and that’s what this post is all about!

I know everyone has their preference of times they train, what they like to eat, and their own busy schedules during the day that affect when they eat and when they train. I structured this post to include the science behind each meal surrounding a workout, examples of some meals that provide the nutrients your body needs at that time, and ways to incorporate nutrient timing in your own day to day.

This post contains information on nutrients before , during, and after a workout. There’s options for those who train fasted or in the early morning as well. So let’s get into it!

What is a Pre- Workout Meal?

The pre-workout meal has the most impact on your workouts, it will determine how effective your workouts are. Your workouts will be what creates muscle growth, so prioritizing what you eat around that time frame will certainly help drive growth and progress.

Before working out or anytime of physical event, your body needs to have a good source of glycogen, which is the short-term storage form of carbohydrate. Glycogen supplies immediate energy to the body which is needed before a workout.

Your pre- workout meal itself, should consist of a large amount of carbohydrates and a smaller amount of protein. The carbohydrates will help immediately fuel the body. The moderate protein source helps repair and grow muscle tissues. Protein takes longer to digest than carbohydrates and does not supply an immediate source of carbohydrates, which is why its taken in a smaller serving before your workouts.

Two Main Reasons to Eat a Pre-Workout Meal:

1. It fuels your workout (your carb source)

2. It creates an anabolic environment (your protein source)

What About Fats and Fiber?

The body takes a long time to digest fats and fiber. Taking these before a workout will slow down digestion in your entire body. It is recommended that fat and fiber intake prior to a workout should be smaller or minimal as the body will be trying to digest it as you workout and it may lead to some tummy issues during training basically (Smith & Collene 2015).

Timing Fats and Fiber Before a Workout

Now that we know fats and fiber slow down your digestive system, we can use that information to benefit us. If you know you are about to eat a meal now and you won’t be able to get to the gym for a few hours, having some more fat and fiber in the meal might help you keep that energy sustained longer until you get to your workout.

A rule of thumb would be:

Meals eaten closer to workout should contain less fat.

Meals eaten further away from the workout window should contain more fat.

Pre- Workout Meal Timing

Remember, the pre-workout meal is a means fuel your workout, so timing matters. You want to be able to digest your food before you workout and you want food that is going to give you energy for your activity. You can work with your lifestyle to figure out when theist time to eat is for you.

The most optimal time frame to eat before a workout is generally 1-1.5 hours before a workout, so your body has time to digest.

What if I Can’t Do That?

If you can’t fit that time frame, work around it.

If you are eating less than 1-1.5 hours before a workout, eating a lower calorie meal will be faster digesting for your body and will still supply an immediate glycogen source to the body.

If you are eating way earlier than 1 hour before a workout, try to eat higher calories because your body will take longer digesting that meal and you can use that energy longer.

Training Fasted or in the Early AM?

If you can eat before a morning workout, it has been recommended to do so, as your body is usually lower in glycogen in the AM (the liver depletes a lot of glycogen as it fuels the nervous system during sleep).

Exercising before eating comes with the risk of “bonking”—the actual sports term for feeling lethargic or light-headed due to low blood sugar. Now pre-workout meals do not have to be massive, the body just needs something to prime metabolism and to provide a direct energy source. Check out the examples below to see some lighter pre-workout meals

If you still don’t think, you can stomach something before a workout, pay attention to the intra-workout nutrition section later on to see what you should be consuming as you workout. Staying hydrated is also important, especially if you are not eating before a workout. Drink water before the workout and make sure you are staying hydrated throughout your day as that will affect your performance the next day as well. Aim for an intake of 5-7 milliliters of water per kilogram of body weight (Rosenbloom & Coleman 2012).

Pre- Workout Meal Examples

If your workout is in less than an hour:

  • Nutrition bar

  • Fruit

  • Granola

  • Greek yogurt with fruit

If your workout is 1-2 hours:

  • Whole grain cereal and milk of choice

  • Oatmeal with bananas and almonds

  • Almond butter and fruit preserves sandwich

If your workout is 2 or more hours away:

  • Sandwich - whole grain bread, a lean protein , salad

  • Egg Omelet, whole grain toast, avocado and fruit

  • Lean protein, brown rice, veggies

  • Protein Oatmeal with fruit and nuts

During a Workout (Intra - Workout)

Yes, you can consume nutrients while you are working out! This is most likely going to be done in the form of liquid.Intra-workout nutrition isn’t required but is helpful.

Especially helpful if you:

  • Train fasted, or in the early AM.

  • If you’re eating in a caloric deficit.

  • Workouts are longer than one hour.

  • Workouts are physically taxing.

Again, this is mostly recommended to those who are training for roughly more than one hour or those who feel light headed during workouts. A typical recommendation would be to take a serving size of essential amino acids (EAA) during your training or if needed an actual carbohydrate source such as a Gatorade. Usually the first option is the best for shorter length activities.

For those who train fasted or in the AM, drinking EAAs or a drink with electrolytes in them is recommended to fuel the body. Consuming 6-12 ounces of such drinks every 15-30 minutes during exercise has been shown to extend the exercise capacity of some athletes (ACSM 2007).

The Post Workout Meal

Recovery is the body's process of adapting to the previous work load that just occurred during your workout and then strengthening itself for the next physical challenge. When your body is recovered, it naturally supplies more energy and hydration for your next workout, aka improves your performance and reduces your chance of energy. Whether you are focussing on endurance or strength training, your body needs protein to provide amino acids to repair muscle fibers that get damaged during exercise and help develop new tissue.So it is very important to give your body the nutrients it needs!

The recovery meal is focussed on three main components :

  • Protein - helps repair damaged muscles and develop new muscle tissue.

  • Carbohydrates - to replenish deleted fuel stores.

  • Fluids - electrolytes and fluids to rehydrate the body.

The post workout meal is protein focussed ( carbs aren’t the emphasis anymore because your body does not need to use them as an immediate energy source, but they should be included sometime after your workout ascertaining generally depletes muscle glycogen).

There is no set daily protein requirement as it varies between individuals, but studies show that consuming 15-30 g of protein within 1-2 hours after exercise can maximize the muscle rebuilding and repair process (Rosenbloom & Coleman 2012)

When to Consume the Post- Workout Meal:

When to consume the post-workout meal, depends on how long before the actual workout you ate.

If you ate about an hour before your workout, you should consume your post workout meal anytime from 1-3 hours after training.

If you ate 2 or more hours before your training, try to get your post workout meal in as soon as you can or within that first hour after.

Post- workout Meal Examples:

  • Fruit smoothie with milk of choice and protein powder

  • Grilled chicken sandwich on whole- grain bread, a sweet potato, and cottage cheese

  • Rice, ground turkey, and a salad

  • Chicken breast, baby potatoes, brussel sprouts

  • Tofu, broccoli, quinoa , and low-fat milk

  • Whole grain bagel topped with peanut butter and a banana

  • Whole grain pasta , tomato based sauce, whole grain bread, vegetables

  • Energy bar that contains 15-20 grams of protein

  • Person who trained fasted or who are on the go : protein shake right after and some fruit

Post Workout Fluids

The body does lose water after exercise via sweat, but regardless of how much you sweat during a workout - your body needs to stay hydrated after any form of physical activity. Studies show that staying hydrated with a recovery beverage or just water during the 4-6 hour window after a workout is effective for recovery. (Smith & Collene 2015). Remember it is important to restore your hydration status before your next exercise period.

So that is a little a bit about nutrient timing, I hope you all learned something or got something out of this. Remember everyone is different, it is a good idea to experiment with different types of pre/post workout snacks and meals to see which one works for you.

Thank you for reading! Shoot me any questions on IG: @HappyHippieFitness_



American College of Sports Medicine. 2007. ACSM position stand. Exertional heat illness during training and competition. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 39 (3), 556-72.

Schisler, J.A., & Ianuzzo, C.D. 2007. Running to maintain cardiovascular fitness is not limited by short-term fasting or enhanced by carbohydrate supplementation. Journal of Physical Activity & Health, 4 (1), 101-12.

Smith, A.M., & Collene, A.L. 2015. Wardlaw's Contemporary Nutrition (10th ed.). New York: Morgan-Hill.

Spendlove, J., et al. 2015. Dietary intake of competitive bodybuilders. Sports Medicine, 45 (7), 1041-63.

Alencar, M.K., et al. 2015. Increased meal frequency attenuates fat-free mass losses and some markers of health status with a portion-controlled weight loss diet. Nutrition Research, 35 (5), 375-83.

American College of Sports Medicine. 2007. ACSM position stand. Exertional heat illness during training and competition. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 39 (3), 556-72.

Areta, J.L., et al. 2014. Reducing resting skeletal muscle protein synthesis is rescued by resistance exercise and protein ingestion following short-term energy deficit. American Journal of Physiology: Endocrinology and Metabolism, 306 (8), E989-97.

Burd, N.A., et al. 2011 A-Z of nutritional supplements: dietary supplements, sports nutrition foods and ergogenic aids for health and performance-Part 26. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 45, 1163-64.

Campbell, C., et al. 2008. Carbohydrate-supplement form and exercise performance. International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 18 (2), 179-90.

Dunford, M., & Doyle, A. 2008. Nutrition for Sport and Exercise (2nd ed.). Boston: Wadsworth Publishing.

Rosenbloom, C., & Coleman, E. 2012. Sports Nutrition: A Practice Manual for Professionals (5th ed.). Chicago: American Dietetic Association.

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