Whether in 1-1 sessions, speaking to teams, or getting questions from a stranger, as sports dietitians, questions we’re asked often revolve around pre and post workout nutrition. Do you always have to eat before practice? What should you eat and how much? When should you be eating? What if you aren’t hungry? In this article we’ll first cover how activity is fueled, so you understand why we make the recommendations we do, and then learn specifics on what to eat before and after a workout!
Nutrients To Fuel Training Sessions
As athletes, you’re almost always engaging in moderate to high intensity movements on training days and therefore your main source of energy during exercise is carbohydrates. The higher your intensity, the more carbohydrate your muscles are using for fuel as it’s the fastest and most efficient energy source available for quick and powerful movements. But, since intensity can’t remain extremely high for more than 1-2 minutes, your body will also rely on some fat during long training sessions and competitions.
For moderate intensity workouts, so long as you’re eating enough, the body uses about half of it’s energy from stored carbohydrate and about half from stored fat to fuel muscles. Protein is best used as a structural and metabolic nutrient, and shouldn’t provide more than 2-5% of the energy used for exercise. Adequate carbohydrate intake is so important to prevent protein from being used as a more significant, and inefficient, source of energy.
What to Eat Before and After a Workout Is Unique to you
It’s extremely important that you don’t try to mimic exactly what a teammate or pro athlete is eating (or not eating), even if they have the same goals and training schedule as you. Listening to your body is key, which means that trial and error in eating are actually part of your training, to determine what is best! Calorie needs, tolerance of protein, fat, and certain seasonings, and rate of digestion are unique to you. Be prepared to play around with not only foods but also quantities and timing.
Pre-Workout Nutrition Goals
- Eat enough carbohydrates: This ensures you have enough energy stored in your muscles to extend the duration of your training and help you maintain intensity. It also helps prevent your blood sugar from dropping, which influences your mental sharpness during training and competition.
- Eat enough to prevent hunger: An optimal training session won’t happen if you’re just thinking about how hungry you are and when you can wrap things up to have a meal or snack. Eating enough carbs before and keeping blood sugar from dropping helps, but you also need to eat enough fat, fiber and protein earlier in the day.
- Avoid GI distress: As mentioned above, you may react to some foods better or worse than your teammates before training. Continue using trial and error to determine the best foods for you and the best timing before training. As a rule of thumb, the closer you get to practice, the less fat, fiber and protein you want to eat.
- Hydrate with fluids and electrolytes: Heading into a workout poorly hydrated can make or break the training session. If you aren’t eating enough sodium in foods throughout the day, it may help to add an electrolyte tab or powder to your water 3-4 hours prior to training to get adequate sodium and stimulate thirst.
What to Eat Before a Workout
- 3-4 hours before practice or a competition, it’s time to have a carbohydrate rich meal, that still includes moderate amounts of protein, fiber and fat. Consider a wrap, sandwich or grain bowl with a side of fruit and maybe a glass of milk or soymilk.
- 60-90 minutes before you can top off energy stores with a carbohydrate rich snack that is lower in protein, fiber and fat. At this point, you still want to ensure a little of the latter nutrients so you don’t experience a blood sugar spike and crash. Ex: this isn’t a good time to drink juice or just have crackers. Have a banana and PB, add hummus to the crackers, enjoy a yogurt with granola, grab a Clif bar, etc.
- Within 15 minutes of training, opt for the most easily digestible carbs and steer clear of protein, fat, and fiber. This may be a small very ripe banana, a sports fueling product like a gel, or simply a tablespoon of honey or maple syrup.
Note: Student athletes do need to replace carbohydrate during exercise, as practice is usually steady state for well over an hour. Additional fluid and electrolyte intake should also be considered during exercise. These topics are not covered in this post, but you can read more in our e-book: Performance Snacking: The Ultimate Guide for Student Athletes.
Post-Workout Nutrition Goals
- Replenish Carbohydrates: Yes, you need carbs… again! At the end of a training session, your muscle carbohydrate stores are feeling depleted and they need to be refueled. This allows you to get ready for your next workout, class/studying, and helps ensure protein isn’t converted to energy. This is extra important if you have another training session within 24 hours, which is likely for most student athletes in-season.
- Eat Protein for Repair: While the average person might be able to wait up to 2 hours to eat protein after a workout, for student-athletes, we recommend ingesting protein within 30 minutes to maximize muscle recovery. Our Performance Snacking e-book provides tips on how much to eat with many ideas on what.
- Replace Fluids and Sodium: Even if you hydrated well during training or competition, you’re likely still ending a workout under-hydrated. Research also shows that after training, you’re likely to feel like you’ve rehydrated before you actually are, so don’t just rely on thirst. Check out our free hydration guide for tips on how to hydrate well enough.
You may not feel very hungry after exercise sometimes (or all of the time), which is completely normal. Intense and long duration activities can reduce hunger hormones leading to what we can post-exercise appetite suppression. If this impacts you, it’s important to have a “liquid nutrition” snack right away and then have a full balanced meal within 2-3 hours.
What to Eat After a Workout
- Within 30 minutes, it may be easiest to choose liquid-based carbohydrates and protein. This is a convenient way to replace all of the above nutrients, even if you don’t have an appetite! Try 12-16 ounces of milk or soy milk, with an added dash of salt or a salted protein and fruit smoothie. If you’re in a pinch on-the-go, add a 3rd party tested protein powder to a bottle of your favorite juice. If you do have an appetite, we approve of many packaged snacks to keep in your locker, backpack, or training bag. Just be sure to pair with enough water and electrolytes.
- Within 2-3 hours of finishing your workout, it’s meal time. Eat a balanced meal that contains quality carbohydrates and protein as well as color from veggies and/or fruits, with some healthy fats. Don’t forget flavor so that your meal is satisfying, too! Try a chicken and rice bowl with sauteed veggies and your favorite sauce, a roasted sweet potato with blackened salmon and broccoli, a tofu and quinoa bowl with spinach and pad Thai sauce, or keep it simple with breakfast for dinner – you can’t go wrong with a veggie omelet, some avocado toast, and OJ.
Maximize Your Pre and Post Workout Nutrition
If you’re feeling overwhelmed with info, you may still be feeling like you don’t know what to eat before and after a workout.
- Evaluate how you currently fuel for exercise versus the above recommendations.
- Pick one thing to work on first, whether it be the type of nutrients or foods to try, the timing, or just eating more than you’re used to.
- Keep a log of how you feel during or after training with these changes. Include your physical energy levels, digestion, mood, perceived recovery, and even appetite later.
- If you want more detailed information and the same exhaustive snack lists we used with our clients, you can download our free guide: The Best Packaged Snacks for Student Athletes or dive into our e-book Performance Snacking: The Ultimate Guide for Student Athletes.
- Reach out if you have questions or want to connect us with your coach or organization for personalized performance nutrition solutions.