Whether myself and my dietitians are speaking to groups, helping a writer with an article, hopping on TV, or working with 1-1 clients of all ages and activity levels, there is one topic we will consistently be covering: what to eat before and after training. While all three macronutrients are necessary for optimal physical performance, exercise recovery and long-term health, the timing of their intake throughout the day and around training sessions should be considered. A better understanding of energy use during exercise is helpful when making changes to your nutrient timing, so you can improve what to eat before and after exercise.
Fueling Before Training
Exercising muscles are fueled by both stored energy and energy eaten prior to or during exercise. While carbohydrate is the most efficient and preferred energy source to fuel exercising muscle during both aerobic and anaerobic activity, it is most important for higher intensity training. Maintaining stores of the preferred carbohydrate (in the form of stored muscle glycogen) means including adequate carbohydrate foods at meals and snacks each day. This is imperative to prevent fatigue, maintain high intensity and concentration, and even limit perceived effort!
While max effort activities and quick, powerful movements prefer carbohydrate, during training sessions with sustained movement, fat is also utilized for lower effort movements. Since the body has a high capacity for fat storage, though, fat intake prior to or during exercise isn’t necessary. In moderate to high amounts, it may actually cause gastrointestinal distress.
What to Eat Before Training
Since training with limited carbohydrate intake impairs training intensity, duration, and even cognitive function while moving, we recommend consuming easily digestible carbohydrates before you move. This helps maintain blood sugar and central nervous system function when muscle glycogen is being used to power your movement.
As long as you have over 30 minutes before exercise, you can pair these carbohydrates with small amounts of fat and protein, which will help prevent blood sugar spikes and crashes as well as hunger. The closer to your workout you are, the lower in fat, fiber and protein you want the snack to be.
1-2 Hours Before Training Try:
- Pita, carrots + hummus
- Banana bread + handful nuts
- Granola bar + peanuts
- Snickerdoodle protein bar
- Peanut butter chocolate energy bars
- Half chicken or tofu wrap with juice
- Medium sweet potato with PB, honey + seeds
30-60 Minutes Before Try:
- Banana + nut butter
- Whole grain crackers & fruit
- Cereal + milk
- Oats made water, topped with dried fruit
- Banana PB energy bites
5-15 Minutes Before Try:
- Sports drinks, gels, blocks
- Homemade sports drink
- Maple syrup or honey
- Salted medjool dates
Fueling After Training
After exhausting muscle carbohydrate stores and tapping into blood glucose, plus stressing out your muscles, joints, skeletal and cardiorespiratory systems, your body needs enough energy nutrients to optimally recover!
Include adequate protein post-workout AND at your other snacks. Ideally, you’ll eat moderate amounts of protein at least 4 times a day to reach your daily goal. Our experienced sports dietitians can help you determine the best protein intake goals for your unique needs and help provide practical examples that match your preferences so you don’t need to spend time counting or tracking.
Carbohydrate intake after exercise restores glycogen (your stored muscle energy) and spares the body from working unnecessarily hard to convert protein into an energy source; this improves your body’s ability to use protein for muscle recovery. If it isn’t time for a full meal post-workout, you should prioritize just carbs and protein in a snack ASAP.
In addition to reducing the chances of optimal muscle recovery, waiting too long to eat also means a drop in blood sugar. This can result in poor ability to focus as well as inconsistencies with appetite the rest of the day. You’ll notice this if you’re starving “out of nowhere” 1-2 hours after exercise.
What to Eat After Training
With protein being an obvious nutrient to replenish after exercise, it is common to choose animal products and animal-derived protein powders. However, total quality protein intake over the course of a day, as well as protein timing are more important than protein sources. Aim for 0.25-0.4 g/kg of your body weight in grams of protein after exercise.
Total carbohydrate needs for weight vary depending on your training program, but you’ll want at least twice as many grams of carbs as compared to protein, maybe significantly more. Just don’t fear this important nutrient when aiming to optimize muscle recovery.
Try these post-workout snacks:
- Edamame + small pre-baked sweet potato
- Poultry in a wrap w/ hummus
- Tuna pack w/ hummus + crackers
- Cottage cheese cup with fruit
- Fruit + 2-3 hard-boiled eggs
- 2 string cheeses with pita + orange
- Low fat milk or plain soy milk
- Pea protein fortified milk
When it comes to what to eat before and after training, always start with carbs, preferably easily digested before and after. Before exercise, add small amounts of fat, fiber and/or protein if you have time before training. Then, prioritize protein afterwards, especially when you’ll have over an hour til meal time. Hydration is key and includes both fluid and sodium.
Use trial and error when determining what to eat before and after training for you. What works for you may not work for your training partner or favorite athlete, and it can take time to figure out the food type, quantity and exact timing that is best. Keep trying and then keep a stash of your go-to’s in a convenient place!