What Should I Eat Before And After A Workout?

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Like many aspects of fitness and health improvement, it can be a bit of confusing topic.

How much should you eat before the gym? When should you eat before a run? What is a good recovery meal after training?

Now this article isn’t really aimed at people who are trying to lose weight or bulk up, it’s performance oriented. If you’re a runner, cyclist, triathlete, footballer etc and you want to get more from your training, read on.

In this article, we’re going to cover everything you need to know about pre, intra and post-workout nutrition. Let’s get started….

What Should I Eat Before A Workout?

The aim is to provide the right amount and the correct type of fuel. You want to be able to exercise at a high intensity and perform to the best of your ability. In most forms of exercise, your main fuel source going to come from stored carbohydrates (glycogen is the technical term).

This means that you should be looking to have a carbohydrate-rich meal to top-up your fuel reserves roughly 2-3 hours before you exercise. Some people will need a little more time than this for everything to digest but a couple of hours is usually sufficient.

What kind of carbohydrates you have in your pre-workout meal is down to you. Nutritious foods that you like, you can tolerate and are tasty such as root veg, wholegrain pasta, rice, oats and brown bread are often good options.

Now it’s probably a smart idea to include a source of protein with this meal too. This may help to minimise muscle damage and it makes the recovery process easier. Drinking some water with this meal is also a smart move to help cover your hydration needs.

Let’s Put This Into Practice

If you exercise after work, consider splitting your lunch into two. Have one half about midday and the second portion later on before you train. If you workout in the evening, look to have an early protein and carb-rich dinner.

Proper timing is key here. Don’t wolf something down too close to your workout as this can be a big mistake. You don’t want a one-way ticket to spew city!

If you don’t allow sufficient time for the meal to be digested, it won’t have had enough time to be broken down and used for energy in the first place. Itit may also make you feel uncomfortable, bloated and actually make you feel worse than had you not eaten at all. Here are some super yummy high protein meal ideas.

What Should I Eat If I Workout First Thing In The Morning?

What Should I Eat Before And After A Workout?

It’s unlikely you’ll be able to eat several hours beforehand so ensuring you consume a carb rich meal the night before is going to be advantageous.

You might want to try a breakfast smoothie. Normally we would say don’t drink your calories but if you’re exercising first thing in the morning then this may work well for you. A smoothie would have some form of carbohydrate in it (fruit, oats etc) and some protein (milk, yoghurt, protein powder etc). Throw everything into a blender and blitz until smooth. The advantage of the liquid meal is that it is quicker to digest and won’t sit on the stomach as much compared to a solid meal.

What Should I Have During A Workout?

close up view of a lady wearing sunglasses drinking bottled water at the beach, weight loss

Time to use some technical terms – ‘intra-workout nutrition’ is largely dependent on your exercise duration. In most cases the longer the session, the more fuel you’ll use up and the more you’ll need to take on-board. Make sense, right?

Moderate To High Intensity Exercise Lasting Less Than 60 Minutes

If your workout lasts less than an hour then there isn’t really any need to chomp on intra-workout carbohydrate.

No sports drinks, energy bars, gels, sweets and so on.  Sipping on water is going to be just fine.

Now this is assuming that you’ve been a smart cookie and eaten a proper pre-workout meal or snack. If you did, high-five to you as this means that you’re already going to have a nice amount of carbohydrate in your body to fuel your session.

Moderate To High Intensity Exercise Lasting Longer Than 60 Minutes

If you’re exercising for longer than an hour, then the rules change.

An 80 minute rugby match, a long cycle, a couple of hours pounding the pavement and you’re going to want to take on-board some carbohydrate.

Want to know how the England rugby team fuel and recovery from training? Listen to this podcast episode.

Imagine a fuel tank on a car, you fill it up at the start of a long journey and chances are that you’ll need to top it up before you arrive at your destination. You’re the same. After an hour of exercise, your carbohydrate reserves are going to start to drop, let them drop too much and you’ll experience a sensation called “hitting the wall” or in some circles it’s called “bonking”.

The sports nutrition literature suggests that you want to consume around 30-60g of carbohydrate per hour of exercise for exercise lasting longer than 60 minutes.

Go Low Fibre & Low Fat

Choosing simple, easy-to-digest, low fat, low fibre carbohydrates is a smart move if you want to minimise potential stomach discomfort.

Try different gels, dried fruit, sports drinks, the odd handful of Harbio and keep a note of how you feel. It will take a bit of trial and error before you find out the foods that work for you, when they work best and how much you need to take.

Our advice is to start on the low end (30g) and gradually increase your intra-workout carbohydrate intake as you become more accustomed to your new routine.

For fluids, same as above, keep sipping on water, when you can, throughout the session.

The Benefits Of Protein After Exercise

It’s important that you understand that despite what you may have read in fitness mags, or heard down the gym, the science shows us that there isn’t a rapid urgency to neck a protein shake the second after you’ve finished exercising.

Having some protein after exercise is an important aspect of recovery – it’s necessary to help rebuild muscle tissue that’s been damaged in your workout, run, cycle and so on – but it doesn’t require a finite degree of precision.

Even if you’re not trying to “bulk up” it’s a good idea to consume a quality source of protein, around 20-40g within about 3 hours of finishing. If you exercise after work and your ‘post-workout meal’ is likely going to be your dinner so make sure that you’ve included a reasonable serving of protein like a chicken breast, fillet of fish, turkey mince etc [here are some high protein meal ideas].

Here’s the deal, there isn’t any harm consuming a protein shake, if that’s your preference, but it certainly isn’t a requirement and protein from solid, tasty food, is just as good, if not better!

How Much Carbohydrate Should I Eat After Exercise?

If you’ve been paying attention to this article, you’ll know by now that the amount of carbohydrate we need to consume is generally relative to our energy requirements. The more active we are, the more carbohydrate we need.

It’s the same after a workout. If you’ve had an exhausting session –  like a 3 hour cycle – then you’re going to want to include more carbohydrates in your post-workout meal than someone who’s been throwing weights around for 45 minutes.

With regards to timing, for most people, like protein, there isn’t a rapid urgency to consume carbohydrates after a workout but it’s a good idea not to hang about for too long, especially if it was a tough session! Eating your carbs at convenient time, like with your next meal, is probably going to be sufficient.

The caveat is if you are doing more than one exercise session in a day then timing becomes more important. If this is the case, say for a triathlete, then it’s probably a smart move to not hang about too long before getting tucked-into your yummy carbs as this will help speed up the fuelling process for the second session of the day.

What About Fluids?

Make sure you get some fluids down you after a workout, this should be a no-brainer. Water is likely to be the best choice for many but if you’ve had an exhausting session (lasting longer than an hour) then adding some recovery mixture will help move things along a little quicker.

The Wrap-Up

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So there you have it. Both before and after exercise, focus on a quality source of protein, eaten at a time that suits you (no need to drop the weights and sprint to the changing room for that shake) and consume a sensible serving of carbohydrates relative to your exercise intensity.

Pre & Post Meal Ideas: What Should I Eat Before And After A Workout?
Scott Baptie

Scott is the owner and founder of Food For Fitness. He is a fat loss coach, speaker and fitness writer with a masters (MSc) degree in Applied Sports Nutrition.