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Pre, during and post workout nutrition: when’s best?

If you've been training for a while or looking at ways to boost your workout performance, you’ve probably come across the concepts of pre and post-workout meals. The internet can be divisive on these issues - some people swear by fasted training, for others it's all about getting protein straight after a gym session. 

So, should you eat before or after the gym? Does it matter at all? What should you eat before training, what should you eat after? And should you ever eat while you’re working out?

Let’s take a look.

Pre-Workout Meals

Should you always eat before working out?

First thing's first -- one of the key benefits of a pre-workout meal is to fuel your body for optimum performance. Working out takes a lot of energy, and we get our energy from the food we eat. Pushing yourself in your workouts can be difficult if you're not eating enough food, but does that mean you need to eat just before a workout or is your intake over the rest of the day enough?

If you have an intense workout planned or you're trying to achieve a PB, eating before your workout will mean having plenty of fuel in the tank for that extra push. This doesn't always mean eating directly before a workout though - if you ate a large meal 3-4 hours ago, you're unlikely to need something before you workout. If you've not eaten since lunch and you're working out after work, a moderate pre-workout snack will be helpful. 

What about people who exercise first thing in the morning? A lot of people swear by fasted training, but studies give mixed results on whether you'll achieve better results by eating before working out, with some showing improvements in fat burn when working out before breakfast and others showing no difference between fed and fasted workouts. Most people will find they have more energy for their morning workouts if they eat something first, but if you struggle with time for a pre-workout breakfast or having a big meal that close to working out makes you nauseas, something small like a piece of fruit or yoghurt will do the trick. Just make sure to properly refuel after your workout if that's the case!

What foods are best for a pre-workout meal?

The best pre-workout foods for you can really depend on your goals. Each of the different macronutrients provides its own benefits that can help boost your results:

  1. Carbohydrates: They are your body's primary energy source. Consuming carbs before a workout can help increase glycogen stores in your muscles, providing you with more energy during your workout.

    • Complex carbs (for meals 2-4 hours before): Brown rice, quinoa, whole grain bread or pasta, starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes or oats.
    • Simple carbs (for snacks 30-60 minutes before): Banana, apple, berries, energy bars, or a slice of white bread.
  2. Protein: Helps prepare and protect your muscles. Consuming protein before a workout can help reduce muscle protein breakdown.

    • Examples: Chicken, turkey, tofu, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, eggs, or protein shakes.
  3. Healthy Fats (for meals 2-4 hours before): While fats can be a good source of energy, they digest slower than carbs and protein. Therefore, they should be consumed in moderation in pre-workout meals to avoid any digestive discomfort. Learn more about 'good fats' vs 'bad fats' here.

    • Examples: Avocado, nuts, seeds, and olive oil.
  4. Hydration: Drink water throughout the day leading up to your workout. If you're working out first thing in the morning, drink a glass of water before starting.

How long before working out should you eat?

The amount of time you need to leave between eating and exercising depends on whether you're eating a full meal or a snack. In general, it's recommended that you wait at least a couple of hours after eating a larger meal before working out, to give your food time to digest. However, a smaller, easily digestible snack within an hour of working out can help to provide an energy boost and keep you fuelled. As a guideline: 

  • 2-4 hours before workout: A larger meal that includes complex carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats.
  • 30-60 minutes before workout: A smaller snack that's easy to digest, primarily composed of simple carbohydrates and some protein.''

Example pre-workout meals

2-4 hours before workout:

30-60 minutes before workout:

  • A banana with a small spoonful of almond butter.
  • A slice of bread with natural peanut butter.
  • A protein bar or energy bar that's low in fibre (to ensure easy digestion).
  • A fruit smoothie with a scoop of protein powder.
  • A pre-workout supplement

Note: It's essential to listen to your body. Some people can eat closer to their workout and feel great, while others might need more time to digest. Experiment with different foods and timings to see what works best for you. 

If you don't feel like eating a chicken breast or an omelette before working out, it may be worthwhile taking a BCAA supplement, especially if you're fasting. Studies have shown that leucine -- one of the amino acids includes in BCAA supplements -- signals to the body that protein is available, and prevents the breakdown of muscle tissue.

And if you're after an added energy kick, brew yourself a coffee. Aside from perking you up mentally, research has shown caffeine to increase power output and endurance during physical exertion.

Post-Workout Meals

Do you need to eat straight after working out?

If pre-workout meals are supposed to get you fuelled up to perform, post-workout meals are aim to kickstart the recovery and growth process as soon as possible, as well as to replenish what you lost in training.

One common idea is that there's a special time-sensitive window right after training, where your body is in a heightened anabolic (muscle-building) state and any protein you feed it will boost muscle and strength growth significantly. However, the science is inconclusive, with a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition showing that some research supported the idea of the "anabolic benefits" of a post-workout meal, while other research showed no benefit.

As the study's authors point out, "The hypothesis is based largely on the pre-supposition that training is carried out in a fasted state."

Food takes time to digest, and it seems that having a decent pre-workout meal will keep amino acid blood and muscle levels boosted by 130% for around two hours after training. In this case, a post-workout meal isn't a big deal at all.

If, on the other hand, you allow a long gap between your last meal and your workout, or train while fasting, the post-workout meal can be an important way to raise your amino acid levels.

What foods are best for a post-workout meal?

If you are going to have a post-workout meal, eating some protein along with some complex carbs is a good way to support and refuel your body:

  1. Carbohydrates: After a workout, your muscle glycogen stores are depleted. Consuming carbohydrates helps replenish these stores.

    • Examples: Quinoa, brown rice, sweet potatoes, whole grain bread, and fruits.
  2. Protein: Exercise, especially resistance training, causes muscle protein breakdown. Consuming protein post-workout aids in repairing and building muscle tissue.

    • Examples: Chicken breast, turkey, tofu, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, eggs, or protein shakes.
  3. Healthy Fats: While post-workout nutrition often emphasises carbs and protein, including some healthy fats can support overall recovery.

    • Examples: Avocado, nuts, seeds, and olive oil.
  4. Hydration: After a workout, it's essential to rehydrate. Drink water, and if you've had a particularly intense or long workout, consider a drink with electrolytes.

Example post-workout meals

Immediately after workout:

  • A protein shake with a banana.
  • Greek yogurt with honey and almonds.
  • A slice of whole grain bread with natural peanut butter.

Within 2 hours of your workout:

Note: As with the pre-workout meal, make sure to pay attention to how your post-workout meals make you feel. Some people might feel hungrier after certain workouts and might need a larger meal, while others might prefer a light snack.

Refuelling During Exercise

Eating a meal during a workout is a write-off, but what about sports drinks, energy gels, and energy bars - are these needed?

Well, it depends on whether you're doing short, non-endurance training like weightlifting, or longer, endurance training like preparing for a marathon. For shorter cardio workouts, and strength training workouts, you can easily get by with just some water. For cardio workouts that are 90 minutes or more, refuelling during your workout can help to top up your energy levels and give you the boost needed to keep going. Sports drinks have the added benefit of keeping your electrolyte levels raised, helping to avoid a potentially lethal problem known as water intoxication. While actual dehydration during endurance sport is rare, water intoxication -- where excess water intake dilutes sodium in the body to dangerous levels -- is much more common.

Bonus: Creatine

Creatine is not a "food," but rather an acid found in certain foods such as red meat, salmon, and tuna, as well as being produced in your body by the liver.

Supplementing with creatine has been scientifically demonstrated, time and again, to improve strength and performance during physical exertion significantly. You can learn more about this over in our guide: everything you need to know about creatine

Want more info on this topic? Learn more about what to eat to reach your goals in our Ask A Coach series here.

For more healthy meal ideas, check out our recipes pages or our nutrition and diet advice hub for more tips. If you need help with your nutrition or training, why not work with a Personal Trainer? They can help you to reach your diet and fitness goals and provide expert advice tailored to your needs.

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