If you're reading this, it's likely because you're looking to take your training goals to the next level. Whether you're a beginner just starting out in the gym, or an advanced athlete looking to gain an extra edge on your performance, nutrition is often overlooked as the missing puzzle piece that separates where you are from where you want to be.
This is why optimizing your pre and post workout nutrition is more important than ever.
Optimal pre and post workout nutrition is not only about having the right nutrients. It's also about when you should have them. Eating the right foods at the right time can be the difference between having an okay workout and having a great one.
So, when we speak about meals, we’re talking about a combination of protein, carbohydrates, and fats. To be clear, every meal is important. You can’t eat correctly for two meals, screw up the others, and expect to see results. Consistency matters. Therefore, we’re talking more about the timing here.
Pre-Workout Meal and Timing
It’s safe to say that protein is an essential nutrient that you must have in order to build muscle. The question is when you should have it. Consuming protein over the course of the day is important, but the timing of a protein source leading up to training may not be as crucial as you think.
Research in 2017 came to the conclusion that a trainee could choose whether to have protein immediately before or after training, but having it within a certain time frame wasn’t essential.1 The type of protein you choose to consume could be in the form of actual food or supplementation such as whey protein powder. So, as long as you have protein before you train, you don’t have to feel pressure about when to have it leading up to the workout.
Carbohydrates can be a great asset in maximizing performance, whether you’re talking about anaerobic training or aerobic exercise. There are many diets that don’t endorse carbs, but an exception should be considered around the time you train.
A 2014 study concluded that eating a meal that was rich in carbohydrates within 60 minutes before training could maximize your performance for that session.2 Proper sources of carbohydrates can be fruits, vegetables, oats, and whole grains. Processed carbs may not be your best choice when it comes to this because you want your body to have the best fuel possible to propel you through your session.
Education in recent years have hopefully convinced people that not all fats are bad, and some are even very beneficial. Actually, having a high fat meal within one hour of your workout may even help promote fat oxidation during the first hour of exercise.3
You’re drinking water throughout the day (or at least you should be), but timing your hydration can be a big deal. Taking in 16 to 20 of water 2-3 hours before training, and 6-10 more within 20 minutes of training will support the efforts you’re about to commit.4
When it comes to the pre-workout meal, protein timing may not be as important, but having carbohydrates and fats one hour or less before the workout starts can be rewarding. Therefore, having a balanced meal of protein, carbs, and fats an hour before gym time would make it easier to schedule and more supportive about the work you do in the gym. Consuming water throughout the day should take care of your hydration needs leading up to the workout, but scheduling it for both two hours out and 20 minutes before would help.
Post-Workout Meal and Timing
There has been a lot of talk about an “anabolic window” that suggests that you must eat as soon as possible after training or you won’t see results. The same study that determined that protein timing wasn’t important before training came to the same conclusion after training.
However, research from 2013 found that ingesting at least 20 grams of protein during or immediately after exercise can facilitate skeletal muscle response, resulting in improved reconditioning.5 So, while it may not make or break your results to have protein immediately after your workout, a post-workout protein shake certainly won’t hurt your cause, either.
When it comes to the muscle building process, carbohydrates post-workout may not be as important as protein. However, they are vital in replenishing glycogen storage that you diminished during the training session.6
So, if you train early and have a long day ahead, getting food that is high in carbs with a high glycemic index would be the best bet. If you train later in the day, you would be wise to at least have slow-digesting choices to promote recovery.
Fats can be your friend, but do they have to be around all the time? Thanks to the popularity of some high fat diets, many people want to get a high amount of those fats after training.
It certainly doesn’t hurt you to add fats to the post-workout meal, but it may not be necessary, either. One study determined that adding substantial fats to meals after training did not alter muscle glycogen resynthesis or glucose tolerance either way.7
Drinking water after training is going to be important. Don’t just rush to the vending machine or fill up your bottle, though. The same study that covered the importance of pre-workout hydration suggested that alkaline water would be best to have after you leave the gym or finish your cardio. Another study from 2017 agrees with those findings.8 So, look for alkaline water to have with that protein powder or drink it on its own.
When it comes to the post-workout meal, you could have a protein shake immediately after if you feel you should have something or you’re hungry, but you don’t have to rush to the house because of a mythical countdown clock.
Furthermore, a combination of protein and carbohydrates post-training would help you recover from the work you put in during the training session – whether it was weight training, cardio, or both. As long as it’s within a few hours of your workout, you will be fine. You can have fats as well, but don’t feel obligated to include a complete fat source.
Final Thoughts on Pre and Post Workout Nutrition
If you don’t provide your body with the right nutrients, then you’re not going to see the results you want. It isn’t only about eating food, though. The timing of your pre and post workout meals can make a difference as well. Bookend your workouts with quality meals, and your chances of progress that you can be proud of will be much higher.
- Schoenfeld BJ, Aragon A, Wilborn C, Urbina SL, Hayward SE, Krieger J. Pre- versus post-exercise protein intake has similar effects on muscular adaptations [published correction appears in PeerJ. 2017 Aug 1;5:]. PeerJ. 2017;5:e2825. Published 2017 Jan 3. doi:10.7717/peerj.2825
- Rothschild JA, Kilding AE, Plews DJ. What Should I Eat before Exercise? Pre-Exercise Nutrition and the Response to Endurance Exercise: Current Prospective and Future Directions. Nutrients. 2020;12(11):3473. Published 2020 Nov 12. doi:10.3390/nu12113473
- Ormsbee MJ, Bach CW, Baur DA. Pre-exercise nutrition: the role of macronutrients, modified starches and supplements on metabolism and endurance performance. Nutrients. 2014;6(5):1782-1808. Published 2014 Apr 29. doi:10.3390/nu6051782
- Judge LW, Bellar DM, Popp JK, et al. Hydration to Maximize Performance and Recovery: Knowledge, Attitudes, and Behaviors Among Collegiate Track and Field Throwers. J Hum Kinet. 2021;79:111-122. Published 2021 Jul 28. doi:10.2478/hukin-2021-0065
- van Loon LJ. Role of dietary protein in post-exercise muscle reconditioning. Nestle Nutr Inst Workshop Ser. 2013;75:73-83. doi:10.1159/000345821
- Poole C, Wilborn C, Taylor L, Kerksick C. The role of post-exercise nutrient administration on muscle protein synthesis and glycogen synthesis. J Sports Sci Med. 2010;9(3):354-363. Published 2010 Sep 1.
- Fox AK, Kaufman AE, Horowitz JF. Adding fat calories to meals after exercise does not alter glucose tolerance. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2004;97(1):11-16. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.01398.2003
- Chycki J, Zając T, Maszczyk A, Kurylas A. The effect of mineral-based alkaline water on hydration status and the metabolic response to short-term anaerobic exercise. Biol Sport. 2017;34(3):255-261. doi:10.5114/biolsport.2017.66003