If you’re an avid exerciser or athlete that wants to improve your performance, build strength and muscle, and recover faster from your workouts, then you need to understand the basics of good pre and post-workout nutrition. In this article, I’m going to help you do just that.
But be warned because there’s a lot conflicting advice out there that simply doesn’t hold up in much of the literature. I’ll dispel some of these common pre and post-nutrition myths and give you some realistic action steps at the end to prevent you from going crazy due to all the confusing advice.
NOTE: This advice is not for those looking to burn fat. Fat loss strategies will be different and so I’ll discuss that in a separate post.
The Pre and Post Workout Nutrition “Hourglass”
I’ve spoken to hundreds of elite athletes and sporting organizations about my “hourglass” concept because it’s a simple way to understand how and what to eat before and after your workouts (or sporting activities).
The Workout Nutrition Hourglass:
As you can tell by this image, the further away from your workout, the more complex your meals should be. The closer you get to workout time, the simpler your food intake should be. I’ll show you why below.
So now let’s break each component down in detail along with relevant snack and meal ideas for each.
3-4 Hours Before Your Workout
If you need to have a meal before your workout or if you workout later in the day, then just remember that this meal is likely going to fuel tomorrow’s workout—not today’s. It will simply top up your blood glucose and glycogen stores. However, the protein within it should carry over into the post-workout period which is important for the post-workout nutrition considerations that I’ll mention in a moment.
With that said, you still want to make smart choices, i.e. not pound back wings and french fries.
This meal should be a predominantly carbohydrate-based meal along with some clean protein and healthy fats. This is not the time to have a big steak and baked potato. That will only way down your digestion and make you feel like falling asleep during your workout.
The carbs in this meal serve to stock up your muscle and liver glycogen stores and keep your blood sugar ready for your upcoming workout. This is important for delaying exercise-induced fatigue, especially from intense workouts since muscle glycogen becomes a major fuel source for intense workouts.
Research has also shown that glycogen availability influences muscle protein breakdown.(1) One study showed muscle protein breakdown more than DOUBLED following a bout of exercise in a glycogen-depleted versus glycogen-loaded state. (2). So keeping your muscles fueled with glycogen (carbs) is just as important as keeping your car readily fueled with gas.
- Steel cut oats with berries, peanut butter, and flax oil OR this porridge recipe
- Veggie omelette
- Sprouted grain toast
- Big GREEN Smoothie (20g protein per)
- 1-2 liters of water first thing in the morning!
30-60 Minutes Before Your Workout
If you need to have something before your workout then, from a performance perspective, a simple carbohydrate option is your best bet. This simple carb intake is meant to get your blood sugar to a happy level that will sustain a solid effort in your workout.
I would recommend this option for intense “glycogen-depleting” exercisers like CrossFitters, triathletes, and athletes before a game.
For almost everyone else, this quick sugar surge isn’t necessary.
Pre-Workout Snack Ideas:
- Glucose-rich fruit: bananas, grapes, peaches, plums, watermelon, and dates (these fuel your blood sugar with minimal influx of fructose)
- Homemade protein bars
- Pre-workout shake
If you’re simply lifting weight to build or maintain muscle and strength, you’re best served by adding some simple-to-digest (and absorb) protein or amino acids to these carbs before your workout. For instance, a simple protein powder in water is perfect here. In fact, that’s what I consume before most of my workouts.
15-30 Minutes Post-Workout
Post-workout is often considered the most critical part of nutrient timing. After all, an intense resistance training workout results in the depletion of your body’s fuels (including glycogen and amino acids) as well as causing damage to muscle fibers.
So you’d think we should all be guzzling a post-workout protein shake or something similar, right? That’s what I used to believe. However, there’s a good amount of research that doesn’t support this idea.
Even further, I’ve often advised my athletes and intense exercisers to immediately replenish with simple sugars within 15-30 minutes of their workout because that’s when your muscles are most receptive to nutrients, especially glucose (carbs).
However, unless you’re a pro athlete who requires as fast as recovery as possible, consuming a carb or even protein based snack IMMEDIATELY after your workout shouldn’t stress you out.
Studies have shown that even in the event of complete glycogen depletion (which is very very unlikely), replenishment to pre-workout levels occurs assuming you eat a meal within 24 hours of working out, even if you delay your post workout carbohydrate intake by several hours. (3) (4)
But what about protein? Shouldn’t you be drinking a protein shake right after your workout to prevent your muscles from wasting away?
Well, maybe… and maybe not. The evidence is conflicting.
Several studies have investigated whether an “anabolic window” exists immediately post-workout period with respect to protein synthesis (ie, muscle building). Here, the evidence supports two findings:
- Protein or amino acid consumption post-workout is more effective than carbohydrates alone for promoting muscle protein synthesis. (No surprise there)
- It’s uncertain whether protein PLUS carbs post-workout is superior compared to protein alone for this same objective. (5)
With all that said, if you want a few options for simple post-workout snack ideas to “theoretically” replenish glycogen and start rebuilding muscle protein, refer to the list under the “30-60 Minutes Before Your Workout” section. The recommendations are the same.
But, don’t be fanatical about engulfing these as you finish your last rep. It’s not going to make that big of a difference.
3-4 Hours Post-Workout
Similar to the section above, I wouldn’t be too fanatical about this. As long as you’re getting a well-balanced meal at some point after your workout, then you’ll be giving your body what it needs to recover fully and bounce back stronger. As I often tell my clients:
“No single meal will override the quality of your overall diet.”
So if you’re following a clean diet, training properly, and getting adequate recovery then your physique and performance can only improve.
Here are some post-workout meal ideas for you to try:
- Chicken, sweet potato, avocado, and a big salad
- Quinoa salad with fish
- Big green smoothie
- My Ultimate NO-HUNGER Post-Workout Shake
You might also enjoy one of these recipes from the blog:
Final Thoughts on Pre and Post Workout Nutrition
With all the conflicting advice and scientific studies on this topic, it’s hard to have a 100% certain answer to many of these pre and post-workout nutrition questions. There are many factors involved including training status, age, timing of workouts (i.e. morning in fasted state), etc…
However, there are some basic tenets you can adhere to—assuming your goals are muscle gain/maintenance, improved performance, and optimal recovery.
Fasted State Exercise
If you’re working out in a fasted state, understand there is an increase in muscle protein breakdown which causes your pre-workout “low amino status” (aka. negative amino acid balance) to persist into the post-workout period despite training-induced increases in muscle protein synthesis (building). (6)
Thus, in this situation, it would make sense to consume a workout shake/snack of protein and carbohydrate soon after your workout to enhance muscle protein synthesis and reduce breakdown.
Fed State Exercise
Based on the above, pre-workout nutrition might influence whether or not you should consume a post-workout snack right away.
Assuming you’ve had a pre-workout meal 3-4 hours before your workout (or even a smaller snack 1-2 hours beforehand), this meal can conceivably function as both a pre and an immediate post-exercise meal. This is because of the time the meal will take to be digested and absorbed can persist well into your recovery period.
A number of studies show that even minimal-to-moderate pre-exercise essential amino acids or high-quality protein taken immediately before a workout is capable of sustaining amino acid delivery into the post-workout period. (7) ( 8) (9)
In this case, ingesting anything right after your workout is simply redundant and your full meal (3-4 hours post-workout) is more than enough to maximize recovery and muscle growth.
Training Before Lunch or After Work
If you workout before lunch or after work, where your previous meal was finished 4–6 hours prior to your workout, then in order to preserve muscle it’s probably a good idea to have a post-workout shake, snack, or meal as soon as you can.
In such cases, aim to consume at least 25 grams of protein for improved muscle repair and recovery. I would also pair that with some carbohydrates to replenish depleted glycogen and to potentiate the effect of the protein you’re also ingesting.
Protein Intake for the Elderly
One final consideration is that age can influence how you adapt to your workouts.
Elderly people, for example, exhibit what has been termed “anabolic resistance,” characterized by a lower receptivity to amino acids and resistance training, and thus, require more protein to exhibit similar muscle building effects as men in their 20’s. (10)
At the end of the day, as long as you’re training properly and eating a quality whole food diet, the timing of your nutrient intake is marginal. Don’t stress about it. You’ll be fine if you just follow the simple guidelines I’ve provided for you here.