Best Pre-Workout + Post-Workout Snacks
What to eat before and after a workout – it’s the number one sports nutrition question I get asked! Today we’re talking about the best pre-workout and post-workout snacks and meals to fuel your fitness!
You know what’s just as important to achieving your fitness goals as the workouts you crush in the gym? The food you choose for refueling in the kitchen!
Adequate pre-workout and post-workout nutrition is key for optimal performance during exercise and for providing your body with the building blocks to repair and strengthen muscles after a workout. Proper nutrition also ensures that you are taking in all of the necessary nutrients to support overall health and prevent illness and injury.
Today we’re talking about how you can get the most out of your exercise routine by properly fueling your fitness before and after your workout.
Before exercise, it’s important to ensure that your glycogen stores are full. Glycogen is a molecule the body uses to store glucose, the body’s preferred source of energy. Glucose, aka sugar, is found in carbohydrates. The body can use fat and a little protein for energy, but glucose is the quickest and most easily utilized fuel during exercise.
In contrast to fat and protein, glucose doesn’t require oxygen to be converted into usable energy which is why it’s really helpful during anaerobic exercise (exercise without oxygen) when you need fuel fast. This includes exercises like short sprints, power lifts, or any movement that lasts less than 90 seconds.
Studies show that limiting carbohydrates in the diet impairs exercise intensity and duration. This information may be surprising to those who follow a low-carbohydrate diet in addition to exercising as a way of decreasing body fat mass. However, most clinical studies show no difference in fat mass loss between low-carb and other diets when protein and total calorie intake are the same. Therefore, those looking to lose weight through diet and exercise are better off sticking to a normal carbohydrate intake as to not impair their exercise capacity.
To optimize glycogen stores, people who exercise for at least an hour a day should eat about 5-7 carbohydrates/kilogram of body weight daily. Those exercising for less time or at a lower intensity should be fine with about 3-5 grams/kg/day.
Your total carbohydrate intake should be distributed throughout the day, and ideally come from high-quality sources such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes. Additionally, you’ll want to consume 1-4 grams of carbs/kg of body weight before a workout if the workout is going to last over an hour. This should be consumed within 1-4 hours before the workout.
If you’re exercising first thing in the morning though, and you had a carbohydrate-rich meal for dinner, your glycogen stores are likely sufficiently full and you can go ahead and workout without eating anything beforehand.
The first thing most people think about when it comes to post-workout nutrition is protein. You may be surprised to learn though that carbs are key in this phase of recovery too!
Protein and carbohydrates are equally necessary to fuel the body after a workout. Together, these nutrients provide the building blocks to repair and renew muscle cells and to replenish the energy expended during a workout.
During digestion, protein is broken down into amino acids, the building blocks of muscle. These are then absorbed and used to repair and replace muscle that is damaged during strength training. Meanwhile, carbohydrates replace those glycogen stores we discussed earlier to ensure that you’ll have enough energy to support your activities throughout the day, and prevent your body from breaking down muscle for energy.
Additionally, carbohydrates help maximize protein intake by signaling the insulin response. Insulin is an anabolic hormone that helps with muscle growth by facilitating the transport of amino acids into muscle cells.
An average of 15-25 grams of protein is recommended within 30 minutes to 2 hours after exercise. This is the maximum amount required at one meal to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. In fact, studies show that consuming 40 grams of protein at one meal has no additional muscle building benefit compared to a dose of 20 grams. Excess protein is utilized for fuel or stored as fat.
The average person only needs about 0.8 grams of protein/kilogram body weight per day. Athletes require between 1.2-1.8 g protein/kg/day, and 1-1.2 grams of carbohydrate/kilogram of body weight/hour of exercise.
For maximum glycogen synthesis, it is recommended that carbohydrate intake is met within the first 4-6 hours after a workout.
Pre-Workout/Post-Workout Snack Ideas
I always recommend fueling/refueling with a “real meal.” Why eat a bunch of snacks or processed protein powders when you can get everything you need from a satisfying whole foods meal?
Sometimes that’s not possible though and you’ll need something quick and easy to consume in that 30 minute-2 hour window. Here are my recommendations for both snacks and meals:
- A banana
- 1-2 slices of toast with avocado or peanut butter
- ½ cup of oatmeal
- 1-2 of my 4-Ingredient Peanut Butter Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies
- 1 cup plain popcorn
- ½ baked sweet potato
- 1 piece of fruit + ¼ cup nuts
- my Super Seed Oatmeal
- A balanced smoothie like my Anti-Inflammatory Green Smoothie
- A whole-grain wrap: 1 whole-grain tortilla, 2 tablespoons hummus, 3 oz tofu, ¼ avocado + veggies
For more ideas, watch my recent appearance on Good Day LA, where I share all of my pre-workout and post-workout nutrition advice and show the team how to make a healthy post-workout smoothie without using protein powder! >>
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Weigh in: What do you eat before a workout? What’s your favorite post-workout snack?
*Copyediting by Whitney E. RD team member, Marisol Ortiz