What to eat before and after a workout: a dietitian’s guide

Did you know that inadequate sports nutrition increases your risk of poor performance, injury, fatigue and suboptimal gains? Since nutrition is a significant contributor to exercise performance and recovery, it is crucial to consider the nutritional content and timing of your meals and snacks.

Whilst we all have different goals, food preferences and training schedules, there are basic sports nutrition guidelines everyone can follow to help optimise performance and recovery.

Dietitians Anna and Alex from The Biting Truth share their top tips below.

Pre-workout nutrition

Eating before exercise will provide you with the fuel necessary to optimise performance and get the most out of your workout. Skipping a pre-workout meal or not eating enough can affect safety and performance by contributing to dizziness, lightheadedness, nausea, lethargy and increasing susceptibility to injuries.

It is also important to consider the type of fuel you’re giving your body! Fuelling with the right nutrients prior to exercise will provide you with the energy and strength necessary to optimise performance. The key elements of pre-workout nutrition largely depend on the type of training you’re undertaking, your personal preferences and your exercise goals.

In general, your pre-exercise meal or snack should be:

  • Rich in carbohydrates and protein: this will allow you to prime your fuel stores and support working muscles
  • Low in fibre, especially for those with gut issues: foods that are low in fibre are digested quickly to provide you with fuel and avoid gastrointestinal issues during your workout (e.g. cramping, bloating).
  • Easy to digest – avoid foods overly high in fat as these are slow to digest (e.g. dairy products, fatty meats).

Carbohydrates prior to exercise can assist in topping up your muscle glycogen stores to support training by providing working muscles with adequate fuel. Although protein is a bigger focus in post exercise nutrition, consuming protein prior to a workout can also assist with muscle protein synthesis and recovery.

As a guide, aim to consume a meal 2–4 hours prior to exercise or a snack 1-2 hours before a workout. Since our taste buds (and our stomachs!) differ, we recommend taking some time to experiment with different options to find what works best for you.

Post-workout nutrition

The food you consume and the timing of your meals following a workout are extremely important and can help you improve body composition, performance and overall recovery.

The basic idea behind post-workout nutrition is to achieve the following three things:

  1. Replenish energy (glycogen) stores
  2. Reduce protein breakdown
  3. Repair the muscle used during your workout

Exercise not only utilises your body’s energy stores but also causes small amounts of damage to the muscle tissues at a cellular level. While this might sound counter-productive, it allows you to become stronger, fitter and leaner – as long as you are consuming the right foods to support this process. The building and toning of muscles occurs when muscle proteins are broken down and new ones are created. Therefore, post-workout nutrition will not only replenish your energy stores but also importantly assist in building new muscle.

In general, your post-exercise meal or snack should be:

  • Rich in protein to repair and rebuild muscles damaged during training
  • Rich in carbohydrates to help replace the energy utilised during exercise

Timing is a crucial element of post-workout nutrition. We recommend eating within 30–90 minutes following a workout. Studies have revealed that adequate nutrition and rehydration during this period will best support recovery. This has been attributed to the fact that, during this time, blood flow to the muscles increases, priming the muscles to accept nutrients and helping to stimulate muscle growth and repair.

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