A Strength Coach Shares What To Eat Before and After Heavy Training Sessions
By Jake Boly
In this article:
If you’re training or working out regularly, then you’ve likely explored the topics of pre- and post-workout nutrition. This entails exploring meal options, strategies, and ideas to maximize performance and optimize recovery post-workout. Pre- and post-workout nutrition are important topics to consider for a variety of reasons.
For starters, by acknowledging pre-workout nutrition, we can ensure that we’re setting ourselves up to perform strongly no matter the setting we’re in. Then, by recognizing the importance of fueling ourselves post-workout, we can double down on recovering and growing accordingly based on our goals.
In this article, we’re going to talk about a variety of strategies for fueling yourself pre- and post-workout.
Note: in the title, I reference “heavy.” For the context of this article, “heavy” will be referring to any form of intent-focused exercising and training that requires effort. Basically, I don’t want you to box yourself into thinking that this article is designed only for people physically lifting heavy.
Pre- and post-workout nutrition entails strategically consuming foods, fluids, and sports supplements designed to promote performance, support recovery, and overall effectiveness of one’s diet.
Oftentimes, we can box ourselves into thinking that only “one” thing is pre- and post-workout nutrition (e.g. only thinking post-workout nutrition entails drinking a protein shake), so in this article, we’re going to discuss the topic from a more macro view that accounts for any form of intent-focused nutritional behaviors or habits that precede or follow a workout.
If you’re reading this article and the word “heavy” enticed your interest and resonated with you, then you should probably at least be cognizant of your pre- and post-workout nutrition.
When discussing pre- and post-workout nutrition, we have to remember the contextual differences in our individual lives. How you train is not how I train, and how you fuel yourself will be different than how I fuel myself. This is important because individualization will provide us with a better framework for building pre- and post-workout nutrition strategies that actually work for us.
So, now the question remains: who really needs to care about pre and post-workout nutrition?
In reality, there’s an argument to be made that everyone who wants to perform their best and recover to their fullest potential should at least consider some form of pre- and post-workout strategy.
Pre-workout nutrition becomes increasingly important for those who are performing high-intensity activities where they’re going to be relying on a variety of energy stores. In addition, pre-workout nutrition can be essential to consider for those in dieting phases who are working on caloric deficits. Since this population is already working with limited energy resources, then timing their meals around their workouts can help boost performance when energy is not as readily available.
Post-workout nutrition is equally important for anyone that wants to ensure they’re providing their body with nutrients to utilize for recovery purposes. Anyone that is performing harder workouts, like two-a-days, or exercising in a caloric deficit should be a bit more cognizant of their post-workout nutrition compared to the general public.
In the section below, we’ll discuss specifics for pre- and post-workout nutrition and best practices. I want to make clear in this section that caring about your nutrition before and after a workout is never really a bad thing as long as we contextualize its importance for our needs and we don’t build arbitrary stressors around it (e.g. thinking we only have 30-minutes to consume a protein shake post-workout for it to be effective — that is simply not the case).
There are a lot of different ways to fuel yourself before and after a workout. Below, I’ll cover some basic tenants to keep in mind with pre- and post-workout nutrition, then we’ll lay out a few thoughts to keep in mind when selecting options for yourself.
What To Eat Before A Workout
When we consume meals and fluids, it’s important to remember that depending on the composition of our intake (macronutrient breakdown of the meal), there will likely be some level of digestion taking place in the body.
When it comes to pre-workout nutrition, some basic guidelines to aim for that coincide with current research recommendations are:
- Meal: 30g of carbohydrates + 30g of protein
- Time: Ingested around 45-min to 1-hour pre-workout. Pre-workout mealtime consumption can vary, but 45-min to 1-hour is the general suggestion provided.
Note: there can be some variation with meal timing and composition, as we need to account for what makes us feel and perform the best. Remember, these are suggestions and not a definitive “what you have to eat” to fuel a great workout.
What To Eat After A Workout
Following a workout, especially a resistance training workout, our body will be primed for muscle protein synthesis (MPS), which is the process of our body utilizing protein for muscle building and recovery.
When lifters talk about the “anabolic window” post-workout, they’re often referencing leveraging the time following a workout to create a more anabolic environment in the body, as MPS potential will be higher following energy exertion. This is why it’s recommended to consume a high-quality protein and carbohydrate source post-workout—both of these can support MPS.
Now, unlike conventional wisdom that says the anabolic window is a short, limited time period following a workout, research has actually suggested that this window is likely more close to being around 4-6 hours post-workout.
As for post-workout meal suggestions, use the following to build meals accordingly following workouts.
- High-quality protein source: Generally, 20-40g will suffice and serve as a good rule of thumb for increasing MPS. Sources include protein shakes, chicken, egg whites, eggs, turkey, lean beef, bison, and any other lower-fat protein sources.
- High-quality carbohydrate source: Generally, 30-60g will suffice and these carbs can vary.
Note: the 4-6 hour window mentioned above will be different for elite athletes, anyone performing two-a-days, and other specific scenarios.
Now that we have pre- and post-workout meal tenants and recommendations, it’s time to build meals accordingly that will help you leverage your performance and post-workout recovery.
- Build staple meals: These meals entail consuming fluids and foods that “agree” with your body before and after working out. For example, if you like to workout with a less full stomach, then opting for things like protein shakes and easily digestible carbohydrates before a workout could be useful.
- Scale meals per your workouts: The idea of scaling meals means remaining fluid with your staple meals based on what you’re doing for your workout. Some workouts will likely require more fuel than others, so remember to select meals that feed into what you’re doing. For example, this could mean opting for a larger meal fairly quickly following a high-volume workout to make sure you’re fueling your body properly to feed into goals like muscular hypertrophy.
- Utilize supplements when traveling or busy: Every day won’t be perfect when it comes to pre- and post-workout nutrition and this is where supplements can be useful. For example, if you’re slammed and have to get to work right after a workout, then pack a protein shake for ease of consumption while also providing the body with a high-quality protein source.
If you’re someone who isn’t hungry before or after workouts, then using things like protein shakes or carb supplements can be useful to ensure you’re prepping and recovering accordingly. When it comes to pre and post-workout nutrition, try to remain fluid with what you consume. Keep in mind your individuality and prioritize your personal performance, feeling, and adherence.