Pre and post workout nutrition is so confusing. A simple google search yields over 30 million results. You don’t have time to read all this and figure it all out, so I did it for you.
For this article, I interviewed Neda K, an elite trainer with Equinox for 10 years, for a guide to pre and post-workout nutrition. I have also based it on my own experience and research, because it seems that every expert has a different answer. Let’s get to the bottom of this together.
Why eat before a workout?
Fasted working out, especially cardio, may burn more calories at a time, but the price you pay is a less stellar workout. So what do you choose? There are so many articles that go both ways. The top results that pop up in a Google search have conflicting messages, with some titles telling you that fasted cardio is beneficial for burning fat, and other titles telling you that the benefits of fasted cardio are a myth. So, what do we believe? Should we eat before we workout or not?
The argument for fasted workouts
Search the internet, or talk to different trainers, and you will find there is a significant contingent that prefer fasted workouts, especially cardio, workouts. I was one of these people. On a regular basis I would fuel up with coffee or green tea, maybe a pre-workout powder, and hit the gym.
Those who favor fasted workouts claim that it burns more fat during the workout. The reasoning is that your body is only running on glycogen, i.e., the stored sugars in your body, and that when that store is low because you have not eaten recently then your body has no choice but to burn fat for energy. This is the case especially if you work out the first thing in the morning, because your glycogen supply, i.e., your pre-stored carbs, is at its lowest. The theory is that working out in that state will burn fat faster as opposed to having to burn the calorie from food first. Makes sense, right? Most people who support fasted workouts also are advocates of intermittent fasting, which is probably one of the most controversial topics in fitness. If you want to read more about IF, head over to my breakdown of the debate here.
The argument for “fed” workouts
While there was research in 2019 that not eating before workouts burns more fat during the workouts, importantly the research did not reveal that there was greater weight loss. This does not necessarily mean that you will burn more overall fat all day. It’s still a CICO equation. It’s about overall energy balance, More research suggests that this is essentially a wash – regardless of whether you eat before a workout, you end up burning fat after using stored carbs because in a fed state, you are burning more carbs because you have more energy to go hard.
Running on empty can also have a counterproductive effect by burning muscle instead of fat. If your cardio session is even moderately intense, the large muscles that power you through rely heavily on a combination of carbs and fats for energy. According to this article by Shape magazine, this will result in drawing from carb and fat fragments in your bloodstream and muscle stores, not to the fat in your fat cells to energize your workout. If eating before a workout will keep you from bingeing afterwards, that is something to consider.
The downsides of not eating before a workout
Being hungry or focused on food during a workout essentially makes the workout suck. I call this “mid-workout food obsession”. Getting hungry during the workout, wondering what you will eat, mentally preparing a shopping list can hinder your mind-body connection and impact the results. If your body is already nourished, you will be able to focus on the workout and put more energy into it.
The other more physical problem with not having adequate nutrition around workouts is the post workout blood sugar crash. If you have experienced this, you may feel great during the workout, but after you get out the shower you find yourself feeling drained, dizzy, and lethargic. And hangry.
Hungry hungry hippos
Getting overly hungry can lead to what I call “hungry hungry hippo” syndrome. Does anyone remember this game, back before the digital age? Basically no matter how much food I hoover up after a workout I get ravenously hungry all day. And that means lots of grazing…and canceling out the hard workout I just did.
There is no right answer – except what’s right for you
I am not an expert, but even the experts can’t agree. Neda K definitely comes out on the side of fed workouts – but other trainers at Equinox will advocate for the other side. It’s about what’s right for you and what your goals are. If you get nauseated one way or another, if you feel more sluggish or energized one way or another, go with your gut (literally). If, however, you decide to skip food pre-workout, definitely make sure that you get adequate nutrition soon afterwards.
In addition, eating before a workout also does not mean eating a full breakfast. While breakfast technically does mean breaking a fast, it also doesn’t have to be a 300 calorie meal. If you work out in the morning, this is especially the truth. Unless you have at least 2 hours, generally you should not work out after you have had a full meal. Rather, pre-workout eating can mean a small 75-100 calorie snack.
How much time between food and workouts?
Ideally, you would want to have your pre-workout at least a half an hour or an hour before working out. A common question: What if you just are one of those people who can’t eat in the morning? Try to sip on something with nutrition value, like low-fat chocolate milk (it can be almond milk) or a blended smoothie with almond milk and fruit (like a banana). While smoothies can be a trap for the unwary, a very simple three-ingredient one like this will be low in calories and give you quick energy.
For after a workout, especially one over 30 minutes, you will want to try to eat within 30-60 minutes afterwards. If you don’t eat within a reasonable time, you are susceptible to the kind of blood sugar crash discussed above and jeopardize your muscle recovery.
Eating before the workout will also provide some “insurance” in case it’s not possible to eat as soon as that after your workout. What would often happen to me is that I would do a fasted workout, then jump into work and want to get x,y, and z done before eating, or have to start successive calls or meetings. I noticed I would deteriorate from feeling energized to lethargic and then eventually starving. Then once I finally was able to eat a meal, usually by late morning or lunch, I would eat way more than I would have normally and feel sleepy and unmotivated afterwards.
Since I have been making more of an effort to eat before and as soon as possible after a workout, I have found that I have more consistent energy and less susceptibility to inconsistent eating behaviors.
What to eat
Time carbs around your workout
One thing I was taught from a top female figure competitor that trained me for a while was to time carbs around workouts. That’s the most important source of immediate energy and the macronutrient that can get to your muscles the fastest. Many people think the workout is what gets them results – but it’s actually the recovery outside of the gym where the microtears and breakdown of muscle you incur while working out is restructured, along with the surrounding nerve and connective tissues. So any carbs that you eat close to the workout especially afterwards will essentially be shuttled through your bloodstream straight to that process.
Protein and fat
Protein is equally important to aid muscle recovery after workouts. While some view fat as less than ideal because of its role in slowing down digestion, it actually has been shown to have minimal effect on recovery, Plus, a small amount of fat will help absorb the other vitamins and nutrients in your food (remember, we talked about this in the article about fat).
Generally, the ratio of carbs to protein recommendation is 3:1, but I have also heard 2:1, and other variants. I wouldn’t obsess about that – really just getting the right foods will naturally guide you toward those numbers, so we will discuss those below.
Make pre and post workout meals half and half to cut down on one extra round of meal prep
One practice I have found is helpful is to make a pre-workout meal and then eat some of it before the workout, and some of it afterwards. For example, if I were to have greek yogurt, I would have some before the workout and then the rest of it afterwards. If I were going to eat a banana, I would do the same – eat half before, and half after. All of the food below doesn’t require prep and is super easy to make.
A combination of protein, carbs and a little bit of fat, in easily digestible quantities. For example, if you are working out in the morning:
- Banana-almond smoothie (with Greek yogurt and honey)
- ½ cup little bit of Greek yogurt with honey;
- A palmful of almonds with dried fruit, like dates, apricots, or goji berries;
- ½ piece toast or banana with a thin spread of nut butter
- 1/2 a kind bar
- 1/2 a cup of Kashi go-lean cereal
It helps to have all of this ready to go the night before. For example, you can pre-blend your smoothie, or preportion your snack in a small baggie. For example, you can get your smoothie ready in a mason jar. This is actually one of the times it is good to have a smoothie, because this way you won’t expeirence any indigestion. Just keep it super simple with almond milk, fruit and a little bit of greek yogurt if you want the protein. Keeping it in a mason jar will also let you have the smoothie over 2-3 days, or have some before the workout and some of it after. This is also helpfiul to the “I can’t eat before I work out crowd”.
If your workout is in the evening you may also consider:
- Crackers and hummus
- Sliced turkey with pita and a slide of cheese or avocado
- Hardboiled egg with a piece of fruit and a palmful of nuts
- Smoothie with almond milk and fruit
I find that if I do eat before my workout, my overall calorie intake will go down. I am not as ravenous when I finish working out.
I like to time my post-workout meals as “regular” meals, so I don’t have to put as much time into planning meals and snacks. For my meals, I make sure I get a combo of slow-digesting carbs, protein, and fats. So a post-workout meal may look like:
- Scrambled eggs with toast
- Toast with nut butter and honey
- Steel cut oats, greek yogurt, green apple and honey
- Open faced salmon and egg sandwich
- Avocado smash toast with eggs
- Breakfast bowl with eggs, veggies, and sweet potato
- Whole wheat pancakes with Greek Yogurt and honey (you can also make your own version, I have a recipe in my DAOFitlife recipes HERE).
- Trader Joe’s high fiber cereal with bananas, almond milk and side of egg whites
- Quinoa with chicken breast, avocado and spinach
- Hummus and veggie sandwich
- Shrimp salad with exotic black rice and veggies
- Grab on the go: Chick-fil-a naked nuggets and apple kale salad, Panera Meditteranean veggie sandwich, Salad bowl with kale, brown rice, chicken breast, sweet potato, DIY or BYO dressing (see my post here for my salad dressing suggestions.).
- Chickpea casserole with cauliflower rice
- Salmon with veggie stir fry and brown rice
- Chicken or steak with sweet potato and broccoli
- Meal app delivery/takeout: Chipotle bowl with beans, brown rice, fajita vegetables, and salsa. (here is a good article on what to order and not order at Chipotle). And for general ordering in guidance, read my linked post.