Pre- and Post-Workout Nutrition

Pre- and Post-Workout Nutrition


Running Stretch

Are you wondering what you should eat before and after your workout? I am guessing you are because this is one of the most common questions I get from clients! Your individual nutritional needs will depend on the type of athlete you are, the activity being performed, and the intensity of the workout. BUT… there are some common truths that apply to pre- and post-workout nutrition for everyone. Whether you are playing a soccer game or running a marathon, knowing how to balance carbohydrates (carbs), protein and fat is key to your performance.


Let’s start with carbohydrates since they are a major macronutrient and one of our body’s primary sources of energy. Carbohydrates are the fuel our muscles need to function properly. The more strenuous your workout, the more carbohydrates your body will need to keep it going. Choosing the right carbohydrates is just as important as the timing. Do you think consuming a bag of gummy bears or bag of potato chips before your race is the best option?- according to my 12 year old daughter, “why not?”


Carbohydrates are found in numerous types of foods- fruit, vegetables, dairy, nuts, legumes, seeds, sugary foods, and sweets. They are made up of fiber, sugar and starch. Fiber and starch are complex, while sugar is a simple carbohydrate. We can break carbohydrates down even further into two categories: complex and simple.


Complex carbohydrates are absorbed slower than simple carbohydrates since they are higher in fiber and have long chains of sugar that are more complex to breakdown. Complex carbohydrates have a lower glycemic index (GI), which indicates how slowly or quickly these foods raise your blood sugars. As a result, complex carbohydrates can keep your energy levels stable, which is preferable for exercise. Research indicates that complex carbohydrates can improve endurance more than simple carbohydrates since they provide sustained energy.


Complex carbohydrates are found in vegetables, whole grains and other food sources that are not highly refined or processed. Examples include:

  • green vegetables
  • whole grain bread
  • oatmeal
  • brown rice
  • sweet potatoes
  • beans, lentils, and peas


 Simple carbohydrates are also known as simple sugars and include refined foods such as candy and other high-sugar, processed foods. Simple carbohydrates are absorbed quickly by your body, but do not provide sustained energy. Simple carbohydrates sometimes result in a crash, or feelings of fatigue, and may cause cramps or stomach discomfort when consumed before exercise.


  • raw sugar
  • corn syrup
  • fruit juice concentrate
  • baked goods
  • soda
  • cookies
  • some vegetables and fruit- timing dietary fiber is effective at tempering the effects of simple carbohydrates in fruits and vegetables, according to the authors of “Nutrition Therapy and Pathophysiology.” This means that individuals can usually eat fruits and vegetables without experiencing a dangerous increase in blood sugar levels.


In addition to choosing the right kinds of carbohydrates, carefully consider the timing of your pre-workout foods. If you don’t provide enough time between your meal and exercise, your meal may not be fully digested, resulting in an upset stomach. Consume a small meal or snack one to three hours prior to your activity, depending how your body tolerates food. Do not wait until game day to try a new food-stick with foods you know you can tolerate. I recommend experimenting with new foods during training so there are no surprises on game day.

A variety of pre-exercise meals may benefit your performance. Sports nutritionist Molly Kimball, R.D., suggests combining milk, fresh fruit and protein powder in a shake to help prevent protein breakdown during your workout. You can add whole grains such as oats or cereal for complex carbs. A solid meal should combine protein and carbohydrates – try a bagel sandwich or pair chicken with a potato. She also recommends limiting fatty foods before exercise, so avoid pizza, burgers and fried food.

According to the American Dietetic Association, examples of good pre-workout meals include:

  • peanut butter and banana or peanut butter and jelly sandwich
  • greek yogurt with berries
  • oatmeal with low-fat milk and fruit
  • apple and peanut butter or almond butter
  • handful of nuts and raisins (two parts raisins, 1 part nuts)

Notice that each of these suggestions contains a carbohydrate and protein. Carbs provide the fuel for your workout while protein rebuilds and repairs, making sure the right amino acids are available for your muscles. Getting protein and carbs into your body post-workout is even more important.

After you workout your body needs to replenish the glycogen (stored energy) that has been depleted during your workout. You can do this by eating carbs and protein soon after you are done. These proteins and amino acids will help rebuild and repair your tired muscles. If you aren’t able to eat a full meal right away, consume a snack within 15-20 minutes after your workout and then a full meal 3-4 hours later. Your post-workout meal should be high in complex carbohydrates like brown rice and quinoa, and rich in healthy protein, like fish, beans or chicken.

The American Dietetic Association provides these examples of post-workout meals:

  • post-workout recovery smoothie (made with low-fat milk and fruit)
  • low fat chocolate milk (my daughter‘s soccer team drinks this after every game)
  • turkey on whole-grain wrap with veggies
  • yogurt with berries
  • Other examples include: 1 slice of whole grain bread with 1 tablespoon of peanut butter and small banana sliced; veggie omelet and ½ cup roasted sweet potatoes; or 4 ounces baked salmon, brown rice and sautéed spinach.


You need to make sure you properly hydrate yourself before, during and after your activity. If your workout is an hour or shorter, your body probably only needs water. If you are performing a more intense activity or for a longer duration, you may require a drink with electrolytes, especially in a hotter climate. A rule of thumb is to drink 16 ounces of fluid for every pound of body weight lost. We will talk more about that on another day!


  • Carbohydrates are needed to fuel your working muscles.
  • Protein is needed to rebuild and repair your muscles.
  • Balance your meals and snacks with carbs and protein. Consume a pre-work meal 1 to 3 hours prior to activity and post-workout within 20 minutes of finishing your activity.
  • Choose complex carbs and lean proteins and avoid heavier, fatty foods.
  • Never try a new food on game day- experiment during training to find out what works best for your body.















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