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Unleash Your Athlete: Pre- And Post-Workout Nutrition Secrets

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Sports nutrition is a well-designed nutrition plan for active individuals and athletes with specific performance and fitness goals. The goal of sport nutrition is to provide adequate nutrients, energy and fluids to keep the bodywell fueled and hydrated so it can function at peak levels.


Figuring out what to eat before and after a workout can be such a struggle but, I promise it’s worth it! You will feel and see the benefits —Hello new PR?!

Bottom line—If you’re going to put the machine that is your body through training to get faster and stronger, you are going to want to fuel it with proper nutrition. And no, I’m not talking about pre-workout supplements. I’m talking about ACTUAL meals and snacks! The kind of foods you enjoy anyway! Say What???

Of course what you eat after a workout is really important too. Indeed refueling after exercise gives your body what it needs to recover from the exertion and helps you build bigger, stronger muscles. This all means being thoughtful about what you eat before and after exercising will help you maximize the benefits of all your hard work at the gym.


Nutrient timing is knowing what and when to eat before, during and after exercise. Nutrient timing can also be one of the most confusing areas of sports nutrition, and for good reason! The answers to the questions above depend a lot on context…individual variability, intensity/sport, duration, food preferences, to name a few.

But fortunately, there are some general pre- and post-workout nutrition principles that can be applied to most athletes in most situations (PHEW)! That is what we’re going to outline here!

One key thing to keep in mind is that although nutrient timing around workouts can certainly make a difference in your performance and recovery, the food you eat over the course of the day is more important for strength gains and performance than nutrient timing strategies alone. I have had many athletes who are crushing their pre, post and intra fueling strategies, however are missing key nutrients and energy throughout the day (ie, protein, carbs, overall energy, perhaps low magnesium and potassium, etc.). On the other hand, if you are already on top of your meals for the day, nutrient timing strategies can give you perhaps that extra edge you have been looking for! 

“Being thoughtful about what you eat before and after exercising will help you maximize the benefits of all your hard work at the gym.”

Lindsay Distel
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Before your workout, we are looking for a meal that helps you feel energized, boosts your performance, keeps you hydrated, preserves muscle mass and speeds up your recovery all while limiting unwanted side effects like gas, bloating and even diarrhea.

In an “ideal” world we may want to eat our pre-workout meal one to three hours before training to allow for adequate digestion and to minimize these unwanted side effects.

Here’s what to include in that pre-workout meal:

PROTEIN: Exercise damages muscle tissue, but protein can help reduce prolonged damage, which means you recover faster! Heck yes! It can also help you maintain or increase muscle size, which is important for anyone who wants to improve their body composition or athletic performance. A smoothie or protein shake is certainly an easy grab and go-to option! Whole foods (such as lean meat or low-fat Greek yogurt) are also great options! Aim for around 40–60 grams of protein for men and 20–30 grams for women as a good starting point for this meal. [1, 2 ] You can check the food label for the protein content OR check in with your No Diet Dietitian to help you come up with your very own customized protein cheat sheet!

CARBOHYDRATES: Whether you’re a CrossFit athlete preparing for a high-intensity WOD or an endurance athlete going for a long run or bike ride, carbohydrates (carbs for short) can improve your performance and help increase muscle retention and growth. Insert truth bomb: if you are not supplying your body with adequate carbohydrate, it will break down protein found in muscle, body tissue and organs for energy. In other words, carbs are “protein sparing.”


This is specific to each individual, but something to keep in mind is that the maximum amount of carbohydrates that can be digested and absorbed during exercise is 60–80 grams per hour. [3]

FAT: Fat slows digestion, which can help keep blood glucose levels even during your workout. Fats do not seem to improve athletic performance in most individuals, but they are important for absorption of vitamins, minerals and feel satiated throughout the day. Bonus: they pack an added flavor punch!

It is important to note that having a high fat meal <1 hour before a high heart rate/intensity workout may lead to bloating, gas or perhaps feelings of hitting the wall early on in the workout. This is because gastric emptying (digestion) is thought to be negatively affected with VO2 max over 70%. [4]


For competitive athletes or those with specific performance goals, a more detailed, individual plan might be required (including possibly an intra-workout meal).

For example, if you are an endurance athlete doing a long 15-mile training run, or if you are trying to gain significant muscle and struggling to do so, you may need intra-workout carbs to provide an added fuel to your workouts. This is something you can specifically discuss with your No Diet Dietitian!


Some people wake up and train first thing in the morning, which makes it impossible to eat one to three hours before their session. In this case, consuming essential amino acids in the form of a drink/supplement before and during training can be helpful.[5]
For example:
Low-fat milk or dairy alternative with scoop protein powder
Chocolate milk
Fuel for Fire
Bowl of cereal
Toast with honey

“The key thing to remember with all nutrition advice is that what works best for you will vary depending on your goals, unique physiology, digestive system and the duration and intensity of your activity.”

Lindsay Distel


With post-workout nutrition, our goals are to kickstart recovery, rehydrated and perhaps refuel for the next training session. As a general rule, try to eat within two hours of finishing training for optimal recovery. This depends, however, on what you ate pre-workout. If you didn’t eat much pre-workout or you ate it several hours before your workout, your post-workout nutrition becomes more important.


Lucky for you, the post workout meal guidelines are pretty similar to pre-workout meal guidelines!

PROTEIN: Protein post-exercise prevents protein breakdown and stimulates synthesis, which can help to maintain and or increase muscle mass.

Many people have heard the recommendation that fast-digesting protein like whey hydrolysate is the best bet because the amino acids get into your muscles quickly. More recent research suggests, however, that these proteins may actually get into our systems too quickly.[6] But this doesn’t mean that a post-workout shake is a bad choice — you could pair a protein shake with other foods that slow down the digestion of the protein, such as the carb and fat (ie. add milk to protein shake vs. water or pair with toast/fruit and nuts).

CARBOHYDRATES: We are looking for a blend of high and low-glycemic carbs post-workout, such as oats, sweet potato, rice and/or fruit like bananas or apples. However, if you completed a particularly intense session or you train multiple times per day, you may need faster glycogen replenishment in the form of high glycemic carbohydrates, such as cereal, bagels, bread, etc. [7]

FAT: The amount of fat you should consume post-workout can be higher than your pre-workout meal, as research suggests that this will not negatively impact muscle growth or muscle glycogen synthesis. [8, 9] Try experimenting with 15–30 percent of your meals coming from fat (1/8th-1/6th of the plate) and pay attention to how your digestive system feels. If you notice discomfort or the food feels heavy in your stomach, consider reducing the amount of fat in this meal.


  • Before and after training, we want a combination of protein, carbohydrates, and fat sources. The amount of each you will need varies depending on your needs and personal preferences.
  • As a general rule of thumb, before training, aim to make your meal consist of easier-to-digest carbs plus protein, with minimal fat. After training, consume complex carbs and protein, and it’s safe to add more fat to this meal.
  • Ideally, we want to eat one to three hours before training as well as within two hours after training for maximal benefit. For early-morning exercisers who cannot eat one to three hours before their session, consider a smoothie, chocolate milk or protein shake OR consuming a bigger nighttime meal.
  • Do not forget that the total amount of protein and carbs consumed over the course of your day is still more important than any specific nutrient timing strategy.
  • The key thing to remember with all nutrition advice is that what works best for you will vary depending on your goals, unique physiology, digestive system and the duration and intensity of your activity, etc.

Overall, the key thing to remember with all nutrition advice is that what works best for you will depend on your goals and unique physiology (genetics, muscle mass, sport, activity/ training duration, etc). That is why hiring a No Diet Dietitian can make all the difference.

Written by our Board Certified Sports Dietitian, Lindsay Distel MPS, RD, CSSD

1.Moore DR, et al. Ingested protein dose response of muscle and albumin protein synthesis after resistance exercise in young men. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Jan;89(1):161-8; 2.Schoenfeld BJ, Aragon AA, Krieger JW. The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013 Dec 3;10(1):53; 3.Jeukendrup AE. Carbohydrate during exercise and performance. Nutrition. 2004 Jul-Aug;20(7-8):669-77; 4.Oliveira EP, Burini RC. Food-dependent, exercise induced gastrointestinal distress. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2011 Sep 3; 8 (12):1-7; 5.Bird SP, et al. Liquid carbohydrates/essential amino acid ingestion during a short-term bout of resistance exercise suppresses myofibrillar protein degradation. Metabolism. 2006 May;55(5):570-7; 6.LaCroix M, et al. Compared with casein or total milk protein, digestion of milk soluble proteins is too rapid to sustain the anabolic postprandial amino acid requirement. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006 Nov;84(5):1070-9; 7.Stevenson E. Improved recovery from prolonged exercise following the consumption of low glycemic index carbohydrate meals. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2005 Aug;15(4):333-49; 8.Elliot, T. A., Cree, M. G., Sanford, A. P., Wolfe, R. R., & Tipton, K. D. (2006). Milk Ingestion Stimulates Net Muscle Protein Synthesis following Resistance Exercise. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 38(4), 667-674. doi:10.1249/01.mss.0000210190.64458.25; 9.Fox, A. K., Kaufman, A. E., & Horowitz, J. F. (2004). Adding fat calories to meals after exercise does not alter glucose tolerance. Journal of Applied Physiology, 97(1), 11-16. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.01398.2003