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What to Eat Before, During and After Your Workouts

By John Berardi, Ph.D. ; Updated February 28, 2018

These days, it seems like everywhere you turn there's a website or magazine presenting a perfectly composed, impeccably timed eating plan that promises to finally deliver the body you want. The truth is, though, that most people don't need to overthink what they eat.

Workout Nutrition Basics

In general, for most people trying to look and feel their best, nutrient timing isn't necessary. In fact, focusing on exactly when to eat carbs versus fats versus protein can be distracting or even self-sabotaging.

If all you want is to be healthy, exercise regularly and feel good, then simply eating nutritious, well-planned meals one to two hours before and after your workouts will probably suffice. Just focus on food quality and quantity, avoiding deficiencies and eating right for your body type, and you'll be successful.

However, if you train for endurance, bodybuilding or fitness competitions — or if you're after serious muscle mass — then what you eat and when you eat it can make a huge difference. If that's you (or if you want that to be you), keep reading.

Take Your Workout Nutrition to the Next Level

Serious training for endurance, strength or fitness competitions means you need to be eating like an athlete. When and what you eat can support your performance, recovery and overall health.

How to Fuel Up Before a Workout

In the three hours before training, focus on:

  • Protein: This helps maintain or even increase muscle size, minimize muscle damage, speed recovery and boost your conditioning in the long term.
  • Carbs: These offer quick energy to fuel both endurance and short, high-intensity workouts while supporting muscle retention and growth.
  • Fats: They slow digestion, keeping blood sugar stable.

If you choose to eat two to three hours before your workout, that's far enough in advance for a modest meal. For men, that means:

  • 2 palm-sized portions of lean protein, such as top sirloin steak or pork tenderloin
  • 2 fists full of vegetables
  • 2 thumb-sized portions of healthy, fat-dense food (like almonds or walnuts)
  • 2 cupped handfuls of carb-dense foods (like berries or brown rice)

For smaller women, start with half of what's outlined above. If you're larger or more active, increase from there based on your needs.

If you opt to get some calories within an hour of your workout, we recommend a smoothie or shake, which digests faster. Try:

  • 1 scoop of protein powder
  • 1 fistful of veggies (like spinach)
  • 1 to 2 cupped handfuls of carbs (like berries)
  • 1 thumb-sized portions of fats (like mixed nuts or peanut butter)
  • 8 ounces of a low-calorie beverage (like unsweetened chocolate almond milk)

Again, smaller women would start with half and increase from there based on body size or activity levels.

What to Eat During a Workout

If your training session will last less than two hours, all you need to worry about is hydration. Good ol' H2O is fine, but if you're exercising in the heat and sweating a lot, a sports drink may help replenish electrolytes (just be cautious of excess carbs and sugars).

Training intensely for more than two hours at a time or multiple times a day or trying to gain muscle mass? Then you may benefit from taking in certain nutrients as you go. Your goals here are similar to those for pre-workout nutrition: Stay hydrated, maintain energy, boost performance, preserve muscle and improve recovery. You'll need:

  • Protein: It prevents muscle breakdown, especially if it's been more than three hours since your last meal. You only need 15 grams per hour (if you're the type of person who prefers to exercise on an empty stomach, try 10 to 15 grams of BCAAs).
  • Carbs: These boost performance and recovery. How much is right? Thirty to 45 grams per hour, if it's paired with protein, which slows digestion to maximize the benefit gained from carbs.

These calories and nutrients can come in the form of liquids, gels or even some solid food like fruit.

How to Refuel After a Workout

Eat within two hours following training to support your body's recovery. If your pre-training meal was a small one or you ate it several hours beforehand, then try not to wait more than an hour. Otherwise, knock yourself out — spend an hour in the kitchen cooking up a feast.

The right post-exercise nutrition can help you recover, rehydrate, refuel, build muscle and improve future performance. You'll need:

  • Protein: This prevents protein breakdown and stimulates muscle development. Contrary to the typical assumption, there's no real evidence that protein powders, especially the fast-digesting kind, are any better for you than whole-food protein after training. Go whichever way you prefer.
  • Carbs: You don't need a spaghetti dinner or a sugary drink. Contrary to popular belief, it's unnecessary — and probably bad — to stuff yourself with refined carbs after your workout. Whole foods (grains, fruit) are better for restoring insulin and glycogen since they're better tolerated, last longer and therefore might lead to better next-day performance.

For men, this looks like:

  • 2 palm-sized portions of protein
  • 2 fistfuls of vegetables
  • 2 cupped handfuls of carbs
  • 2 thumb-sized portions of fats
  • A low-calorie beverage like water

Again, smaller women would start with half and increase from there based on body size or activity levels.

Keep an eye on your overall diet, too. There's no doubt about it: You can gain a lot by taking care with the timing and content of your meals surrounding intense training sessions.

But according to the most recent data, the total amount of protein and carbs consumed over the course of the day is far more important to lean mass gain, fat loss and performance improvements than any specific nutrient-timing strategy.

So enjoy your workout — and your meals.

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