Pre- and post-workout nutrition can be tricky. Getting it right takes some trial and error, and the end result can vary from person to person. There are many factors to consider when determining the best meal plan for your personal routine, including time of day, digestion, type of workout, duration of workout and fluid losses.
Time of Day
If your sweat session is in the morning, you’ll want to make time for a small meal before and after you exercise. The goal is to compensate for an overnight fast without overdoing it, according to the American Council on Exercise. An hour before you start, have some protein and carbohydrates, like a handful of nuts and a piece of fruit. Follow with more protein and carbohydrates within 30 minutes of finishing your workout. Try an egg, milk and fruit-topped oatmeal. For lunchtime and afternoon workouts, follow the same pattern, but include a sandwich with veggies or salad with meat for the post-workout meal. These mini meals will help to give you the energy you need to prevent muscle breakdown, finish your workouts strong and replete the body’s glycogen lost during exercise.
Workouts and Digestion
The digesting gut requires a greater amount of blood flow volume than an empty stomach does. During exercise, the muscles require a greater blood volume than when at rest. To assure blood delivery to the muscle tissue and avoid sluggishness, abdominal cramping or diarrhea during exercise, you need to have the right quality and quantity of carbohydrates and fat. According to the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutritionists group, preworkout meals should consist of low-fiber carbohydrates without added sugars. Three to four hours before exercise, have toast with peanut butter and a glass of milk, or opt for a lean hamburger sandwich with a small salad and 1/2 cup of yogurt.
Low-Intensity Vs. Strenuous Workouts
Low-intensity exercises are leisure activities that move large muscle groups. Walking, cleaning or bicycle cruising do not alter calorie and protein needs, according to the University of California, San Francisco, Medical Center. So a pre- or post-workout meal is not needed in such situations. For moderate- to high-intensity exercises like weightlifting, swimming or playing basketball, you'll need a small meal two to four hours before you exercise. This will supply your muscles with an adequate amount of energy. Try a bowl of cereal with nonfat milk, a banana and yogurt or a ham sandwich with a handful of pretzels. Afterward, have a glass of chocolate milk and a peanut butter sandwich or some yogurt with granola and almonds. Athletes who eat a recovery meal immediately after exercise tend to have less muscle soreness and improved nutrient utilization.
The body’s stored glycogen will provide up to 90 minutes of energy for exercises like bicycle cruising or walking, so no pre- or post-workout meal is necessary. For long, intense workouts like swimming and weightlifting, however, just 20 minutes is enough to deplete the body's carbohydrate stores. According to Iowa State University, you should eat a carbohydrate-rich meal like a bagel sandwich two to four hours before long, intense exercise sessions. After workout periods lasting at least 90 minutes, be sure to replace carbohydrates and protein with something like a piece of fruit, yogurt and nuts or a meat sandwich with chocolate milk.
Fluids should be included with meals before or after workouts. According to the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutritionists group, for low- to moderate-intensity workouts of less than an hour, water is sufficient before and after workouts. For moderate or intense workouts that last longer than an hour, sport drinks with a 6 percent to 8 percent carbohydrate concentration are the best choice. After intense workouts, drink enough water or sports drink to replace fluid lost during exercise. You can estimate fluid losses by weighing yourself before and after each workout session. Iowa State University recommends drinking 2 cups of fluid for each pound of sweat weight lost during exercise.
- American Council on Exercise: Fit Life
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Tips for Fueling Your Workout Without Overdoing It
- Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition: Eating for Exercise
- University of California, San Francisco, Medical Center: Winning Nutrition
- Iowa State University Extension: Role of Carbohydrates
- Iowa State University Extension: Fluids