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What To Eat Before, During, & After Workouts

Not sure what to eat before, during, and after workouts?

The goal behind your pre and post-workout nutrition is pretty simple: to be well-fueled, maximize your ability to go hard and get after it, and eat in a way that supports recovery.


Why It Matters

Remember that carbohydrates are typically the body’s preferred source of energy during exercise. When we eat carbohydrates, the body breaks them down and converts them into glucose. If we are working out right away, this glucose can prime our metabolism and provide an immediate energy source for our activity.

If we aren’t working out right away, our body will instead store the converted glucose in our muscles and liver. That stored glycogen in our muscles will be ready to go when it’s eventually time for our workout. When we work out and use up these glycogen stores, we need to replenish them somehow – this is where our pre-workout and post-workout nutrition comes in.

What does this all mean? While our pre-workout meal helps give us an energy boost for our upcoming workout, your performance in the gym is often primarily influenced by the stored glycogen in your muscles, which came from the food you ate the day prior. Once we use that stored glycogen, we replenish our tank with our post-workout meal and the process repeats itself. Mind-blowing stuff, right?

This is why carb cycling and rest-day macro prescriptions may sometimes inhibit performance goals in the gym. These diet protocols often prescribe more calories on training days and less on non-training days. Typically, we’re trying to recover on a rest day (hence, “rest” day), so if we don’t exercise but still drop calories and macros, we’re not maximizing our recovery. It’s not surprising that when we get back to the gym the next day we feel like absolute garbage.

Key Takeaways:

  • We often talk a lot about *what* to eat in terms of types of foods to live healthier, lose fat, gain muscle, etc. 
  • We can also look at *when* you take in certain foods and nutrients in terms of how often you eat and when you eat relative to workouts or any other physically demanding activity. 
  • Great workout nutrition i.e. how we eat before, during, and after training can help with improving performance, recovery, and body composition.

Who Benefits from Timing Nutrition Around Workouts?

  • People who engage in athletic events or competitions e.g. endurance races. 
  • People who want to optimize their workout performance and overall recovery. 
  • People who have gotten good and consistent at the fundamentals of nutrition (overall calorie intake, macros, food quality) and want to take their nutrition to the next level. 
  • People who want to change their body composition e.g. gain muscle or lose body fat while maintaining muscle and increasing strength.

But even if none of these apply to you…

Focusing on how you eat before, during, and after workouts can still help you:

  • have more energy during workouts
  • improve focus and reaction time
  • speed up muscle + glycogen (stored energy) recovery from workouts
  • improve performance for later workouts
  • preserve or gain muscle mass
  • keep you hydrated during training 
  • rehydrate after training
  • prevent injury

You still need to be doing the *basics* well though.

It’s not magic and will not save you if you aren’t eating enough calories, and protein and eating a nutritious diet daily.


When To Eat

As far as timing goes, it really depends on your workout duration and intensity levels (longer, more intense workouts require more precise nutrition timing for performance goals). In general, most people seem to feel their best when they eat between 60-120 minutes before their workout. 

As a basic guideline: the larger your pre-workout meal, the longer you’ll probably want to wait before diving into the programming for the day. However, it’s best to just play around with the timing to see what works best for you!

When it comes to post-workout nutrition timing, eating within 1-2 hours after your workout is going to be optimal for recovery, but not necessarily required if you’re still hitting all of your protein and carb numbers throughout the day.

Your post-workout meal should be heavy on carbs but should be well-balanced overall in terms of protein, carb, fat, and fiber ratios. If you have trouble eating immediately following a big workout, crushing a protein shake with a piece of fruit is always a good go-to option.

Side note: if you are training right away in the morning, it’s totally okay to be fasted; but in that case, make sure to prioritize getting in a large protein and carb-rich dinner the night before.


What To Eat: Before Workouts

It can make a difference if we’re well-fueled before training by eating 1-3 hours beforehand. Before training, we want to eat meals higher in carbs with some protein and a little fat. 

Protein:

  • can help build muscle mass
  • improve muscle recovery between sessions
  • help keep you feeling satisfied and not hungry
  • we want to eat a moderate amount of protein (25-40g)

Carbs:

  • provide energy for training both high-intensity and longer-duration endurance workouts
  • most of our pre-workout calories should come from carbs (0.25g carbs/lb of body weight) 

Fats:

  • can also help keep hunger lower
  • they don’t hurt performance but primary workout fuel is from carbs
  • best to keep intake lower since they slow digestion unless you’re eating several hours before

Other Tips:

  • Avoid foods that will funk with your digestion e.g. spicy foods, greasy/high-fat meals, or foods that irritate your tummy.
  • Keep your food selections consistent + avoid changing (especially before comps).
  • When you eat depends. You’ll need to find the best time frame for you. Generally, the larger the meal, the more time you’ll want.

Meal Examples Include:

  • Grilled chicken, rice + vegetables
  • Grilled steak + roasted potatoes
  • Tuna or chicken salad + crackers 
  • Sushi (fish + rice rolls, sashimi + rice, poke bowls)
  • Ground turkey or beef + pasta
  • Greek yogurt, oatmeal, fruit, honey
  • Fruit smoothie with protein powder
  • Sandwich, wrap, or bagel with deli meat
  • Protein shake + cereal or granola
  • Protein bar + any fruit e.g. an apple

What To Eat: During Workouts

Sometimes it can help to take in calories during a workout.

Especially if:

  • workouts are very high intensity e.g. BJJ or CrossFit comps
  • workouts are long in duration (>90 minutes)
  • you train early and don’t like to eat first thing in the AM

Carbs:

  • we mainly want to focus on CARB intake, especially quick, readily available carbs
  • needs vary, but I generally recommend 25-45g carbs per hour

Protein:

  • can be helpful if it’s going to be a long session
  • if it’s been several hours (>3h) since last eating some protein
  • 10-15g per hour of training over 90 minutes

Water + Electrolytes:

  • 15-20oz per hour of training with 250-1000mg sodium to replace lost electrolytes
  • highly depends on how much you sweat and how salty your sweat is
  • you’ll need to figure out what works best for you!

Other tips:

  • we want quick, readily available carbs that are low in fat
  • we also don’t want anything to jack up our stomachs
  • protein isn’t all that necessary unless workouts are really long or it will be more than 3 hours since eating protein

Pro tip: if you’re short on time or don’t like to eat larger meals, these are great options for pre-workout.

Carb ideas for during workouts:

  • applesauce
  • fruit squeeze packs
  • fresh or dried fruit
  • crackers or pretzels
  • cereal, granola
  • cereal, granola, or oat bars
  • rice cakes
  • stroopwafels 
  • gummy candy
  • endurance gels e.g. Gu Gels
  • liquid carbs e.g. Gatorade, BodyArmor, juice, coconut water
  • carb powders like dextrose or cyclic dextrin

Protein ideas for during workouts:

  • protein powder (any type)
  • protein bars
  • pre-mixed protein shakes

Electrolyte ideas:

  • LMNT
  • NUUN
  • Pedialyte or Electrolit (also has carbs)
  • LiquidIV (also has carbs)

What To Eat: After Workouts

Post-workout meals can be very similar in structure to pre-workout meals. Eat plenty of carbs, some protein, veggies, and some fats. Rehydrate with plenty of fluids!

It’s not super important to eat immediately after training. I generally recommend within 2 hours of finishing training.

If it’s gonna be more than 2 hours before you can eat,

  • have a protein shake or protein bar  something quick and easy) after you finish training
  • get some carbs as well

Pre-pack a post-workout snack if you know for sure you’re not going to be able to eat anytime soon after training. 

Your post-workout meal can also serve as a pre-workout meal if you have another training session within 2-3 hours.

Finally, after the workout, it’s time to replenish those glycogen stores! Consume a large, well-rounded high-quality meal with lots of protein & carbohydrates. The longer and more intense the workout, the more carbs your body will need to replenish that fuel tank and ensure you are recovered for the following day.

Meal Example:

Steak Bowl: lean steak, potatoes, olive oil, asparagus, berries
Shrimp Stir Fry: shrimp, jasmine rice, avocado, green beans, pineapple
Brekky-Style: whole eggs, sweet potato hash with bell peppers, apple with nut butter
Smoothie Bowl: whey protein, frozen fruit, granola, nut butter


Meal Timing Examples

Early Morning Workout:

  • 530 am: Wake up. Water + electrolytes
  • 600 am: Paragon workout. Protein shake, banana during. 
  • 800 am: Eat breakfast. Eggs, chicken sausage, toaster waffles, raspberries.
  • 1200 pm: Lunch. Normal meal.
  • 300 pm: Snack. Optional.
  • 600 pm: Dinner. Normal meal.
  • 900 pm: Pre-bed meal. Oats, maple syrup, banana, almond butter, protein shake.
  • 1030 pm: Bed

Evening Workout:

  • 730 am: Wake Up
  • 800 am: Breakfast. Normal meal.
  • 1000 am: Snack. Optional
  • 100 pm: Lunch. Normal meal.
  • 300 pm: Pre-workout snack. Deli meat tortilla wraps, apple w/ a little almond butter
  • 500 pm: Train
  • 700 pm: Post-workout meal. Chicken thighs, roasted veggies, roasted potatoes.
  • 1000 pm: Bed

Twice-a-Day Training:

  • 700 am: Wake Up
  • 730 am: Pre-workout meal. Oats, greek yogurt, berries, honey.
  • 900 am: 1st training session. Paragon sesh. 
  • 1100 am: Post-workout meal. Grilled steak, rice, corn, salsa, guac. 
  • 200 pm: Snack.  Optional
  • 500 pm: Pre-workout snack. Protein shake, clif bar
  • 600 pm: 2nd training session (HIIT/CF/BJJ or cardio). LiquidIV with water during. 
  • 830 pm: Post-workout meal. Grilled Salmon, zucchini, pasta with sauce.
  • 1030 pm: Bed

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What if I train first thing in the morning? 

A: You can train fasted if you feel ok doing so or you don’t like eating that early. I would make sure to eat a solid post-training meal and eat plenty of calories and carbs the night before. 

Before training in the morning, I would still get water to hydrate and add electrolytes (e.g. LMNT) if you’re planning on training hard or it’s really hot. 

If you can stomach it, even something small like a fruit squeeze pack or a banana can help.

Q: What if I train multiple times a day?

A: Your post-workout meal can be a pre-workout meal for your next session. Stick to eating before and after each session to make sure you recover.

Q: How important is it to eat immediately after training? 

A: It’s not. Just make sure you eat whenever you can. I generally suggest within 2 hours, especially if you’re training again soon. 

Q: What can I do if I have trouble eating after training because I have no appetite?

This is super common. Try rehydrating and doing some kind of cool down e.g. stretching, easy walking, or stationary biking after training. 

Go home, take a shower, relax for a few minutes and your appetite should return. You can try to eat something easy like a protein shake and a piece of fruit if your appetite is still low, but get the food in. Your body needs it! 

Q: Do I have to follow the meal timing?

Nope. Recall the hierarchy of importance in nutrition

We need to make sure we’re:

  • Consistently eating enough calories daily. This would be eating eat least at maintenance calories.
  • We need to eat enough protein and a good balance of carbs and fats. 
  • Most of our food should be highly nutritious, full of vitamins and minerals.

If we’re doing these things well, then trying to optimize meal timing can help. However, if you’d rather not, you can still be healthy, look, and perform well, it just may not be your absolute best. 

Q: Should I eat fewer calories or carbs on days I don’t work out or work out less?

I don’t recommend it for a few reasons. 

  • What you eat for today is mostly for tomorrow. The food you eat prior to training is mostly still digesting. Your body is going to use stored energy first. It takes about 24h for glycogen storage. If you eat fewer calories the day before hard training, you may not be taking in enough fuel to replenish stored energy and therefore gimp your performance. 
  • It makes your nutrition more complicated and sometimes more difficult to adhere to consistently.
  • People can start to associate exercise with “earning food” which isn’t how we should be looking at food and exercise. 

Q: When should I take supplements?

A: Depends on the supplement!

Creatine: doesn’t matter when. If it helps to remember to take it with one of your workout meals, do that. 

Caffeine: typically you need 30-60 min before it kicks in.

Electrolytes: 30-60 min prior to training and can combine with 15-20oz water/hr.


Summary

  • Pre-, during, and post-workout nutrition can help you improve performance, recovery, and body composition. 
  • It’s not a magic pill though. You still need to be consistently eating enough calories, and protein and have a healthy diet to perform, recover and look your best. 
  • Pre-workout meals should be 1-3 hours before training and be mostly carbs with some protein and minimal fat.
  • Intra-workout snacks can be great for people who train for more than 90 minutes and should be mostly carbs. Should also make sure to hydrate properly with water and electrolytes. 
  • Post-workout meals can be eaten anytime after training, preferably within 2 hours. A post-workout meal can look like a normal meal with protein, carbs, vegetables, and fat.
  • Workout nutrition is highly individual. You’ll need to experiment with what foods and timing work best for you!

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