Your pre and post workout meal can have a large effect on how well you perform during exercise, as well as how well you recover after exercise. Although sleep and hydration are going to be key factors for exercise performance and recovery, the breakdown of the macronutrients in your meals, as well as the size of your meals is also going to be important.
The Pre Workout Meal:
I am going to start off by saying you do not have to eat a full meal before exercise and you do not have to eat before exercise. You might be reading this and thinking “every time I eat before exercise I fell bloated and crummy after” so you may not like eating before exercise. If that is you I would encourage you to look at the size and nutrient composition of your meals before totally ruling out the pre workout meal entirely. Also if you are someone who likes to workout with no pre workout meal beforehand its okay, it just places a greater importance on the post workout meal.
When discussing the pre workout meal I am going to not just discuss how much of something you should eat but I am going to discuss the benefits of why you should eat something or why you should think about leaving something out of your pre workout meal.
When thinking about the pre workout meal it is all about timing.
<60 minutes before your workout-small snack with carbs + protein (ex: banana and chocolate milk)
The <60 minute pre workout meal is going to be perfect for someone who wakes up in the morning and goes straight to a workout. Consuming a larger dinner the night before will also be beneficial to help keep glycogen stores (storage form of carbs) full.
1-2 hours prior to your workout: a medium meal that is mostly carbs (at least 1.2g/kg of body weight), protein (at least 20g), and little to no fat (<10g).
Personally this is the window that I thrive in and prefer. The pre workout nutrition window is going to be different person to person. Find what works best for you and run with it.
3-4 hours prior to your workout: large meal with carbs, fats, and protein
The post workout meal:
The post workout meal is going to be similar to the pre workout meal that you ate if you consumed the 1-2 hour pre workout meal option. However, if you don’t have an appetite once that 2 hour mark hits, it is okay to wait until you do. Total daily calories is going to matter more than how long it took you to eat post workout. However, there is one exception and that is if you haven’t had anything to eat at all pre workout. For example, if you like to wake up and head straight to the gym without eating in the morning. If this is you I would suggest a small snack of carbohydrates and protein or drinking a protein shake on the way home.
Why Carbs + Protein and Not Carbs + Protein + Fat
The main reason for just carbs + protein and little to no fat is that fat is going to take longer to digest. If you eat your pre workout meal 3-4 hours prior to exercise that is giving the body enough time to digest the fat within the meal.
The Role of Each Macronutrient Pre and Post Workout:
Carbohydrates + Protein Pre Workout
Carbohydrates pre workout are going to fuel your exercise, help with recovery, preserve muscle and liver glycogen, and stimulate the release of insulin when combined with protein. Protein pre workout can help maintain and increase muscle size, reduce the amount of muscle damage, and increase amino acids in the bloodstream, which will boost muscle-building abilities.
Studies have shown that a combination of carbohydrate and protein pre workout leads to greater levels of insulin and lower levels of cortisol. Increased levels of insulin have shown to be anti-catabolic (catabolism= breakdown of muscle) in muscles and instead promotes anabolism (growing and building). Studies have also shown that when carbohydrate and protein are combined pre workout lower levels of muscle damage were observed during recovery. There has also been studies that have shown carbohydrate + protein does not show any greater effects than ingesting just protein if protein needs are met. This shows the importance of meeting protein needs throughout the day. My take on this is just to simply make sure both carbohydrate and protein needs are met. Combining the two together makes that easier.
Carbohydrates + Protein Post Workout:
Protein post workout is going to prevent muscle breakdown, help stimulate muscle protein synthesis, and it is good for recovery, adaption, and performance. Carbohydrates post workout are going to restore muscle glycogen in the muscle and liver, lead to better performance the next day, and is going to optimize recovery.
As mentioned previously fats are going to take longer to digest and could leave you feeling sluggish if consumed to close to exercise. However, if you notice that consuming some fats pre workout does not interfere with your ability to exercise then consuming fats will not improve/hurt your performance. They are just not as important to exercise as carbohydrates and protein.
Pre/Post Workout vs. A Standard Meal
To start I would like to clarify and state that when I refer to a standard meal I mean a meal that is not consumed pre or post workout. So if you consider your breakfast your pre workout and lunch post workout, your dinner would be your standard meal.
Your standard meal is going to be more balanced compared to your pre and post workout (if you were to use the 1-2 hour pre/post workout example). The pre and post workout meal is majority carbohydrates, then protein, and little to no fat. On the other hand your standard meal is going to a good mix of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
photo by: the author