When it comes to sports nutrition, it is important for athletes to know the difference in nutrition needs pre-workout vs. post-workout to support optimal performance. Let’s take a look at nutrition strategies that athletes can utilize before and after workouts to support their sports nutrition needs.
Pre-Workout vs. Post-Workout Nutrition Priorities
There are different nutrition priorities for athletes pre- vs. post-workout. It is important that athletes understand how to fuel for their workouts and competitions as well as to recover following exercise.
Pre-Workout Nutrition Needs
Prior to a workout, it is important for athletes to ensure they are optimally hydrated and well-fueled with carbohydrates.
When determining what to eat before a workout, the timing for the meal or snack must be considered. In general, the more time an athlete has prior to the start of the workout, the larger the size of the pre-workout meal or snack can be. Eating too much food, too close to the activity may result in an upset stomach during the workout (1).
The foundation of an athlete’s pre-workout meal should be carbohydrates. Carbohydrates provide athletes with the energy needed to perform at their best. Thus, building a pre-workout meal centered around carbohydrates can help ensure athletes are optimally fueled for the upcoming activity.
Athletes can add carbohydrates to their pre-workout meal or snacks with foods from a variety of food groups, including:
- Fruit: Fresh, frozen, dried, canned (natural juices), applesauce
- Starchy Vegetables: Potatoes, corn, peas
- Grains: Bread, bagels, cereal, oatmeal, rice, pasta, quinoa
- Dairy: Milk, yogurt
Pre-Workout Meals and Snacks
If athletes have several hours (3-4 hours) until the start of the workout, they can enjoy a mini-meal containing carbohydrates and a moderate amount of lean protein. However, when athletes have limited time before a workout, they should focus on eating easy to digest, carbohydrate-rich snacks.
The carbohydrates will provide athletes with a quick source of energy as they head into the workout. Example carbohydrate-rich, pre-workout snacks include:
- Banana or small piece of fruit
- Applesauce squeeze
- Dried fruit
- Fruit snacks
- Low-fat granola bars, fig bars
- Animal or graham crackers
- Pretzels, pita chips, crackers, dry cereal
- Mini bagels, bread
- Sports drink, chews, gels
Foods to Limit Prior to a Workout
In addition to knowing what to eat before a workout, it can be helpful for athletes to know foods they should limit as well.
In general, in the hour or two prior to activity, athletes should limit foods that are high in fat, fiber, and/or protein. Consuming these foods too close to the start of activity may lead to GI distress during the competition (1).
This includes foods such as:
- Heavy cream, cheese, or buttery sauces
- Fried, greasy, or oily foods
- Beans and legumes
- High-fiber vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage)
- Whole grains (high-fiber)
- Dessert foods (ice cream, brownies, fudge)
Post-Workout Nutrition Needs
Following a workout, athletes should focus on consuming well-planned meals and snacks to support their recovery nutrition needs.
The goals of recovery nutrition include:
- Rehydrate: Replace fluid and electrolytes lost in sweat
- Refill Energy Stores: Consume carbohydrates to replace those used during the activity for energy
- Repair Muscles: Consume protein to repair and build lean muscle mass
Recovery nutrition is particularly important when the time between activities is limited, such as back-to-back games, tournament competitions, or two-a-day workouts.
When athletes exercise, they use their carbohydrate stores to provide energy for their working muscles. Thus, as the activity progresses, the body’s stores of carbohydrates become depleted.
When athletes need to refuel quickly following activity to prepare for the next workout or competition, it is important for athletes to focus on replenishing these carbohydrate stores.
To optimize a quick recovery, it is recommended that athletes consume 1-1.2 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram body weight for the first 4 hours after activity (1). For a 175-pound athlete, this would be 80 – 95 grams of carbohydrates.
By enjoying a variety of carbohydrate-rich foods in their post-workout meals and snacks, athletes can easily meet their carbohydrate needs. One of my favorite snacks for athletes following activity is a nutrient-dense, post-workout smoothie. A smoothie is a great option for athletes who are not hungry following a workout and need an easy way to meet both their carbohydrate and protein needs.
When athletes exercise, they breakdown their muscles. Thus, including protein following a workout is important to support the repair and building-up of lean muscle mass.
It is recommended that athletes aim to consume ~0.25 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight post-workout (2). In general, this calculates to be in the range of 20-40 grams of protein, with larger athletes needing more protein than smaller athletes.
Athletes can easily meet their post-workout protein needs with real foods. Consider the following ideas for adding protein to post-workout meals and snacks:
- Greek yogurt
- High-protein milk or low-fat milk
- Cottage cheese, string cheese, reduced-fat cheese
- Lean meat, pork, seafood, turkey, chicken, eggs
- Deli meat: Chicken, turkey, ham, roast beef
- Beef or turkey jerky
- Nuts, nut butters
- Seeds, seed butters
- Beans, legumes, edamame
- Soy milk, tofu
Pre-Workout vs. Post-Workout Hydration
In addition to carbohydrates and protein, it is important for athletes to consider their pre- and post-workout hydration needs. Dehydration can negatively impact an athlete’s health and sports performance. Thus, hydration is a key aspect of an athlete’s sports nutrition meal plan.
Athletes should aim to start their workout or competition in an optimally hydrated state. Although hydration needs vary amongst individuals, there are some general pre-workout guidelines athletes can follow.
Approximately 4 hours prior to the event, it is recommended that athletes drink 5-7 mL of fluid per kg of body weight (3). For a 175-pound athlete, this calculates to be ~13 – 19 fluid ounces.
Thus, in general, athletes can consume approximately 2 cups of fluid with their pre-workout meal to assist them with meeting this goal.
In the hour leading up to the event, athletes should continue hydrating, aiming to drink around 8 oz of fluid during this time period.
Following a workout or competition, it is important for athletes to replace the fluid and electrolytes lost in sweat. Athletes need to consume more fluid (125%-150% more) than the amount lost in sweat to fully rehydrate following activity (1).
Weighing before and after activity can help athletes determine how much fluid was lost in sweat. For each pound of weight lost during the activity, athletes should aim to drink 20-24 oz of fluid (1).
Pre-Workout vs. Post-Workout Supplements
In addition to foods and beverages, athletes should understand how the timing of specific supplements may be advantageous when taken either pre-workout or post-workout. Below are a few examples of supplements that may be of benefit to athletes when taken before or after a workout.
Prior to discussing specific supplements for pre- and post-workout, it is important to first discuss supplement safety. Sports supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration in the same way that food is. Thus, they have the risk of being contaminated with banned substances that could be harmful to your health or make you ineligible for competition.
Due to this, athletes should look for supplements that have been third-party tested by an outside organization for accuracy of ingredients and manufacturing processes. Two companies that evaluate and provide third-party certification for sports supplements are NSF International Certified for Sport and Informed Sport.
Prior to taking any supplement, I encourage athletes to seek guidance from a sports dietitian nutritionist. The sports dietitian nutritionist can work with the athlete on developing a meal plan to support their performance needs. In addition, the sports dietitian nutritionist can help evaluate supplements for both safety and effectiveness.
Supplements that athletes may consider prior to a workout include (4):
- Carbohydrates: Provide energy for the upcoming activity; may be carbohydrates provided by food or in the form of a sports drink, chew, or gel.
- Collagen: Taken prior to exercise to promote joint health, the development of cartilage and healthy connective tissue, and reduce joint pain (4, 5).
- Caffeine: May be taken prior to exercise to increase alertness, reduce feelings of perceived effort, or to assist with competing at a higher intensity. However, high doses of caffeine (≥9 mg/kg body weight) may lead to negative side effects, such as jitters, anxiety, and nausea (4).
- Nitrates: Taken to increase the production of nitric oxide in the body, which enhances blood flow to working muscles and improves oxygen efficiency during exercise (4).
Should an Athlete Take a Pre-Workout Supplement?
A question I commonly receive from athletes is if they should take a pre-workout supplement to provide them with energy for the upcoming activity.
Athletes should use caution and carefully evaluate pre-workout supplements, as they may contain added stimulants and mega-doses of nutrients that are not necessary prior to exercise.
Evaluating Pre-Workout Supplements
If an athlete is considering a pre-workout supplement, I recommend they consider the following:
- Is the pre-workout supplement third-party tested?
- Does the pre-workout supplement contain a proprietary blend of ingredients (sometimes referred to as energy blend)?
- What stimulants does the supplement contain?
- Does the supplement contain mega-doses of any ingredients?
Use caution with supplements that contain a proprietary blend of ingredients. If the supplement label does not tell you the name of the ingredient and the amount included, you cannot evaluate the potential effectiveness of the product.
Athletes should also be cautious if the pre-workout supplement contains multiple stimulants. The combination of stimulants may have a synergistic effect in the body and be dangerous to your health.
Finally, there is not a need for an athlete to take a mega-dose of nutrients, such as vitamins, prior to a workout. Mega-doses of nutrients can be particularly concerning when an athlete is taking multiple different supplements. The combination of ingredients from the supplements may result in overly high intake of vitamins or other ingredients that could be harmful to the athlete’s health.
Supplements that athletes may consider post-workout include (4):
- Protein: Consumed following activity to promote muscle protein synthesis and support the building and repair of muscle tissue; may be in the form of food, a protein powder, or a protein shake.
- Carbohydrates: Refill energy stores following activity; may come from real food or post-workout shakes.
- Fluid and electrolytes: Rehydrate post-workout; athletes may support their hydration needs with sports drinks or electrolyte drinks. Athletes may also obtain fluid and electrolytes from food and drinks with post-workout meals and snacks.
- Tart cherry: Consumed following exercise to help reduce inflammation and support muscle recovery from activity (4, 6).
What About Protein Powders for Athletes?
When time is limited following a workout, a protein powder can be a convenient option to support athletes with meeting their recovery nutrition needs. Following a workout, athletes should aim to consume a high-quality protein that provides all 9 of the essential amino acids that the body cannot make (2).
Whey protein is a high-quality, complete protein that is rapidly digested by the body. Thus, following exercise, consuming whey protein may be advantageous for supporting muscle growth (2). Athletes following a plant-based diet can consider the use of pea or soy protein powders to support their recovery nutrition needs.
When athletes have more time following a workout, there are numerous ways they can add protein to a shake using real food items. Items such as high-protein milk, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, tofu, and nut butters all blend well into a shake and are a great way to boost the protein content of your recovery drink.
Pre-Workout vs. Post-Workout Nutrition for Athletes
You now have an understanding of nutrition strategies that athletes can utilize pre- and post-workout to support their sports nutrition needs. Athletes should take time to practice their pre- and post-game fueling strategies prior to competition to determine which foods and beverages work best for their individual needs.
For additional sports nutrition tips for athletes, check out my blog: Your Guide to Game Day Nutrition.
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Mandy is a Sports Dietitian Nutritionist in the San Antonio, TX area. She is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, a Board-Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, a Licensed Athletic Trainer, and is a Certified Exercise Physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine. Mandy has experience working with athletes at the high school, collegiate, and professional levels. She believes the key to reaching one’s full potential, both in everyday life and in sports performance, relies on a healthy nutritional foundation. Learn more about the work Mandy does here.