You are what you eat, or so the saying goes. And while food is undeniably one of life’s pleasures, in the simplest terms, it’s also fuel. Like any complex machine, your body works best when it’s fueled correctly. Put poor-quality fuel in, and you’ll get a poor-quality output. But eat well, and your body will run smoothly.
What you eat before training can dramatically affect your workout performance, and what you consume afterwards will determine how well you recover. As such, you must pay attention to what you eat before and after exercise.
In this article, we delve into the basics of pre- and post-exercise nutrition and share eight great meals to eat before and after exercise.
Pre-Training Nutrition Basics
Your body uses two primary fuel sources – body fat and glycogen.
Body fat is made from surplus dietary calories that have been converted and then stored in your adipose tissue. Fat is your main energy source during low-intensity aerobic activities, such as sleeping, driving, walking, and easy cardio workouts where your heart rate remains below 60% of your age-adjusted maximum.
Needless to say, you have an abundance of body fat, and it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever run out – even if you are very lean. For example, a 70kg/154-pound person with 10% body fat has seven kilos/15 pounds of fat, which equates to about 25,000 calories, or enough to run about ten marathons.
In contrast, glycogen is stored glucose, which is derived from carbohydrates. Glycogen is your main fuel source during higher-intensity anaerobic workouts like interval training and lifting weights.
Your body stores glycogen in your muscles and your liver, but liver glycogen is used mainly by your brain.
The glycogen stores are quite limited, and you only have enough to fuel a couple of hours of intense exercise. Glycogen depletion can bring your workout to a crashing halt. Runners call running out of glycogen “hitting the wall,” while cyclists call it “bonking.”
The aim of a pre-training meal or snack is to maximize your glycogen stores. Having enough glycogen will ensure you can power through your workout and won’t run out of fuel part way through. Because of this, the main component of your pre-workout meals should be carbohydrates.
However, the type of carb depends on when you plan on eating and training.
If your workout is several hours away, your pre-workout meal should consist of plenty of carbs plus moderate amounts of protein and fats. The carbs will provide energy, while the protein will help reduce muscle catabolism or breakdown. The fat is essential for protein digestion and the transportation of fat-soluble vitamins.
This meal should be big enough to be satisfying but not so big that you feel bloated for your workout. The last thing you want is for your pre-workout meal to make you feel sick!
In contrast, if your workout is less than an hour away, you need something that’s easier to digest and won’t upset your stomach. Protein and carbs are not a good idea because they interfere with glycogen synthesis and delay gastric emptying.
Instead, you need to focus on very easy-to-digest carbs. Even better, instead of eating a solid meal, you should ingest liquids.
Both these scenarios will ensure you have more than enough glucose to power you through your workout.
Post-Training Nutrition Basics
Once your workout is complete, it’s time to start the refueling process. The aim of the post-training meal is to replace depleted glycogen and provide your body with the protein it needs for muscle repair and growth.
A well-formulated post-training meal will enhance recovery, so you are ready to train again sooner.
In the past, it was thought there was a “post-training nutrition window” of 30-60 minutes, during which your body was super-receptive to nutrients. Not eating during this time meant you risked undermining your recovery.
However, recent studies suggest that the post-exercise window is more of a double-wide garage door, and you have several hours to eat to optimize recovery.
That said, if it’s more convenient, there is nothing wrong with consuming a post-training snack immediately after exercise, followed by a more substantial meal a couple of hours afterward. This belt-and-braces approach to post-training nutrition ensures you have all your bases covered.
8 Best Meals to Eat Pre- and Post-Workout
Pre- and post-workout meals don’t have to be complicated or contain exotic ingredients. In fact, the more familiar you are with the foods you eat, the better, as you can be confident that you tolerate them well and that they’re readily available.
Provided you focus on carbs for your pre-workout meal and consume carbs plus protein post-training, you are good to go.
That said, here are four pre- and four post-workout meals to try. Feel free to adapt them to suit your tastes and needs. Adjust the quantities based on your needs and goals, i.e., eat less if you are a smaller individual, are training for fat loss, or only did or are doing a short/easy workout.
This pre-workout meal is packed with slow-releasing carbs and also contains a decent amount of protein. As an added benefit, you can make it well in advance and eat it wherever and whenever you want.
½ cup of porridge oats
1 cup of dairy/non-dairy milk
50 grams of Greek yogurt
50 grams of blueberries
25 grams of maple syrup or honey
1 tablespoon of chia seeds
- Mix all the ingredients together in a resealable container, e.g., a Mason jar.
- Put in the fridge for at least three hours or overnight.
- Add a little extra milk if required, stir, and eat straight from the jar.
Mashed banana and peanut butter on toast
This easy-to-prepare is a complete carb-fest that’s ideal when you’ve got a long workout planned, e.g., a weekend ruck or run. It tastes pretty good, too! However, the fat from the peanut butter means this meal should be consumed a couple of hours before training.
2 slices of bread of your choice, e.g., wholegrain, lightly toasted
1 ripe banana
2 tablespoons of natural peanut butter
1 tablespoon of honey
Ground cinnamon to taste
- Spread the peanut butter equally on both slices of toast.
- Chop the banana into pieces and spread over the peanut butter.
- Drizzle the toast with honey.
- Dust with ground cinnamon.
Not a fan of toast? No problem; you can also make this recipe as an easy-to-eat sandwich.
Yogurt and cereal protein pot
This pre-workout snack is ready in minutes and makes a great on-the-go breakfast. You can modify it in many ways to create your own unique formulation. It’s light, great for warmer days, and can be prepared several hours in advance.
1 cup of plain low-fat yogurt
½ scoop of vanilla protein powder
½ cup of breakfast cereal, e.g., granola
6-8 finely chopped pecans
½ banana, sliced into pieces
1 tablespoon of honey
- Mix the yogurt and the protein powder together until smooth.
- In a sealable container, add a little of each ingredient to create layers.
- Refrigerate until you’re ready to eat.
Sports drink, energy bar, or energy gel
If your workout starts within an hour or less, your pre-workout meal needs to be smaller, lighter, and easier to digest. A ripe banana will suffice, but if you want an alternative, you can try a readymade sports drink, energy bar, or energy gel.
These types of products contain plenty of glucose, which is what your body needs during your workout. Some also provide a hefty dose of caffeine, which can further increase your energy for training.
Pasta with chicken, pesto, and peas
This simple meal takes about 15 minutes to prepare, and even the most untalented chef should be able to put it together! It’s high in protein and carbs and contains some valuable vitamins and fiber, too.
- 150-200 grams of diced skinless chicken breast
- 1 tablespoon of olive oil
- 75 grams of uncooked pasta
- ½ cup of frozen peas
- ¼ cup of pesto
- Heat a pan of water and cook your pasta. This usually takes 10-15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, lightly fry the chicken in a pan with some olive oil. Once the chicken is browned, add the peas and cook for about ten minutes.
- Drain the pasta and add it to the chicken and peas.
- Stir in the pesto and combine thoroughly.
- Serve with a green salad for extra health points.
Banana and peanut butter protein smoothie
It’s not always convenient to cook and eat a substantial post-workout meal. However, not eating within a few hours of training could undermine your recovery. A smoothie is the perfect solution when you need a quick yet substantial post-workout meal.
- 1-2 ripe bananas
- 1 ½ cups of dairy or non-dairy milk
- 1 tablespoon of natural peanut butter or peanut butter powder
- 1 scoop of protein powder – chocolate, vanilla, or banana work best.
- Put the milk in the blender and then chop and add the banana. Blitz for 10-15 seconds.
- Next, add the peanut butter and protein powder. Blitz again for 15-30 seconds until smooth.
- Serve immediately, or put the mixture into a thermos for later.
Baked potato and tuna mayo
Potatoes are a nutritional powerhouse packed with carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. And they’re cheap, too! You can make this recipe using a sweet potato, but contrary to popular opinion, this won’t make it any healthier. Plain old white potatoes are just as good.
1 medium/large potato
1 can of tuna, drained
½ cup sweetcorn
2-3 tablespoons of light mayonnaise
Hot sauce (optional)
- Cook the potato in the oven or microwave. Microwave cooking is obviously faster, but baking the potato makes it taste better.
- Meanwhile, mix the tuna, sweetcorn, and mayonnaise in a bowl.
- Once the potato is cooked, carefully cut a cross in the top and open it up.
- Spoon the tuna-mayo-corn mixture over the potato and serve immediately.
Scrambled eggs on cheesy toast
Eggs are one of the best protein sources around. They’re easy to cook and readily available. A single egg contains an impressive six grams of protein plus a host of healthy fats and vitamins. Eggs are the ideal post-training food.
Three medium/large free-range eggs
2 slices of wholemeal bread
2 tablespoons of butter
1 tablespoon of milk
2 slices of your favorite cheese
2-3 chives, finely chopped
Hot sauce (optional)
- Crack the eggs into a bowl and add the milk. Whisk to form a smooth mixture.
- Meanwhile, heat half of the butter in a non-stick pan.
- Pour in the eggs and cook on low, stirring constantly.
- Brown the toast and then, when cooked, top with the cheese.
- Spread the cooked eggs over the cheesy toast and sprinkle with the chopped chives.
- Season with hot sauce.
8 Best Meals to Eat Pre- and Post-Workout – Closing Thoughts
The key to successful pre- and post-exercise nutrition is discovering what works best for you. Ideally, your meals should consist of foods you enjoy and tolerate well. There is no need for exotic ingredients or complicated recipes – regular food works fine!
Just remember to make carbs the focus of your pre-workout meal and consume fast-acting carbs and even liquids if your workout starts in an hour or less. Post-workout, combine protein with carbs to enhance recovery.
Finally, don’t worry too much about scarfing down a meal as soon as you finish your workout. The window of opportunity for post-training refeeding is far wider than most people realize. Eating within a couple of hours of your workout will suffice.