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How to Plan Your Meals Around Your Workouts

Do you ever find yourself wondering what you should eat before or after a workout? Or whether it's necessary to eat within a certain time frame? Just how important is workout nutrition anyway? 

These are all questions that we hear quite often, which is why, in this article, we’ll review the science of workout nutrition and share some of the best workout nutrition strategies for different goals.

The world of pre and post-workout nutrition is confusing, and there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. One thing you should know, however, is that the food you put in your body before, during, and after your workout can have a direct effect on how you feel, perform, and recover.

Before we cover what to eat, let’s talk about why you should be eating both before and after a workout.

Understanding Macronutrients’ Roles in Exercise Performance

What and when you eat before exercise can make a big difference to your performance and recovery. Let’s dive into the different roles that protein, carbohydrates and fats play in the gym.

In the two-three hours before your workout, you’ll want to eat something that helps you:

  • sustain energy and boost your performance;

  • hydrate;

  • preserve muscle mass; and

  • help speed up recovery.

Protein before exercise.

Eating some protein in the few hours before exercise:

  • Can help you maintain or even increase your muscle size.

  • Can reduce markers of muscle damage or at least prevent them from getting worse. (Carbohydrates eaten before exercise don’t seem to do the same thing.) The less damage to your muscles, the faster you recover, and the better you adapt to your exercise over the long term. 

  • Floods your bloodstream with amino acids just when your body needs them most. This boosts your muscle-building capabilities. So not only are you preventing damage, you’re increasing muscle size.

Carbs before exercise:

  • Fuels your training and helps with recovery. It’s a popular misconception that you only need carbs if you’re engaging in a long endurance exercise (5k, marathon, etc.). In reality, carbs can also enhance shorter term, high-intensity training (CrossFit Class). So unless you’re just going for a quiet stroll, ensuring that you have some carbs in your system will improve high intensity performance.

  • Preserves muscle and liver glycogen. This tells your brain that you are well fed, and helps increase muscle retention and growth.

  • Stimulates the release of insulin. When combined with protein, this improves protein synthesis and prevents protein breakdown. Another reason why a well balanced meal is a great idea.

Fats before exercise:

  • Don’t appear to improve nor diminish sport performance. And they don’t seem to fuel performance — that’s what carbs are for.

  • Do help to slow digestion, which maintains blood glucose and insulin levels and keeps you on an even keel.

  • Provide some vitamins and minerals, and they’re important in everyone’s diet.

During-exercise nutrition needs

Do you need to eat during your workout? 

That depends on how long it’s been since your last meal and the length/type of exercise you’re planning on. For example, long distance endurance events will require you to supplement with carbohydrates to sustain energy throughout. Also, those looking to build muscle with high volume hypertrophy training will also benefit from intra-workout carbohydrates and protein.

General rule of thumb, if you are spending more than 2 hours in the gym/exercising per day, intra-workout supplementation is vital. Shoot for 15 grams of protein and 30-45 grams of carbohydrates per hour.

Looking for a personalized nutrition plan? Let our experienced nutrition coaches help guide you to the best version of yourself. Sign up for 1-on-1 nutrition coaching today!

For the majority of you that are reading this article (athletes attending a 1-hour CrossFit class per day), your goals will be similar to those for pre-workout nutrition. Above all, you’ll want to maintain hydration intra-workout.

Post-exercise nutrition

Now let’s take a look at post-exercise nutrition.

Post-workout nutrition can help you:

  • recover;

  • rehydrate;

  • refuel;

  • build muscle; and

  • improve future performance.

Protein after exercise.

Eating protein after exercise prevents protein breakdown and stimulates synthesis, leading to increased-or at least maintained-muscle tissue. So it’s a great strategy for better recovery, adaptation, and performance.

In the past, most fitness experts recommended fast acting proteins like whey or casein hydrolysate in the form of shakes. This is because early research indicated that the more quickly amino acids get to your muscles, the better the result. Have you ever heard someone tell you that you need to consume protein within a small “window” after exercising?

However, new research shows that fast-digesting proteins may get into our systems too fast. Because they’re in and out of the bloodstream so quickly, they might not maximize protein synthesis or maximally inhibit protein breakdown after all.

And the protein you ate before training is still in your bloodstream, so how quickly this protein gets there doesn’t really matter.

In other words, there’s no real evidence that protein powders, especially the fast-digesting kind, are any better for us than whole food protein after training. They’re probably not worse either. Which means you can choose whichever type of protein you want for your post-workout meal.

Want fast and convenient? Make a post-workout protein shake.

Want real food? Then consume a full, high-protein meal.

Any high quality complete protein should do the job, as long as you eat enough. That means about 40-60 grams for men and 20-30 grams for women.

Carbs after exercise.

There has been a long-standing belief in the fitness world that you need to quickly eat fast-digesting carbohydrates after a workout to “spike” insulin and restore muscle glycogen.

New research shows that this strategy is unnecessary for most (with some endurance athletes being the exception).

In fact, a blend of minimally processed whole food carbohydrates, along with some fruit (to better restore or maintain liver glycogen) is actually a better choice, because:

  • it’s better tolerated;

  • it restores glycogen equally over a 24-hour time period; and

  • it might lead to better next-day performance.

For most healthy exercisers, whole food with some fruit is a better way to go.

The Post Workout “Window”

I’m sure you have heard of the infamous, magical “window” of time after a workout in which all gains are won or lost. While research is showing that this “window” is not as tight or rigid as once believed, consuming nutrients within a certain amount of time after a workout is most definitely beneficial.

Failing to eat within a two-hour window following training can slow recovery.

Now, this is context dependent; what you ate before your workout influences things. If your pre-training meal was a small one or you ate it several hours before training, then it’s probably more important for you to get that post-workout meal into your system fairly quickly (within the next 30-60 minutes). 

If you trained in a fasted state (first thing in the morning before breakfast) then it’s also a good idea to chow down as soon after your workout as you can.

But if you ate a normal sized, balanced meal a couple of hours before training (or a small shake closer to training), then you have a full one to two hours after training to eat your post-workout meal and still maximize the benefits of workout nutrition. That is, IF you eat it. Way too often we hear of people not eating for 3+ hours after training, feeling a constant state of “blah”, and not seeing the results they want in the gym. Remember, the exercise itself is step 1, proper recovery is step 2 (and just as important).

In Summary:

1. Understand your own needs.

The protein, carbohydrate, fat, and fluid requirements for a 155 lb. endurance athlete in the midst of marathon training vs. a 225 lb. bodybuilder recovering from a heavy resistance-training session are quite different.

Do your research into what fits your needs best, or employ our nutrition coaches to guide you.

2. To simplify, prioritize whole foods.

For most of us, people without athletic competitions on the horizon, the best pre- and post-training meals will contain some combination of:

  • high-quality protein,

  • high-quality carbohydrates,

  • healthy fats, and

  • some fruit and vegetables.

These whole foods provide an awesome blend of nutrients: protein, carbohydrates, fats, fiber, vitamin