I have an easy question for you. Do you want to accomplish any of the following goals:
- Lose fat.
- Build muscle.
- Lose fat AND build muscle.
- Increase strength.
- Improve performance.
- Be healthy.
Your total daily calorie and nutrient intake (along with getting those nutrients from mostly higher quality sources) is ALWAYS the most important part of every single diet plan regardless of what your goal is.
But, that statement brings up an interesting question: What then is the second most important aspect of your diet?
Well, for people who are working out regularly, the answer is both simple and scientifically proven…
The PRE & POST Workout Meal
Your PRE and POST workout meals are the meals you eat before and after working out.
Once you ensure you’re getting all of your totals right for the day, the meals directly surrounding your workouts are next in line in terms of the amount of impact and influence it has on the results you get.
The reason why should be fairly obviously. The PRE and POST workout meals happen play a key role in the effectiveness of those workouts.
In the most basic sense:
- What you eat before (and if needed, during) your workout is crucial for fueling the workout itself and maximizing your performance throughout.
- What you eat after your workout is crucial for optimizing the recovery process (which basically begins as soon as your workout ends) and ensuring that your body has all of the supplies it needs in order to recover, adapt and improve the way you want it to.
And while research does show individual benefits in getting JUST your PRE workout nutrition right, or getting JUST your POST workout nutrition right, real world experience shows that for the best possible results, the key is getting BOTH meals just right.
So, while your around-workout-nutrition definitely won’t make or break your success, the meals you eat before and after working out can definitely play a positive role in improving your results.
You just need to get these meals right to reap the benefits.
Not surprisingly, the diet and fitness world has overcomplicated the crap out of these meals, with various “experts” coming up with all kinds of super specific recommendations and various supplement companies coming out with supposed “superior” products.
Let’s now cut through all of that nonsense and figure out exactly what you should be eating before and after your workouts…
PRE Workout Nutrition: What Should You Eat Before Working Out?
As you’ve probably guessed, your PRE workout meal is the last meal you eat before your workout.
In certain cases and in certain situations, this PRE workout meal may carry over into something of a during-workout meal (only if needed, definitely not required).
For this reason, these meals typically get lumped together into what many people commonly refer as the “Energy Phase” portion of your around-workout-nutrition.
The Purpose Of Your PRE Workout Meal
The reason these meals got this “energy phase” nickname is pretty obvious.
Your PRE workout meal is the meal that plays the largest role in supplying your body with everything it will need to ensure optimal performance during your workout.
And, in the cases where a during-workout meal is being used (either in place of the PRE workout meal or in conjunction with it), its purpose is exactly the same.
Specifically, the primary goal of the PRE workout meal is to accomplish the following:
- Reduce muscle glycogen depletion.
- Reduce muscle protein breakdown.
- Reduce post workout cortisol levels.
How To Do It
To make all of the above happen successfully, your body needs 2 things:
What this means is, your biggest goal with your PRE workout meal is to consume a significant amount of both carbs and protein in some form sometime before (or if needed, during) your workout.
That’s the key here, and as long as you are doing that, you’re doing it right.
Now, this is the point when everyone likes to take it a big overcomplicated step further and give specific recommendations for exactly how many grams of carbs and protein you should eat, exactly what foods those nutrients should come from, and exactly how many hours, minutes and seconds before your workout you should eat this meal for MAXIMUM RESULTS!
While I always find that kind of thing hilarious and mostly pointless (seriously, any differences will be insignificant at best), I won’t just leave you hanging with no guidelines at all.
A Recommended PRE Workout Meal Protocol
The true specifics here will differ slightly depending on things like your schedule, what time of the day you work out, how much time you actually have before your workout, exactly what type of workout it’s going to be, and of course… your own preferences.
Rather than even attempt to cover every possible scenario, I’ll just leave you with what is likely the most popular recommendation for what to eat before working out.
The following comes courtesy of Alan Aragon, who is hands down one of the smartest and most trustworthy people in the nutrition field.
Option A: 60-90 minutes pre-workout, have a solid, balanced meal containing…
Protein = 0.25g per pound of your target body weight.
Carbs = 0.25g per pound of your target body weight.
Adding fat at this point is fine, use your discretion as long as it fits into your macronutrient goals. Note that this meal is skipped if you train first thing in the morning.
Option B: 30-0 minutes pre-workout – (and/or sipped throughout the workout), have a liquid or easily digested meal containing…
Protein = 0.25g per pound of your target body weight.
Carbs = 0.25g per pound of your target body weight.
If you were going to train for close to or more than 2 hours continuously, it would definitely benefit you to have this extra pre-workout meal either immediately prior to, or sipped during training. Keep the fats here incidental and not added if you’re prone to gastric distress during training.
I think that’s all pretty self explanatory.
As for me personally, I always go with something similar to the first option shown above. Meaning…
- My PRE workout meal takes place 1-2 hours before my workout and consists of a normal solid food meal containing a good amount of protein (example foods include chicken, fish, beef, egg whites, etc.), and a good amount of carbs (example foods include brown rice, oatmeal, or any lower glycemic source).
Nothing fancy, just protein and carbs coming from normal foods 1-2 hours before working out. This is what I’d personally recommend to most people.
There’s no need to get any more complicated than that, and no need to obsess about the specifics. Alan Aragon himself would be the first person to tell you that.
POST Workout Nutrition: What Should You Eat After Working Out?
Your POST workout meal is the first meal you eat after your workout.
While the PRE (and/or during) workout nutrition phase is commonly referred to as the “Energy Phase,” this POST workout portion of your around-workout-nutrition is commonly referred to as the “Anabolic Phase.”
The Purpose of Post Workout Nutrition
The reason it’s nicknamed the “anabolic phase” is again pretty obvious, as anabolism refers to the “building” (or even “rebuilding”) of something.
Quite simply, your POST workout meal is the meal that plays the largest role in supplying your body with everything it will need to repair, replenish, recover and adapt to the training stimulus that you just provided during your workout.
Specifically, the goal of the POST workout meal is to accomplish the following:
- Replenish muscle glycogen that was depleted during your workout.
- Reduce muscle protein breakdown caused by exercise.
- Increase muscle protein synthesis.
- Reduce muscle soreness and fatigue.
- Greatly enhance overall recovery.
- Reduce cortisol levels.
How To Do It
To make all of the above happen successfully, your body once again needs 2 things:
Yup, the same 2 things your body benefits from before your workout are the same 2 things your body benefits from after your workout.
So, your primary goal with your POST workout meal is to consume a significant amount of both carbs and protein in some form soon after your workout.
Why soon after? Because, after your workout, your body is absolutely primed and ready to accept protein and carbs so it can immediately begin putting these nutrients to good use doing all of the awesome things you want it to be doing (such as the stuff on that list above).
Most people also feel that calorie partitioning (how calories are used once they enter your body) is at its very best at this time, so people often make this their largest meal of the day.
For all of these reasons, it’s most often recommended to consume your post workout meal as soon after your workout as you can.
I don’t mean put-down-the-weights-and-start-eating. That’s a bit insane. However, this meal should ideally be eaten within the first 60 minutes after your workout. Or better yet, within the first 30 minutes after your workout.
So, your biggest goal with your POST workout meal is to consume a nice amount of both protein and carbs sometime within the first 30 minutes after your workout.
As long as you’re doing that, you’re doing it right.
Of course, we’ve once again reached the point where everyone wants the overcomplicated specifics. Exactly how many grams of carbs and protein, exactly what foods should they come from, and so on.
While I again find those kind of specifics to be mostly pointless, I won’t just leave you hanging with no guidelines at all.
A Recommended POST Workout Meal Protocol
Just like I did earlier with your PRE workout meal, I’m going to again leave you with Alan Aragon’s popular recommendation, this time for what to eat after working out.
Within 30 minutes post-workout, have either a liquid or solid meal containing…
Protein = 0.25g per pound of your target body weight.
Carbs = 0.25-0.5g per pound of your target body weight.
Amount of fat here doesn’t matter as long as your daily target is hit.
Again, that’s pretty self explanatory.
As for me personally, I usually go about this meal 3 different ways.
- Option A: Sometimes I have a liquid meal consisting of whey protein powder as my protein source (whey is the “fast” digesting protein, more about it later), and dextrose (which is a type of sugar commonly used in sports drinks) as my carb source. I just throw the appropriate amounts of both into a shaker bottle, take it with me to the gym, and leave it in my car or locker. When I’ve finished working out, I just pour in a bottle of water, shake for a few seconds, and taaadaaa, I have an extremely quick and convenient POST workout shake that I drink on the ride home.
- Option B: Sometimes I skip the liquid meal described above in favor of a normal solid food meal as soon as I get home. I normally go with chicken and a big bowl of rice or white potatoes or another similar higher glycemic source. As I’ve mentioned before, this is the one time of the day when higher glycemic foods may have an advantage over lower glycemic foods. I know a lot of people who prefer to eat their favorite junkier cereals (Lucky Charms, Frosted Flakes, etc.) at this meal for this very reason.
- Option C: Sometimes I combine elements of the previous 2 options. Specifically, I’ll use whey protein powder as my protein source, and a higher glycemic solid food as my carb source.
Exactly which option I personally go with or recommend you go with depends on a bunch of factors. For example…
Option A (the whey/dextrose shake) was once thought to be FAR superior to anything else because they both digest faster than any other source of protein or carbs (not to mention, a liquid meal digests faster than a solid food meal).
However, if you already got your PRE workout meal right, then it probably doesn’t matter anywhere near as much as some people make it seem. Don’t get me wrong, I still use this option a lot, it’s just that any supposed benefits over Option B or C are most likely insignificant at best.
The real big advantage of this shake is the convenience of it. Just mix it together and drink. That’s as quick and easy as it gets, and some people might prefer that. Not to mention, some people just aren’t that hungry after working out, so they might prefer to drink this meal rather than eat it. It’s all about personal preferences.
Option B or C (the solid/semi-solid food meals) are definitely more ideal for people who would prefer to chew their meal rather than drink it. Some people just enjoy eating and love the idea of getting to eat a nice big meal containing some of the higher glycemic foods they typically avoid the rest of the day.
These options may just be more fun and enjoyable to many people, especially those who are trying to lose fat (and are therefore eating less calories overall and wouldn’t want to “waste” a meal by drinking it), or people who just have problems controlling their appetite.
Again, as long as you get the gist of the meal right (eat a nice amount of protein and carbs soon after your workout), exactly how you do it is not likely to matter much in the end and should really come down to your own personal preferences.
There’s no need to get any more complicated than that, and no need to obsess about the specifics.
What about the POST… POST workout meal?
As for what to eat in the meal that comes after this POST workout meal (and when exactly to eat it), I’ll again leave you in the hands of Alan Aragon…
It’s simply your next scheduled meal, whether it’s 1, 2, or 3 hours later simply doesn’t matter – especially if your immediate POST workout meal was designed as above.
Not much more to add to that.
Summing Up Your Around-Workout-Nutrition
Honestly, it’s all pretty simple.
No matter what any diet guru or supplement company claims, the most important part of your diet is always your total calorie, protein, fat and carb intake for the day, not some magical world of “nutrient timing” or any other such nonsense.
But yeah, proper PRE and POST workout nutrition will certainly play a positive role in your overall results.
Is it enough of a role to make or break your diet or your ability to lose fat, build muscle, or reach a similar goal? Nope. Is it enough of a role to make up for failing to get the real important stuff right? Definitely not.
But, assuming you’re already doing the important stuff correctly, getting your PRE and POST workout meals right is the icing on the cake.
So, surround your workouts with meals that contain a nice amount of protein and carbs, and don’t waste time or energy making it much more complicated than that.
The PRE and POST Workout FAQ
Before we leave this subject, I just want to answer a few related questions that I can imagine people having after reading this. Here we go…
Can you tell me more about whey protein powder? What brand of whey and dextrose do you recommend?
The full details of whey protein powder (and protein supplements in general) are coming up next in this guide. You’ll see in a minute.
For dextrose, it’s all the exact same thing, so any brand is fine. Check your local supermarket or health food store for it (it may sometimes be called corn sugar instead of dextrose). It’s pretty cheap, so buy it in bulk if you decide to use it as your POST workout carb source.
My goal is to lose weight. Won’t the EXTRA calories from my PRE/POST workout meals cause me to gain weight or stop me from losing weight?
NO, not at all. The reason why is because these calories will NOT be EXTRA calories.
They will be a part of your total daily diet.
What I mean is, the “extra” calories from these meals will be bad ONLY if they are indeed “extra” calories above what you are supposed to be eating.
However, what they should be are calories that are just PART of the total daily calorie intake that’s ideal for you.
So, if you need to be eating 2500 calories per day (just an example), the calories from the meals before and after your workout should be a part of those 2500 calories… NOT in addition to them.
It seems so silly and obvious, but I’ve seen it asked enough times (do I need to count these calories too?!?!?) to know that it needs to be addressed.
The same goes for protein, carbs and/or fat. The calories and nutrients in these meals all count towards your daily totals just like any other meal.
What if I do cardio right after weight training? When should I have my POST workout meal then?
You can either have your POST workout meal after you’ve finished the entire workout (so after the cardio in this example), or, if you’re using the liquid POST workout meal option (Option A, the whey/dextrose shake), you have 3 other options.
You can either take a little break between weight training and cardio (which you probably end up doing anyway) and drink your POST workout shake then.
Or, you can just sip it while doing cardio.
Or, do a little of both. Start drinking it after weights/before cardio, and finish it by sipping it during cardio. You could actually even start drinking it at the end of your weight training workout if you really wanted to.
Really, as long as you’re having some kind of protein/carb meal within a sane amount of time after your workout, you’re fine. Don’t go nuts over it.
I noticed that certain supplement and sports drink companies make their own PRE or POST workout drink that contains something similar to what you outlined. Can’t I just buy those?
You can, but you’d probably be better off if you didn’t.
For one, you’d be wasting money, because it will be WAY cheaper to just buy your own whey protein and dextrose and then just combine them with water yourself (that is assuming you prefer a liquid meal over a solid food meal).
Plus, you’ll be able to select the exact amounts of each that are ideal for you (rather than whatever that company just happened to pick) AND you’ll also avoid paying for any excess garbage that many of these PRE/POST workout drinks often include.
So, I’d recommend either just having a solid food meal or making your own “drink” using your own ingredients.
Well, that’s pretty much everything you need to know about what, when, why and how to eat before and after working out.
Now it’s time to move on to a fun little topic that everyone likes to spend way too much time and money on… the always entertaining and bullshit filled world of supplements.
(This article is part of a completely free and amazingly awesome guide to creating the absolute best diet plan possible for your exact goal and preferences. Check out the entire guide here: The Best Diet Plan)