Sports Nutrition: What to Eat Pre/Post Workouts
“What should I eat before a workout?” This is one of the most frequent questions I get asked as a nutrition major. Majoring in nutrition with an interest in sports is extremely fascinating to me!. There’s always new research going on in this field with an emphasis on properly fueling up before and after a workout.
I am particularly around a lot of college athletes as I play club ultimate frisbee at Virginia Tech. So, the topic of what’s “best” to eat before a lift, tournament, practice etc. is something that comes up fairly often. Through college, I’ve tried to learn the “best” ways to eat for different types of workouts. However, I know different things sometimes work for different people. But, there are general “ways” to eat that are tried and true for many athletes.
1. Light Workouts – Jogs, yoga, etc.
- A light workout is still a workout! And fueling for it is still important! Eating a snack that’s a pairing of carbs and protein 30-45 minutes before your workout will help you maintain energy for your workout. Snack ideas include apple slices with peanut butter, yogurt with granola, or cheese and crackers. Carbs are important for energy, and protein stores are important for your body’s healing.
- What to avoid: you don’t need to eat a heavy carb load for lighter workouts. Eating a large, complex carb heavy meal close to a lighter workout can cause stomach pain and bloating during exercise. You also don’t need any specific post workout protein/carb meal or snack for a light workout if you’re eating regular meals. But, if you’re feeling fatigued or hungry, absolutely grab a snack.
2. Heavy Cardio- Sports tournaments, longer runs, intense workouts
- Carb loading is something that most athletes are aware of. You don’t want your energy (i.e. blood sugar) to drop in the middle of a big athletic event or competition. So, you build up your carbohydrate (the body’s preferred form of energy, broken down to maintain blood sugar) stores.
- What most people don’t know is that it’s more beneficial to start carb loading a few days in advance rather than the night before. This helps build glycogen stores up. These stores are pockets of glucose next to your muscle fibers. They provide energy for muscle movement and contraction after you burn through your immediate energy stores. A few days out from a long distance race or tournament, start incorporating more carb dense foods such as pasta, rice, tortillas, bread, etc. to increase your carb intake.
- Sugary snacking! It’s so important to eat throughout several hours of burning energy. To use a metaphor, you don’t want your tank to get empty. Ideally, you don’t want it to get anywhere close to empty. And the best way to avoid an energy crash is to eat foods that are primarily “simple carbohydrate” based. Simple just means it’s easy for your body to break down into energy. Try sugary snacks such as fruit snacks, granola bars, or sports gels to maintain your energy. (test these out before a race, some people get upset stomachs from them)
- Salty snacking! If you’re sensing a theme of snacking with heavy cardio nutrition, you would be right. If you’re running for several hours, you’re sweating for several hours! This means your body is losing water and salt, so make sure to hydrate. This can mess with your body’s electrolyte balance and energy levels. Snacks like pickles, sports drinks, or a few salted almonds can help replenish the salt you sweat out.
- Recovery foods! A mix of complex carbohydrates and protein (and some fat!) in a snack or a meal is the best combination for your body’s recovery process. Ideally you should eat a meal within 2 hours of completing your event. In addition, antioxidants are very beneficial for recovery. Antioxidants, which are in most fruit and veggies, but especially darker fruits (cranberries, cherries, blueberries, and pomegranate), help reduce muscle inflammation and help your body heal quickly. Sports dietitians will often give athletes cherry or pomegranate juice to help with soreness.
3. Interval Style- Sprints, CrossFit, HIIT workouts
- Maintaining proper carbohydrate stores to last you through the bursts of energy you expend with interval training is important. Eating a meal with complex carbs within a few hours of your interval workout is ideal- whole grain pasta, a sandwich on whole grain bread, ect. This helps “fill your gas tank” with energy reserves to help you push through the stop and go training. Also, eat a snack that’s more “simple carb” based within an hour of working out to give you an extra boost of energy. A granola bar, or peanut butter with a banana would work well.
- Eating a protein/carb dense snack within half an hour of finishing a workout is ideal for your body’s recovery. You may be sensing a theme here of “protein and carb mix after most workouts”, but it’s so true that that’s what your body needs to recover most effectively. Eating at least something within half an hour of working out is key because your body starts to repair itself from the stress of being active. Having the proper nutrients available makes it easier for your body to do its job.
4. Strength Training
- Lifting nutrition is a little different than cardio focused nutrition. While you still need a mix of protein and carbs for pre and post workout meals (and fat!) your body needs you to take in well-balanced meals and snacks to be most productive with your workouts and workout recovery!), the ratio is a little different. You don’t need to build your carb stores quite as much and you need a little extra protein. Eat a snack within an hour of working out, but don’t focus as much carbs as you do before a run or sprint workout.
- Protein is key for recovery after a lift. Not that it’s not key for a post cardio workout, but protein is most important for repairing all the little muscle tears that occurs when you lift. Eat protein within half an hour of finishing your lift for the best recovery. Nuts, hard boiled eggs, turkey roll ups, or protein bars are some snack ideas.
The takeaway from all this advice is it helps your body so much if you nourish it for a workout. Yes, there are differences in the nutrition based on type of activity. A distance runner has different needs than someone who mostly strength trains. Overall, a few factors are constant. Drink a lot of water, and eat plenty of meals and snacks that are balanced in fat, protein, and carbohydrates. Eating before and after your workout helps maintain energy and help your body function best!
If you have any questions about fueling for an activity or sport visit our website or call us at 301-474-2499 to talk to one of our wonderful dietitians!
Rebecca Bitzer loves to empower Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) and their clients. Co-author of Welcome to the Rebelution: Seven steps to the nutrition counseling practice of your dreams and Taste the Sweet Rebellion: Rebel against dieting.