Originally published 7 Feb 2020. Last updated 22 Sept 2020.
QUESTION: “Hi Dr. Neal, I’ve built my routine around my workout being one of the first things I do in my day. I eat my pre-workout snack right when I get out of bed so I can digest it leading up to the workout. I’ve been scouring the Internet and can’t seem to find a consistent answer on what the right amount of carbs/protein/whatever else should be to optimize my upcoming workout. What are the macro and timing recommendations for eating prior to a near-start-of-day workout? Thank you once again for answering this question and for bringing me useful knowledge to better my body and my life every day!”
DR. NEAL: Thank you for your question, and thank you so much for your kind words. I am thrilled that you find the show helpful.
I am always thrilled to hear from listeners who are consistent with workouts!
That’s not easy to do, so I in my humble opinion, I think it's amazing.
A Couple of Disclaimers…
I’ll start by saying that:
1. I am not sponsored by any food or supplement manufacturer. My goal as always is to tell you the truth to the best of my knowledge. More often than not, my information comes from published research studies. By doing this, I’m hoping that what I report to you comes from a minimally biased perspective.
This is because when we rely on other people’s experiences with meal plans, or workout routines, or supplements, there’s a really high probability that what they’re doing may not work for you at all. This is why we need well-designed studies… so we can try and figure out if certain meal plans, for example, work for most.
Or, if we don’t have time for that, the least we can do is to look to respected organizations who look at all the research for us and see what they say.
My other disclaimer is that:
2. When it comes to recommending specific meals, the intensity and duration of your exercise matters, too. So, my recommendations may not be perfect for you, but try it out and see!
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to it.
Why is Proper Nutrition Right Before and After a Workout So Important?
What to eat before and after a workout is always a hot topic of conversation. It doesn’t help that if you were to ask a personal trainer, a registered dietitian nutritionist, or medical doctor, you will probably get 3 very different answers.
A workout and proper nutrition go together like peanut butter, and, uh…well not jelly…something more nutritious…they go together like peanut butter and banana.
We’re finding that the most critical times for proper nutrition when it comes to exercise performance, fat burning, and muscle growth is right before and right after your workout.
How Do I Stay Hydrated?
Staying hydrated is the most important thing when you're exercising.
As far as the pre-workout hydration goes, two of the best things you can do are:
- drink 1 cup of black coffee or plain tea about 1 hour before, provided you’re not sensitive to their effects, and
- drink 5–10 mL of water/kg of body weight 2–4 hours before exercise.
If your workout is happening before 2 hours are up, then we just have to make sure that you’re adequately hydrating without over-hydrating.
In this case, 8-16 fl. oz. of water (which is 1-2 cups) 15 minutes before your workout should do the trick.
Before a Workout: Avoid Foods that are High in Fiber or Fat
It’s also recommended that we avoid foods that are really high in fiber or high in fat. Both fiber and fat will slow the digestion of these foods, which may affect your workout. So, 3-4 hours before your workout, you could eat a whole English muffin, topped with a tablespoon of fruit spread, and a medium-sized apple on the side.
There’s really no protein recommendation before exercise. Most health organizations say to really focus on getting enough carbs before a meal. Protein comes later.
If you’re short on time, the recommendations I just mentioned will likely make you feel too full. So, we need to find a fuel source that can be digested and absorbed quickly. Luckily, the foods I just mentioned fit the bill. We just need to decrease the portion sizes!
So, using the food recommendations I just mentioned, you could have half the English muffin or ¼ or ½ of the apple. Half of a banana or ½ cup of orange juice would also be good options. For me, I’ve learned that my body prefers the half a banana option most. I don’t feel too full and it seems to supply me with enough energy to kill my workouts.
Should You Eat After a Workout?
Well, you want to be sure that you providing your body with enough of the right kind of fuel to perform its best. Why does what we eat after a workout make a difference? We didn’t know this 10 years ago, but it turns out that right after we finish our run, drop that last weight, or swim that last lap, the cells in our bodies begin hunting for certain nutrients. Those nutrients are water (obviously), carbohydrate, and protein.
Some would also argue that you may need some electrolytes after a workout.
By the way, people who use the word “electrolytes” are just trying to sound fancy. Electrolytes simply refer to vitamins and minerals. For endurance athletes, yes, they may need some extra sodium (salt) and potassium, but for the average person, this isn’t as big of a deal.
Researchers are discovering that the timing of this post-workout meal is important. The goal is to consume these foods within 20-30 minutes after finishing your workout. After a workout, the demand for protein is high which makes it the best time to replenish it.
Because carbohydrate actually helps with protein absorption, eating both within 20-30 minutes of your workout is ideal.
What Should I Have as a Post-Workout Meal?
So what should we eat after we’ve expended all that energy and done all of that hard work? The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that we should consume more carbohydrates after the workout because, after exercise, there is more blood flow to muscle cells and the muscle cells are more sensitive to insulin, which all means that we can replenish our muscles' energy stores really fast.
A different organization, the American College of Sports Medicine, says we should eat these carbs within 30 minutes of finishing our workout, as mentioned previously. Since the workout is over, we don’t need to worry too much about fiber content. When it comes to quantity, the recommendation is to consume the same as before: about 1 gram of carbohydrate per kg of body weight. So, if someone weighs 160 lbs., that means another 72 grams or so of carbohydrate within 30 minutes after the workout.
Both the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American College of Sports Medicine agree that it's a good time here to add protein. And hey, when does THAT ever happen? Two organizations agree about nutrition recommendations? It’s our lucky day!
Both agree that we should aim to consume about 20 grams of protein within 30 minutes after the workout. The belief is that doing so may stimulate muscle growth and prevent muscle breakdown. Digging a little deeper into the research, we find that consuming leucine-rich proteins, specifically, may be even more helpful.
Leucine-rich proteins can be found in:
- animal products
So, how much is 20 g of protein? For example, 3 oz. of chicken would contain about 27 grams of protein… and 3 oz. isn’t much. It’s about the size of a deck of cards. So, after a workout, 3 oz. of chicken with a large sweet potato and broccoli on the side should do the trick.
How Much Water and Protein Do You Need Before and After Your Workout?
Of course, protein is important. This is because our muscles are made of proteins.
First, I will use my psychic abilities and go out on a limb by saying you’re likely already consuming enough protein each day. How could I possibly know this? This is because there have been a lot of data collected on how much and what types of food populations around the world consume regularly, and most people consume plenty of protein each day.
Let’s imagine you’re going to hit the gym in about 2 hours. Here’s what you’re going to want to do: drink about 17 to 20 fl oz of water (or a sports drink). You’re also going to want to fuel your body to perform at its best. The body is going to need some carbohydrate and some protein. Notice I said “some” – I didn’t say a lot.
- A piece of whole grain toast topped with 2 tbs of peanut or almond butter would work just fine
- Or, an apple and a stick of string cheese
- Or, 1 whole egg, topped with a slice of melted Swiss cheese sitting on a whole wheat English muffin
If you are performing high intensity, interval-style exercises, consuming some carbohydrates about 30 minutes before your workout can be beneficial. Then, 10-20 minutes before you start your exercise, have another 7 to 10 fl oz of water or a sports drink.
Let me take a step back here: what’s 7 or 10 fl oz? One easy way to get a really rough “guesstimate” is to make a fist. Now look at your fist. That’s about 8 fl oz of fluid, or 1 cup… same thing. Aim to drink 2 fist-sized glasses of water 2-3 hours before you workout and at least one 10-20 minutes before.
How Much Carbohydrates Should I Consume After a Workout?
Carbohydrates are beneficial after a workout because they can help our bodies absorb that leucine-rich protein more efficiently.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends we aim for about 1 gram of carbohydrate per kg of body weight after a workout. This does take a little bit of math to figure out, but stick with me, it’s not too bad.
Let’s say you weigh 150 lbs. You first need to convert weight in lbs. to weight in kg. To do this, divide your body weight by 2.2. Using my example, divide 150 by 2.2. Plugging into my imaginary calculator, this means 150 lbs. is equivalent to 68.2 kg. No matter what you weigh, use this same formula.
Now that we know your hypothetical body weight in kg, the math is super simple now. Because the American College of Sports Medicine says you need 1 gram of carbohydrate per kg of body weight, you don’t need to do anything else… you have your answer! If you weigh 150 lbs., you should consume about 70 g of carbohydrate after a workout. This would be like eating a bowl of oatmeal topped with blueberries.
Combine that with about 20 grams of leucine-rich protein (which would be like 6 oz. of Greek yogurt), and you’ve met all of your post-workout needs.
Should You Supplement with Protein?
I won’t be able to discuss every single one, but just the ones that are most popular.
Read about creatine, beta-alanine, glutamine, and whey protein in our sports supplements post.
Note that you likely don’t need a protein supplement. If you want to help your body build strength and muscle as efficiently as possible, consider focusing instead on consuming some leucine-rich foods within 20-30 minutes after finishing your workout. Then, do your best to stay consistent with your strength training and follow a meal plan full of balance and variety, and you’ll build that strength and see those muscles popping in due time.
What if You're a Marathoner?
If you’re a marathoner or triathlete, then you could consume up to 4 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram body weight. This would be equivalent to 273 grams of carbohydrate 1 to 4 hours before a meal. For many people, 273 grams of carbs is practically a whole day’s worth!
That’s why I said this “4 grams of carbohydrate” recommendation is really best for ultra-endurance athletes, not the average gym-goer.
These recommendations should keep you functioning at your best before, during, and after your workouts!