As a sports dietitian, I talk a lot with clients about pre and post-workout nutrition. But is a pre and/or post-workout snack necessary? Well… it depends!
The goal behind pre-workout nutrition is two-fold.
- If you’re going to be doing an endurance workout (such as running, biking, or swimming), a pre-workout snack is serving as extra fuel for the muscles. The goal for this snack is ideally high carb (the preferred fuel source for your muscles), moderate protein, low fat. An example: PB&J sandwich or a banana with peanut butter and a glass of low-fat milk.
- If you’re going to be doing a strength workout (such as lifting heavy weights), a pre-workout snack is still providing fuel but a little more protein is also beneficial to help minimize muscle breakdown. An example: Protein shake that has both carbs and protein or scrambled eggs with toast.
The goal behind post-workout nutrition is all about recovery. The sooner we start that recovery process, the sooner our bodies recover! This means less fatigue and muscle soreness, less recovery time needed between workouts, and your body will be ready to go sooner.
Post-workout nutrition is three-fold:
- Carbs. Your muscles work hard during exercise to move that body so you need to replenish them with a carbohydrate source post-workout. This can be grains such as bread, rice, quinoa, or pasta; or it can be starchy vegetables such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, or peas. It can also be fruit.
- Protein. When you exercise, your body is breaking down your muscles. It is a combination of exercise + nutrition that you see an increase in lean muscle mass and improvements in strength and power output. Consuming protein post-workout helps to rebuild those muscles. High quality protein sources include dairy products (milk, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese), lean chicken/turkey/beef, fish, eggs, and plant based sources such as tofu, tempeh, beans, and legumes.
- Fluids. It is important to also replenish liquids and fluids that your body loses during exercise through sweating. Usually water is good enough, but if you’re a heavy sweater or a salty sweater, or if the weather is really hot and humid, it is a good idea to add in some electrolytes such as consuming salty snacks (pretzels, goldfish crackers, beef jerky) or sports drink (Gatorade, Powerade, homemade electrolyte solution, etc.).
Who & When
In the beginning I said it depends whether or not you need a pre and/or post-workout snack. There are several factors to consider:
- Weight gainers: If you are actively trying to gain weight, a pre and/or post-workout snack will be beneficial as eating every couple of hours is ideal for weight gain and maximizing workouts is key.
- Duration of workout: If a workout is longer than 1 hour, a pre-workout snack is important in order to provide your muscles with adequate energy to get through the workout. Additionally, if a workout is longer than 1 hour, a post-workout snack will help to replenish your body afterwards to optimize recovery.
- Intensity of workout: A high intensity workout where the body is working extremely hard is going to deplete the muscles more than a lower intensity workout. A pre and/or post-workout snack is vital for optimal performance and recovery after a high intensity workout.
- Timing: If it has been several hours prior to a workout since your last meal or snack, a pre-workout snack will provide necessary fuel to perform the workout well. Additionally, if you don’t plan to eat a meal for several hours after a workout, a post-workout snack is vital for recovery.
Bottom Line: A pre and/or post-workout snack is important for optimal performance and recovery. However, if a workout is low intensity (walking, jogging, light weights, etc.), and/or lasts less than 1 hour, a pre and/or post-workout snack may not be necessary, especially if your goal is weight maintenance or weight loss. Eating a well-balanced diet will provide your body with enough energy, fuel, and recovery in this case.
I am a registered dietitian, but this is general nutrition information. If you need individualized information, please schedule an appointment through my private practice Nutrition for Endurance or with a sports RD in your area.