What should I eat before and after a workout/practice/game?
A question that comes up quite often with clients who work out regularly is, “what should I eat before and after a workout?” I’ve also seen the difference pre-game and post-game nutrition can have on performance in athletes. It is for these reasons that I created the following infographic. This infographic is easy to understand and follow, as the recommendations are quite simple.
…But since I’m a “why?” person, I’ve also included the explanation behind my recommendations in the blog here on this page.
By the way, this infographic is appropriate for the adult “weekend warrior” , as well as for the competitive athlete at any age and level.
The problem with setting general recommendations is the reality that one size doesn’t fit all… especially when it comes to health and lifestyle… especially considering the complexity of the human body and our limited understanding of how it all works… and the complexity of our lives and the various ways we prioritize our time and efforts! So, my hope in writing this blog is to provide you a better understanding of how things work, so that you can decide what works best for you!
There are so many experts telling us what to do… it’s impossible to do it all. By having a better understanding of how all this works, then you realize you don’t have to do it all. Possessing knowledge is empowering! It can free you to make the best decisions for yourself and not give way to guilt, which is a horrible motivator!
Sports Nutrition Basics:
Fuel is energy in the form of calories. Nutrients that provide calories include carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Ideally, the body uses carbohydrates for energy, and saves protein and fat for the specific roles they provide in the body.
Carbohydrates are stored in the muscle and liver as glycogen. The body always ensures glycogen stores are topped off for immediate energy. If calories are in excess of what your body uses, the rest will be stored as fat (whether it came in as carbohydrates, protein, or fat). If you don’t consume enough calories to meet your body’s needs, it will turn to its stores to supply the remaining energy required.
Glucose: the preferred fuel source
Glucose’s primary role in the body is to provide energy for all of its many functions. In particular, muscles and brain need glucose. When you exercise, your body will immediately pull glucose from those glycogen stores in the muscle, as well as from the blood stream. When you eat, your body immediately replaces those glycogen stores. Glucose comes primarily from carbohydrates.
Therefore, eating carbohydrates is the quickest and most efficient way to ensure you always have adequate energy available. This includes grains (rice, wheat, quinoa, oats, etc.), starchy vegetables (potatoes, corn, beans, peas, etc.), fruit (bananas, grapes, apples, etc.), and dairy (milk and yogurt, and excludes cheese).
A workout fueled by glucose is a better performed workout.
The benefits of “a better performed workout,” fueled by glucose, include:
- Having more energy
- Lifting more weights
- Running faster
- Jumping higher
- Having more power
- Burning more calories
- Thinking quicker and clearer
- Better decision making, etc.
Duration of Glycogen stores
When full, muscle glycogen stores typically last an hour, give or take, depending on the person and on the intensity of the exercise. Anyone working out or competing in an event that requires about an hour of moderate exertion should have the necessary energy from the glycogen stores to supply fuel for the duration of the event. The more energy exerted in that workout or event (i.e. higher intensity), the faster that energy will be depleted, and stores may be depleted in less than an hour. Of course, the reverse is true, as well. The less energy exerted in that workout or event (i.e lower intensity), the less energy utilized from stores, and those reserves may last longer than an hour.
Once those stores run out, the body will happily pull glucose straight from the blood stream. So, if you drink a sports drink during a workout or event, then your body will happily use the sugar from that source, as well.
If your stores run out and you don’t refuel, your body will draw out triglycerides from its fat stores to use for fuel. There are small amounts of triglycerides stored in the muscle that can be used, while the triglycerides from adipose tissue (fat) take longer to mobilize. As you’ll read below, unfortunately, fat is not a “performance” fuel source, though, and it will cause the intensity of your exercise to drop.
My husband is a high school girls’ basketball coach and those games can get pretty intense. In some games, he only plays five starters with no substitutions. We had one district game where all five starters played the entire game. That game went into overtime, and unfortunately, we lost by seven. I overheard several parents say, “the girls just ran out of steam.” Literally, their glycogen stores were completely depleted since they only drink water during competition. It’s the fat stores that allowed them to continue to play, but it was to the detriment of their performance.
Fat: the alternative fuel source
Because we don’t eat while we sleep, and our bodies always need fuel to function, it will convert to its backup fuel source, fat. So, when we sleep, we use fat for fuel. The body was designed to work this way, so this is a wonderful thing! Researchers have taken an interest in stretching out this fasted sleep state, and there is a lot of good research on intermittent fasting – which I will blog about sometime in the future. This fat comes in the form of triglycerides primarily from our fat stores.
After waking, we remain in that fat-burning state until we eat.
If you work out fasted (i.e. a morning workout on an empty stomach), or allow your glycogen stores to become depleted without refueling (i.e. workout or participate in an event, inadequately refuel after that workout/event, and then participate in another workout/event later that day), fat will naturally be the primary fuel source for that particular workout. So, working out fasted is a strategy some people use to burn more fat.
However, there are disadvantages. Fat is a low-intensity fuel source. It’s supposed to be just for backup, so it does not provide the same performance benefits as a workout fueled by glucose. You will have less energy and less strength during the workout. Remember all the benefits I listed of a “well-performed” workout fueled by glucose? You won’t have any of that. Although, you should be able to maintain a low intensity workout for a long duration, as fat can continue to be burned indefinitely. Because fasted workouts will limit your performance, improper fueling is detrimental for the competitive athlete or for anyone training to compete.
Not to mention, because the brain’s preferred fuel is glucose, when you work out fasted, you will be mentally dull. Lacking mental acuity can impact performance as well, which is also critical for the competitive athlete.
In the fed-state, your glycogen stores are full and your workout will be fueled by glucose. In the fasted state, your glycogen stores are depleted and your workout will be fueled by fat. Before you can know the best approach to properly fuel your workout, you must first identify the purpose for your workouts. Your goal will determine whether you want your workouts fueled by glucose or fat.
Reasons to exercise:
- To improve health (control blood sugar, lower blood pressure, improve lipid levels, etc.)
- To improve body composition (i.e. lose fat and/or build muscle)
- To compete in an upcoming event (i.e. 5K, 10K, half-marathon, marathon, triathlon, tennis match, etc.)
- To increase energy
- To improve overall well-being and longevity
- To enhance mental health and ward off depression
- To compete as an athlete (high school, college, or competing at the professional level), in which case your goal is: To Improve Performance, and this one goal can encompass many other goals; like:
- Getting bigger, stronger, and/or faster;
- Improving sport specific skills;
- Increasing endurance; etc.
Given the above goals, if your goals are on the health spectrum (physical and mental health, well-being and longevity, energy, etc.), then the good news is there is a lot of flexibility in your nutrition strategy surrounding workouts. In other words, it really doesn’t matter! So, just eat on a schedule that works for your life and eat in a manner that suits you!
For me, the best time for me to work out is at 5:30 am, and the thought of eating at 5 am just doesn’t appeal to me, so I work out fasted. If I miss a workout in the morning, I may go later in the day, if my schedule allows. I notice a huge difference between my morning fasted workouts and my fed workouts – I’m much stronger and have much more energy in the fed state. However, that still doesn’t make me want to eat at 5 am. Since my primary goal is on the health spectrum (at this busy season of life, that’s really all I’m going for these days), I’m okay with the limited performance of being fasted during a workout. There may come a time when this changes, but for now, this is what works best for me.
However, if you are looking for body composition or weight changes, or performance enhancement, then what and when you eat can make a huge difference in reaching those goals!
Primary goal: weight loss
Now, while it sounds great to use your fat stores to fuel a workout (what better way to lower your body fat, right?), here’s the reality:
If you are in negative energy balance (meaning you eat fewer calories than you burn),
your body will need to turn to fat stores, at some point, to meet its energy needs,
whether you consume carbs before your workout or not.
This is sort of win-win. You get to properly fuel your workout by eating carbs and get the most out of your workout! Plus, by being in negative energy balance over that 24 hour period, you get to use fat to fuel the parts of your day where being your best isn’t necessary. However, ultimately, it’s up to you how you choose to strategize your pre-workout fueling.
Primary goal: competition/winning
In this case, it is imperative that you have proper fuel (glucose!) for your competition. Two years ago, my son played in the Little Dribbler National Tournament. Unfortunately, he neglected to eat before a game (it’s a long story riddled with mom guilt and coupled with dietitian guilt). Not realizing he hadn’t eaten, I noticed he wasn’t playing like his usual self. In hindsight, he was an under-fueled athlete who, consequently, under-performed in a game. We lost that game by ONE point, to the team that won the National Little Dribbler title. There’s no way to know if we would have won had he been properly fueled, but I do think it could have made that one point difference.
Another consideration is the length and the intensity of the competition, because it is crucial to have enough fuel to last the duration of the event/game. Remember, depending on intensity, glycogen stores only last about an hour. A sports drink can be useful and convenient to provide both fluid and fuel during an event. After my husband’s basketball team lost that district game in overtime, I ensured that our girls had a sports drink at each game for the playoffs. I can say that the girls played the best basketball of the season during the playoffs! Having that extra fuel in the final stretch can be a difference maker.
However, not all athletes need a sports drink to help fuel their event. You have to consider how much playing time you have and how much energy you exert. Endurance athletes who compete for hours need a fueling strategy, because their body cannot deliver an above average performance on fat stores. A registered dietitian, certified in sports nutrition, can help!
It is also important that your training/practice is adequately fueled, as well. By doing so, you provide enough energy to perform well during your session, which helps you attain those training adaptations that allow you to improve and maintain your improvements. Another benefit of a properly fueled training or practice session is that you also train your metabolism to work more efficiently.
Primary goal: competition + weight loss
If you are an athlete who wants or needs to lose weight, that can complicate things. When you are in a calorie deficit or negative energy balance, you will be deplete of energy. So, any efforts toward weight loss are best left to the off season! A periodized approach is best. Have an off season training plan – a time when you’ll be in fat burning mode and workouts will be at a low intensity to maximize weight loss, and periods where you are in energy balance so that you get more out of your training. Again, a registered dietitian, certified in sports nutrition, can help you formulate a periodized plan.
If you don’t skip meals and eat a meal or snack every 4 hours, then you’re never in that fasted state (except for in the morning). Remember, every time you eat, your glycogen stores are refilled. In this case, you should be able to meet your goals just fine without going out of your way to fuel your workout. But because your body is constantly burning calories to function and maintain its internal temperature, you can add a small snack before a workout to ensure your stores are topped off. This practice is especially helpful for anyone who is fueling for competition!
I recommend 15-30 grams of carbohydrates, approximately 30-60 minutes before a work-out.
Examples (15-30 g carbs):
- Fruit (whole fruit, applesauce, dried fruit)
- Granola bar
- Cereal (with or without milk)
- Pretzels, graham crackers, goldfish, etc.
- Toast with butter or jelly
- Sports drink
Anabolic window of opportunity
Not only does working out deplete our glycogen stores, it also breaks down muscle. Regardless of your workout goals, the goal of post-workout nutrition is two-fold:
- Carbs – to replenish or recover your glycogen stores
- Protein – to grow and strengthen muscle
Protein synthesis (the process of growing and strengthening our muscles) occurs for up to 48 hours after a work-out.
But there is an “anabolic window of opportunity” that lasts up to 2 hours immediately after a workout (there is some debate over the exact amount of time, findings are anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours). This is the time after your workout where the muscles are primed to receive nutrients.
However, the anabolic window is not important for everyone. It is most important for people who are engaging in more than one workout/event per day and need recovery, and for individuals whose goal is to maximize muscle building and strength. This can include any competitive athlete who wants to get stronger and more powerful or anyone who wants bigger and stronger muscles (i.e. under going weight-resistance training).
So, if your goal for working out falls along the health spectrum (physical and mental health, well-being and longevity, energy, etc.), you really don’t have to worry about getting carbs and protein immediately after your workout! You can rest assured that you will be fully recovered whenever you do eat, however long after your workout that may be – remember, protein synthesis lasts for up to 48 hours!
Keep in mind, what you eat over the course of your training, in terms of weeks and months, is so much more important than what you eat 30 minutes after your workout! With that said, post-work-out nutrition is still very much encouraged! But it’s important in the context of a healthy diet. in other words, think of post-workout nutrition as everything you eat for 24-48 hours after a workout.
- If you will be eating a meal within an hour after working out, you don’t need a snack.
- If you are having a meal within 2 hours of working out, you may have a small snack.
- If you are not having a meal for 3-4 hours after working out, you may have a larger snack.
Small snack (15-30 g carbs, 7 g protein)
Chocolate milk – 8 oz
Peanut butter on toast
Trail mix (with nuts and dried fruit)
Pretzels with nuts
Fruit and string cheese
Carnation breakfast essentials
Larger snack (30-45 g carbs, 7-14 g protein)
Yogurt parfait (yogurt, fruit, granola)
Turkey or ham & cheese wrap
Smoothie w/ yogurt and frozen fruit
Fruit, pretzels, peanut butter
Protein or meal bar
If your goal is to compete, proper fuel is essential to perform at your best. The best way to fuel a workout/practice/game is to eat 15-30 grams of carbohydrates 30-60 minutes before your workout/practice/game. This can come from grains, starchy vegetables, fruit, or dairy. Carbohydrates break down to glucose which is a high energy fuel.
If you want to lose weight and choose to workout fasted (either first thing in the morning or after your stores are depleted with no refueling), your performance will suffer because fat is a low intensity fuel. You can still reach your weight loss goal by fueling your workout with carbs but finishing the day in a negative energy balance.
If your goal is along the health spectrum (physical and mental health, well-being and longevity, energy, etc.), then it doesn’t matter how you fuel your workout. Do what works best for you.
The purpose of a post-workout nutrition strategy is (1) recover glycogen stores and (2) build bigger stronger muscles. You meet these goals with carbohydrates to recover glycogen stores and protein to build muscle.
If you have a meal planned within an hour of working out, then you don’t need to eat until that meal. If it is going to be up to 2 hours after workout, then you may want a small carb/protein snack (15-30 g carb and 6-8 g protein). If it’s going to be up to 4 hours before you eat a meal, then you may want a larger carb/protein snack (30-45 g carb and 7-14 g protein).
What you eat over the course of the day and over the course of weeks and months is more important than what you eat immediately after a workout.