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The Ultimate Guide to Fueling Your Exercise: Should You Eat Before or After a Workout?

The Ultimate Guide to Fueling Your Exercise: Should You Eat Before or After a Workout?

Nutrition is a vital component of any successful workout routine. It can impact your performance, results, and recovery. However, there's been some debate in the past about whether it's best to eat before or after a workout.

Some research has shown that eating before exercise can provide the fuel needed to power through a workout. There are also claims that eating only before a workout and fasting afterward can boost fat loss and improve insulin sensitivity.

Others have argued that saving your meal until after exercise aids in muscle recovery and growth. And if you fast before a workout, you may be able to enhance fat burning.

The research on eating before or after exercise has left many people confused, especially since all of this information can be true. Below, we'll examine what factors influence the best workout nutrition for you.

Recent Studies on Exercise and Nutrition

What's the optimal approach to fueling your body for exercise? Well, it turns out the answer is personal and can vary based on your preferences and fitness goals. Here's what some of the latest research on how eating before and after a workout can impact your performance, results, and recovery says:

  • A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that consuming a pre-workout meal containing both carbs and protein improved aerobic endurance and reduced fatigue in trained cyclists.
  • A review article in the journal Nutrients found that consuming carbohydrates before exercise can improve performance for longer-duration exercises, but may not have the same effect for shorter-duration exercises. Performance improvements depended on the amount of carbohydrates consumed and the intensity of the exercise.
  • A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that those engaged in resistance training had improved performance and recovery when ingesting carbohydrates both before and immediately after their training.
  • A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that eating a high-carb meal immediately after a workout enhanced glycogen storage and improved exercise performance in cyclists. The longer a meal was delayed after a workout, the slower the post-workout recovery.

In other words, the research shows that both pre-and post-workout nutrition can have beneficial impacts. But your optimal approach is going to vary based on what type of exercise you're engaging in and what you hope to achieve from your fitness routine.

Pre-Workout Nutrition: Benefits, Timing, and What to Eat

Consuming a meal containing carbohydrates and protein before exercise has been shown to improve exercise performance and increase muscle glycogen stores.

The ideal timing of pre-workout nutrition may vary based on personal preferences and fitness goals. Generally, it's recommended to eat a meal containing carbohydrates and protein 2-3 hours before exercise to allow for proper digestion and absorption. 

If you don't have enough time to eat a full meal, you can opt for a small snack containing carbohydrates and protein 30-60 minutes before exercise. For those who use shakes or supplemental beverages to get these nutrients, consuming them prior to and during high-intensity workouts can improve endurance 

According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN):

"The timing of energy intake and the ratio of certain ingested macronutrients may       enhance recovery and tissue repair, augment muscle protein synthesis (MPS), and improve mood states following high-volume or intense exercise."

The ISSN recommends fitness enthusiasts and athletes who engage in high-volume replenish carbohydrate stores before, during, and after high-intensity training. Furthermore, "When carbohydrate delivery is inadequate, adding protein may help increase performance, ameliorate muscle damage, promote euglycemia, and facilitate glycogen re-synthesis."

While eating before a workout can provide energy and improve performance, it can also cause digestive discomfort and impact the intensity of your workout. It's also important to note that some people may prefer to exercise on an empty stomach or after fasting. Your ideal timing and the composition of your pre-workout meal will vary based on your personal preferences and fitness goals.

Example Pre-Workout Meals and Snacks

Drinking water is vital to maintaining energy and endurance during a workout, so be sure to pair these foods with hydration. While meals can require up to 3 hours to digest, you can have light snacks that are high in carbohydrates and relatively low in protein 30 to 60 minutes before your workout.

In regards to carbohydrate consumption before exercise, it is recommended to consume at least 1g/kg of high glycemic index carbohydrates or about 0.5g/lb at least 1 hour before maximizing glycogen stores. However, research has also shown consumption of 30-60g of carbohydrates 30 minutes to 1 hour before exercise can increase carbohydrate availability towards the end of an exhaustive workout and prevent early fatigue.

Ideal pre-workout carbohydrates

Aim for about 0.5g of carbs per pound of body weight to maximize glycogen stores. To ensure the energy from carbohydrates is still available to you at the end of a long workout, you may want to simple carbs 30 minutes to an hour before working out.

  • Oatmeal
  • Bananas
  • Apple sauce
  • Cereal
  • Rice, potatoes, pasta, bagels (these simple carbs are best eaten if you plan an intense workout and need maximum energy available)
  • Vegetables (without added fats)

Ideal pre-workout proteins

  • Eggs (preferably egg whites)
  • Lean meats like salmon, chicken, and tuna
  • Protein shakes
  • Greek yogurt
  • Nut butter

Example pre-workout meals

  • Sliced avocados with whole-grain bread
  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Turkey and avocado wrap
  • Salmon and wild rice
  • Whole-grain crackers with cheese
  • Oatmeal with fresh fruit
  • Fruit and vegetable smoothie
  • Low-fat yogurt with berries
  • Low-sugar cereal with milk 

It's best to avoid processed food, citrus, and spicy foods prior to your workout.

Post-Workout Nutrition: Benefits, Timing, and What to Eat

Consuming a meal or snack containing protein, carbohydrates, and electrolytes after exercise can help replenish glycogen stores, repair muscle tissue, and enhance recovery. For example, a study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that consuming a post-workout meal containing carbohydrates and protein improved muscle glycogen recovery and reduced muscle damage. Another study found that consuming a protein and carbohydrate supplement after resistance exercise improved muscle protein synthesis and enhanced muscle growth.

The ideal timing of post-workout nutrition may vary based on your individual preferences and fitness goals. Generally, it is recommended to consume a meal or snack containing protein, carbohydrates, and electrolytes within 30 minutes to an hour after exercise to optimize glycogen replenishment and muscle protein synthesis. Protein helps repair and build muscle tissue, while carbohydrates provide the energy needed to replenish glycogen stores. Electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium, can help restore hydration and mineral balance.

Consuming a meal or snack that is too high in calories or does not align with your overall nutrition plan can lead to weight gain. Some people may prefer to fast after a workout, which can enhance fat burning and improve metabolic health.

Example Post-Workout Meals and Snacks

In addition to staying hydrated with water and potentially adding electrolyte drinks, the following foods are quick and easy to procure or prepare post-workout:

Ideal post-workout carbohydrates

  • Oatmeal
  • Whole grains (like quinoa) or whole-grain bread
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Rice, potatoes, or pasta
  • Fruits, such as berries, bananas, or kiwi
  • Chocolate milk 

Ideal post-workout proteins

  • Eggs
  • Lean meats, such as salmon, chicken, or tuna
  • Greek yogurt
  • Protein powder or bars

* Healthy fats found in nuts, avocados, and seeds can also be beneficial.

Example post-workout meals

  • Pita bread and hummus
  • Apples with peanut or almond butter
  • Tuna salad on whole-grain bread
  • Omelets
  • Grilled chicken with vegetables and rice
  • Cottage cheese or Greek yogurt with fruit
  • Quinoa salad with berries and nuts
  • String cheese and fruit

Taking a Personalized Approach to Workout Nutrition

Proper nutrition is crucial for achieving optimal performance and results in your workouts. Eating before and after exercise can provide energy, replenish glycogen stores, repair muscle tissue, and enhance recovery.

Here are some actionable tips for optimizing your nutrition for workouts:

  1. Experiment with different approaches: Everyone's body and fitness goals are different, so it's important to experiment with different pre-and post-workout nutrition strategies to find what works best for you. This may include trying different types and amounts of protein, carbohydrates, and electrolytes before and after exercise.
  2. Prioritize nutrition: Proper nutrition should be a key component of your overall fitness routine. In addition to eating before and after exercise, aim to consume a balanced diet rich in whole foods that support your fitness goals.

By prioritizing nutrition and experimenting with different approaches, you can optimize your workouts and achieve the best possible results.

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