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Pre and post workout nutrition

Pre and post workout nutrition

Deciding what to have for your pre and post workout nutrition can be quite confusing sometimes. Some of the decision will be down to what your goals are and also what you have already eaten that day. This article will hopefully help you make the right decision and improve your workout performance, post workout recovery and fat loss and/or muscle gains.

What to have for your pre workout meal

2-3 hours before your workout

Ideally you want to have a good meal 2-3 hours before your workout (see my personal nutrition plan). This is a regular meal with a mix of complex carbohydrates, protein and fat. Eat just enough to be satisfied and no more.

30-45 minutes before your workout

Not everyone can handle eating close to when they workout, but for those wanting to try having something small 30- 45 minutes before your workout then:

If you are looking to lose body fat, don’t eat carbohydrates pre workout, as this will suppress the fat burning side of energy expenditure. But to spare muscle breakdown, taking a protein drink 30- 45 minutes before your workout may have some benefit.

For those looking to gain muscle and size, then a piece of fruit like a banana, berries, yogurt or oats and a whey/casein protein drink can help spare muscle, provide more energy for your workout and help you recover more quickly post workout.


Coffee, tea or caffeine supplements are also best at this point of the day also. It has been shown to improve exercise performance. However there is a question of whether caffeine is good or bad pre-workout. It really is down to you, your lifestyle, and how you like to work out. If you have quite a stressful and busy life, your cortisol levels might already be a bit high, so taking caffeine before exercising might not be a great idea as it could have negative effects. It also increases your blood pressure. However, if you enjoy the stimulating effects of caffeine and have a stress-free life then caffeine can help improve your performance. Worth noting, is that many people also build up a tolerance to caffeine and need more and more to get the same stimulation. If you still want to drink it pre workout, consider limiting it to when you feel like you could do with a little stimulation, or are planning a heavy session.

Note: Caffeine also stays in your system for 3-5 hours after consumption, so if you workout late at night then definitely give it a miss, so you don’t disrupt your sleep.


Water can also be consumed to help fluid balance, hydration and yes even performance.

Fat and sugar

Avoid fats, as they digest too slow to be of any use at this point and they also require your digestive system to be working when you need all your energy for your workout, not slowing you down. Also avoid too much instant refined sugar foods as this may give you a rush followed by a crash.

What to have for your post workout nutrition

With so many different types of research and so many experts and websites telling you to have this protein, that protein, complex carbohydrates, simple carbohydrates and no carbohydrates etc, deciding what you should have post workout can be a bit of a mind field.

Firstly, when you workout, your body uses both fat, stored glucose and sometimes even muscle protein, all at various ratios depending on the type and intensity of your exercise, this happens both during and after you finish working out. After you workout your body will want to start the recovery process, so you will need to replace the lost glucose and protein. Although there is some controversy regarding whether you require nutrients straight after you workout or whether you can eat anytime after. I personally feel that if I haven’t eaten for 2-2.5hrs prior to my 1 hour workout then eating pretty soon after seems just as good a time as any. I especially like to take my protein as a drink (whey in water), as it also helps with rehydration. I also like to take this time to have my simple carbohydrate treat for the day (dark chocolate). Talking of rehydration post workout, if there is one thing you should ensure and that is you should replace any lost water as soon as possible, as you lose electrolytes through sweating.

It’s also interesting to note that studies on post workout nutrition i.e. food consumption within 30 minutes – 2 hours has seen improvements in protein synthesis and glucose uptake in some studies, while in other studies there was no significant change. As previously mentioned I just simply can’t go by research and studies, as they all seem to be contradictory and carried out with too many variables with regards the subjects they have used and they’re nutritional control. I believe the only way to know for sure is to get some sort of understanding of how the body works (particularly your own) and then see what works best for YOU.

When you are not exercising, approximately 30 percent of your energy comes from glycogen and 70 percent is provided by fat stores, and you are burning very little total calories. The percentages shift to more glycogen and less fat as the intensity of exercise increases.

The body breaks down carbohydrate into glucose and can store it in the muscles and liver as glycogen. Typically, you store approximately 300 to 400 grams of glucose in your muscles and 70 to 100 grams in your liver.

Post workout carbohydrates

According to some research, the combination of simple carbohydrates and protein can help to increased protein synthesis, decrease exercise-induced cortisol, help glycogen replenishment and improve recovery. While this may be true it has also been found that protein alone has been shown to be sufficient enough to get some insulin response and increase protein synthesis and that even high intensity workouts wont deplete all your glycogen stores (your body stores 1,500-2,000 calories of glycogen). So it doesn’t look like you need to go trying to refill it with 50+grams of simple sugar.

Typically the few people who do manage to deplete their glycogen are long distance endurance athletes, where they will what is called ‘hit the wall’ and find it difficult to continue exercising. This is of course unlikely to happen when carrying out regular exercise routines for less than an hour. In which case for most people there is no immediate hurry to replenish glycogen stores in most cases.

However, whether eating post workout is or isn’t beneficial, is irrelevant to me, as the timing fits in with my preferred meal timing anyway. However depending on your goals, you may want to address your nutritional needs post workout as follows:

Losing Fat

If losing body fat is your main goal then you may be best off just having a solid food meal 30-60 minutes after your workout to let your body make the most of that fat burning furnace you created. The meal should consist of some complex carbohydrates and lean protein, you’ll also benefit from the thermic affect the protein will have. Eat mainly protein of around 20-30 gram and a small-medium amount of around 30-40 grams of carbohydrates (this will spare muscle breakdown and start the glucose recovery slowly, then add in more carbohydrates and fat along with protein in the following meals, as you would for your normal meals. If you feel you would like to have a post workout drink straight after working out, then just don’t go overboard with your carbohydrate intake.

Fat oxidation

In order to keep fat-oxidation (using fat for energy, whether from body-fat or food) at maximum levels, it would make sense to leave the carbohydrates out of your post-workout shake. In doing so you encourage the body to tap into its stored fat.

Muscle gain

If building muscle is your main goal then, I’d recommend a protein shake and some quick digesting carbohydrates, I use whey mixed in water, plus this is the time I like to enjoy a little bit of dark chocolate, just a small 1″ block and another source of quick carbohydrates, such as a banana. If however you are on the skinnier side then by all means go for more carbohydrates. I have tried in the past using maltodextrine and dextrose, milk, casein powder and fruit mixed in with whey smoothies in the past when I was lucky enough to be a skinny guy and all they did was make me bloated and make my stomach feel fat.

Nowadays I have found the best way is to get the protein in drink form, a small amount of quick digesting solid food carbohydrates straight after my workout and then  around an hour later have a meal (see my personal nutrition plan). Ideally you are looking for between 20-35 grams of protein and 30-80 grams carbohydrates and some fats in this meal, depending on your goal and current size.

Why some may feel they don’t want post workout nutrition straight after working out

Some people simply cannot eat directly after a workout. If this is you don’t sweat it. Despite some suggesting that this is the time when your body is at its most receptive to nutrient uptake, some cannot stomach (literally) consuming nutrients straight after working out. Remember you have just had a workout, your blood is rushing the nutrients you already have around your body and to your worked muscles and burning both stored glucose and fat. Also for some maybe you don’t want to take away the blood from your muscles and direct it to your stomach and don’t want to overload your digestive system too soon after. Never force yourself to eat and wait until you feel ready.

Going for a large intake of food straight after working out

The only time I’d suggest eating really big after a workout is if you are about to go to bed soon after your workout, as you will need to make sure you feed yourself for the repair when you are asleep. Otherwise you are just overloading your body with too much to cope with if you then have the rest of the day to go.


When you workout for long periods of time (more than 1 hour) or even just sweat on hot days your body loses electrolytes (potassium, sodium, chloride, calcium, magnesium, bicarbonate, phosphate and sulphate).

A loss of electrolytes can lead to muscle cramps, fatigue, headaches and dizziness, low mental and physical performance and even lead to long term problems if not replaced. It is important to replace these to keep the body hydrated, control blood PH levels and to help rebuild damaged tissue. Replacing sodium and potassium should be a priority after a sweaty workout, as they are the main ones lost during sweat inducing exercise. Personally my immediate post workout nutritional intake is water with my protein drink, a small block of dark chocolate (contains potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, sodium, zinc and selenium), a banana (great source of potassium ) and a tomato (helps reduce inflammation, provides vitamin C, has potassium and chloride).

I’m not a fan of sports drinks as they contain too much sugar and other stuff like colouring etc. I will also often eat smoked mackerel (more sodium) with my post workout meal.


Looking for a slight boost in performance and therefore the chance to burn more calories also? Well it has been found that if you rinse a sugary drink around the mouth (not swallowing it, but spitting it out), you can trick the brain into thinking you are going to get carbohydrates. This tricking of the brain sets it up to increase willpower, mood and self control, all of which can push you beyond your normal workout intensity. To do this take a sugary drink (can use plain sugar, dextrose, maltodextrin, but not artificial sweeteners) and rinse for five seconds at the start of your workout.

Bottom line

If your nutrition plan is in order, you do not need to worry too much about your post workout meal. Your body should have stored enough energy and nutrients for both the workout and recovery. However if you do want to, there is absolutely no harm and it may actually help to a small degree.

If you have your nutrition plan sorted then the total days or even weeks nutritional value is what’s important. You should have plenty of stored energy for your workout, with the exception in my opinion of protein, because you need to retain this, not break it down and end up in a catabolic state, leading you to fatigue and muscle loss.

Return to the nutrition plan main page.