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Best Pre- and Post-Workout Meals: What to Eat Before and After Training

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David is an army-trained biomedical scientific officer, writer, and lifelong health and fitness enthusiast.

If you want to build muscle optimally, you need to get both your training and your diet right. And although the most important aspect of your diet is your total daily calorie, protein, carbohydrate and fat intake, there are other factors to consider too. And one of the most important of these is your pre- and post-workout meals.

Pre- and post-workout nutrition has been over-complicated by many, and it has also been made out to be far more important than it actually is. But although it’s not as crucial as it's often made out to be, it is still a factor, and if you get it right, it will definitely have a positive effect on the results you are getting from your training.

So in this article, I’ll outline the best foods to eat before training and after training, and I’ll also suggest some supplements that could be useful too.

The Best Pre-Workout Meal

Your pre-workout meal has three functions. These are:

  1. To help provide energy for your workout
  2. To reduce muscle protein breakdown during your workout and
  3. To improve your training performance

If you perform better in your training, you will get a stronger muscle building stimulus, which will lead to much improved results.

In order to achieve this, you need to eat a decent amount of protein and carbohydrate about 1.5–2 hours before training.

The exact amounts required will vary from person to person of course, but about 40g of protein and 40-60g of carbohydrate will be plenty for most people. Your protein can come from meat, fish or eggs, and your carbohydrates should ideally be from a lower glycemic source, such as sweet potato, wholewheat pasts, brown rice or oatmeal. You can also have some fat, but not too much, as this is more likely to cause digestive discomfort during your training.

Then, about an hour before training, I always have one or two cups of coffee, as this gives an extra energy boost and it helps to improve performance even further.

The only exception to the above is if you train early in the morning, in which case it’s best to simply have something light, such as a whey protein shake and some fruit about 30 minutes before your workout.

The Best Post-Workout Meal

Your post-workout meal also has three functions. These are:

  1. To stop the muscle tissue breakdown caused by your workout
  2. To start the rebuilding and recovery process, and
  3. To begin replenishing your glycogen stores

To achieve this, you need to eat a good amount of both protein and carbohydrate soon after your workout has finished. The reason it should be consumed soon after finishing your training is that at this time, your body is primed and ready to accept and utilize nutrients more than at any other time.

So aim to eat your main meal within an hour (but 30 minutes would be even better) of finishing your workout. This should consist of at least 50g of protein and 100–150g of carbohydrates. Again, your protein can come from meat, fish or eggs, and your carbohydrates can be from a higher glycemic source (such as white rice or white potatoes) if you wish. The fat content is not too important, but ideally it should not be too high.

Alternatively, if you can’t eat a main meal that soon after you finish training, just have a whey protein shake and a piece of fruit (a large ripe banana would be ideal) instead, and then have your main meal anywhere from one to three hours after this.

What About Supplements?

What you eat is far more important than any supplements you might take, but having said that, there are a few supplements that can be very useful. The main ones, in relation to pre- and post-workout nutrition, are as follows:

Whey Protein

I’ve already mentioned this one, and although it’s not essential, it is a very useful and convenient way of adding some extra protein to your diet.

Whey protein is the best quality protein available. It has an excellent amino acid profile, it is high in the branch-chain amino acids and it is very easy to digest. And on top of that, it has a number of important health benefits.

The most common use of whey protein is as a post-workout shake, to quickly get some protein into the system after training, but it can also be used at any other time of day as required.

Beta Alanine

Taken pre-workout, this helps delay fatigue during higher rep sets, so it can be very useful if your main aim is to increase muscle size. But if most of your training is in the lower rep ranges, because your focus is on developing strength, you can give this a miss.

Citrulline Malate

Another pre-workout supplement, citrulline malate stimulates increased protein synthesis, as well as enhancing training performance, and it also helps reduce muscle soreness after training. Take 4–10g 30–60 minutes before your workout.

Creatine Monohydrate

Creatine also helps to delay muscle fatigue (as well as having many other benefits), but unlike beta-alanine, it is useful for all types of training and at all rep ranges. Take 4–5g per day after training, or at any time of day on your off days.

L- Carnitine L-Tartrate (LCLT)

LCLT enhances the effects of testosterone on muscle growth. It also reduces muscle damage and soreness caused by exercise, and it helps with recovery. Take 1–2g per day (post-workout on training days).

Intra Workout Nutrition

If your workouts are fairly short, you don't need to worry about taking in nutrients while you are training. But if you do long, intense workouts, it is a good idea to use an intra-workout supplement in order to reduce muscle tissue breakdown. This should be something that's very easy to digest and absorb, as you don't want to disrupt blood flow to the muscles. So don't use whey protein for this purpose. But some essential amino acids, or Peptopro, and glucose mixed in water would be ideal.

And that’s really all you need to know about pre- and post-workout nutrition. There’s no need to make it any more complicated than this. Just follow the guidelines given here, and you'll be giving your body everything it needs to maximize performance, recovery and growth.

References

Antonio, J., & Ciccone, V. (2013). The effects of pre versus post workout supplementation of creatine monohydrate on body composition and strength. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 10(1).

Biolo, G., Tipton, K., Klein, S., & Wolfe, R. (1997). An abundant supply of amino acids enhances the metabolic effect of exercise on muscle protein. Am J Physiol.

Cribb, P., & Hayes, A. (2006). Effects of supplement timing and resistance exercise on skeletal muscle hypertrophy. Med Sci Sports Exerc.

Examine.com. (2019, April 29). Beta-Alanine: Proven Health Benefits, Dosage, and more.

Kanter, M. (2017). High-Quality Carbohydrates and Physical Performance. Nutr Today.

Kraemer, W. J., Spiering, B. A., Volek, J. S., Ratamess, N. A., Sharman, M. J., Rubin, M. R., . . . Maresh, C. M. (2006). Androgenic Responses to Resistance Exercise. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 38(7), 1288-1296.

Miranda, G. M. (2018, October 24). How Does Beta-Alanine Help Build Muscle?

Pérez-Guisado, J., & Jakeman, P. M. (2010). Citrulline Malate Enhances Athletic Anaerobic Performance and Relieves Muscle Soreness. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(5), 1215-1222.

Semeco, A. (2016, September 20). Post-Workout Nutrition: What to Eat After a Workout.

Semeco, A. (2018, May 31). Pre-Workout Nutrition: What to Eat Before a Workout.

Volek, J. S., Kraemer, W. J., Rubin, M. R., Gómez, A. L., Ratamess, N. A., & Gaynor, P. (2002). L-Carnitine l-tartrate supplementation favorably affects markers of recovery from exercise stress. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism, 282(2).

Willoughby, D. S., Stout, J. R., & Wilborn, C. D. (2006, September 20). Effects of resistance training and protein plus amino acid supplementation on muscle anabolism, mass, and strength.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

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