Choosing the right pre and post workout foods can be a challenge, as there is so much information out there telling us different things. The bottom line is that we are all slightly different in our nutritional needs, and this definitely applies to eating around exercise, too. Factors vary depending on your personal workout routine, time of day you exercise, and also some good old fashion trial and error.

Simply put, if you are an individual with a “normal” workout routine, meaning not a professional athlete or body builder, for example, your best bets are real, whole foods in the form of smaller snacks and larger meals, appropriately timed around exercise. There are many performance-enhancing products on the market, but generally our needs can be best met with actual, healthy foods.

Here, we will take a closer look at the factors that most affect your pre and post workout food choices, and how to pick optimal foods to satisfy your bodies’ nutrient needs and get the most out of your workouts.

Workout Intensity:

The primary factor in planning pre and post workout meals is the intensity of said workout. If you are doing low-intensity vs. high-intensity movement, your caloric and nutrient needs are vastly different.

Low-intensity exercise includes movements such as walking, leisurely biking, cleaning the house, etc. These move large muscle groups, and your nutrition does not need to be changed in any way. Of course, the intensity of any exercise or activity works in relation with an individual’s particular level of fitness; what is a leisurely walk for one might be a strenuous activity for another.

For most, these types of low-intensity exercises do not require any sort of specific pre or post workout meal, you can simply eat as normal, ideally focusing (as always) on high quality, whole foods.

However, if we are talking about moderate-high level intensity workouts, nutrient demands do change. These types of exercise could be higher-intensity cardio like running, swimming, soccer, basketball or interval training. Resistance (strength) training calls for adjusted nutrition, as well.

Workout Meal and Snack Timing

So, if your exercise routine includes moderate-high intensity exercise, here are several important points to consider:

  1. Eat a regular sized meal 3-4 hours before a workout, or a smaller meal 2 hours pre-workout. Be sure these meals are balanced with high quality protein, carbohydrates, and good fats (see below for more details).
  2. Within 1 hour post-workout, you will want to also eat a small-normal meal, also well balanced.
  3. Approximately 3 hours after a workout is considered the best time to consume carbohydrates, as this is the window where your metabolism is working faster and you will better utilize and burn carbohydrates.
  4. Particularly if you live in a hot climate, consider keeping an electrolyte drink on hand during a workout. I recommend coconut water, as it provides a more natural hydration option that your typical chemical-containing sports drink
  5. Being sure to eat the right foods in these time frames will ensure that your muscles are supplied with adequate energy, and allow for optimized performance, quicker recovery time and decreased muscle soreness.

Morning Workouts

Through my work with clients over the years, I’ve accepted the fact that we either are or we are not a morning-workout kind of person. If morning exercise works for you, great! If it doesn’t, simply plan your exercise into another part of your day that is more realistic. However, if you are exercising in the morning, getting the nutrients you need might be tricky.

For some (those with impeccable adrenal health, for example), exercising first thing in the morning on just a cup of coffee really might work, and can actually offer some benefits. However, most of the population does not fall into this category, and should be eating s small meal/snack containing protein and carbohydrates about an hour before exercise. This could be a one ounce serving of nuts with a piece of fruit, or a serving of whole fat, plain yogurt with berries and a tablespoon of honey.

After morning workouts and similarly to workouts any other time of day, be sure to get a balanced meal in within 30-60 minutes.

High Quality Meal and Snack Ideas

For both sports nutrition and diet in general, food quality is of extremely high importance. Not all protein, fat or carbohydrate is created equal, and choosing the best ingredients possible will ensure that you reap the benefits of all of your hard work. Here is a list of some great options:

  1. In terms of protein and depending on workout intensity, a 140 lb. woman should aim for 75-140 grams per day, and a 180 lb. man should consume between 100-180 grams per day. The best protein choices are organic chicken or turkey, grass-fed beef, pasture raised pork, wild caught fish, eggs and organic beans and legumes. Organic cheese and dairy works too if you don’t have a dairy sensitivity or allergy.
  2. The amount of carbohydrates needed really depends on the individual and intensity/duration of a workout. Often, trial and error is best to see what works for each person. Great, whole-food carbohydrate options include sweet potato and potato, winter squash (butternut, acorn, etc), all fruit and vegetables and whole grains.
  3. Quality fat sources are important, particularly for endurance athletes, but also to include in any balanced pre and post workout meal. Recommended sources of fat include coconut, olive, avocado and flax oils, grass-fed butter, ghee, avocado, raw nuts and seeds, and the naturally occurring fats in meat.
  4. Eating a balanced meal that includes all 3 macronutrient groups will ensure the best possible athletic performance and recovery. Ratios greatly depend on the various individual factors discussed above, and could be more exactly calculated with a qualified Personal Trainer or Nutritionist.

Last but certainly not least is the question of calories. The calories-in-calories-out rule is basic science when it comes to weight loss, but it definitely doesn’t end there. It is essential to take in enough calories to fuel your exercise mixed with daily activities, and make those calories count with good quality food choices.

If one strategy or diet plan isn’t fueling your workouts properly, and/or you feel fatigued and worn-down, try something new. The beauty of trial and error nutrition as opposed to sports supplements is that you won’t do any harm along the way, and it is the most effective way in figuring out what works best for your body.

Rachel Fiske, NC, CPT-NASM Rachel Fiske is a Holistic Nutrition Consultant and graduated from Bauman College of Holistic Nutrition in Berkeley, California, and a Certified Personal Trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Rachel works with clients individually via skype, focusing on issues of weight management, GI problems, hormonal imbalances, fatigue and more via a whole foods diet and lifestyle changes. Consultations include diet journal analysis, individualized menu planning, and herbal/supplementation protocols.