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Pre- and post-workout nutrition: Why “when” and “what” matters

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If training and nutrition work best together, why is the combination so confusing? Should you eat something before your workout or afterwards? Or both? Or in between? And then there’s the whole question of what to eat. Yes, pre- and post-workout nutrition is a problem at the beginning. But once you’ve got the basic rules covered, it’s a piece of cake – sugar-free of course – from there on out.

Basic rules of workout nutrition

First of all, workout nutrition depends very much on your relationship with sports. It’s important to differentiate between an athlete, like combat sport athletes who often need some kind of specialised nutritional strategy from a nutritionist and “normal” people who exercise regularly and although do take their sports seriously, they don’t need to overdo their workout nutrition.

Second, workout nutrition also depends on your individual goal. The workout nutrition of someone who wants to lose weight looks different than someone who wants to gain mass. We will explain this in further detail later.

Third. There are two basic rules which you should always keep in mind, independent of your goal:

  1. Do hydrate. Always drink enough water before your workout! And we don’t mean drinking 5 minutes before you start exercising. Nourish your body with water throughout the day in order to have sufficient energy for your workout.
  2. Don’t take artificial workout supplements (like energy boosters, weight-loss boosters etc.). They are unnecessary, expensive and, in most cases, loaded with artificial ingredients. So hands off! Keep it clean!

What about protein powder? These usually aren’t a problem, unless mixed with artificial ingredients like artificial flavors, vitamins, additives etc. Keep it as natural as possible.

Pre-workout nutrition

Eating something before your workout can have several benefits: It fuels your body with energy, boosts your performance and decreases muscle protein breakdown. Nevertheless, your pre-workout nutrition should depend on your individual goal:

Pre-workout & weight-loss

If you’re trying to lose weight, it’s best to eat a small snack or alternatively, train on an empty stomach. Training on an empty stomach, especially in the morning, has the benefit that your body hasn’t any energy in the stores, thus your body will draw on your fat stores as source of energy. Bear in mind, training on an empty stomach can be hard. You have to decide for yourself based on how weak or hungry you would feel during your workout otherwise.

The basis of your pre-workout snack should be protein, which will keep you satiated for a longer time. You can optionally add carbs if you are doing a demanding/exhausting workout like a HIIT or an intensive run. (See more specific suggestions below)

Pre-workout & gain mass

When your goal is to gain mass, you should always make sure to eat a small pre-workout snack. Your pre-workout snack should ideally have two components: Carbs and proteins, with a focus on carbs. Fast digestible carbs fuel your body with energy, preserve muscle and liver glycogen, whilst protein provides you with sufficient amino acids when you need them. (See more specific suggestions below)

During exercise nutrition

During an exercise, your main focus should be hydration, therefore in most cases, water is enough. Still, if you are for example running a marathon, you should add a sports drink or gel with fast digestible carbs during your workout.

Post-workout nutrition

After a workout, your body needs to recover. Post-workout nutrition should therefore refill your energy storages and provide you with enough protein to prevent muscle protein breakdown and stimulate muscle synthesis.

Independent of your goal, be it weight-loss or mass gain, you should eat a post-workout snack. This post-workout snack should contain high quality protein and carbs.

The only goal dependent difference is that when you are trying to lose weight, you should keep the carb portion small, whereas you can have a bigger carb portion when you are trying to gain mass.

(See more specific suggestions below)

Nutrient timing

We are often asked how important nutrient timing is. Our answer: It depends. It is necessary if you are a real bodybuilder and you want to gain mass. Then it makes total sense to consume something pre-, optionally during and post-workout. If you were running for two hours it also makes total sense to eat something relatively soon after your run and not to wait for 3 hours. It simply depends on you and your individual goals. Nevertheless, not eating anything is never an option. And it also doesn’t hurt to eat something within a 2 hour window after your workout.

Snacks: If you want to eat a snack before your workout, eat it 5-60 min in advance. But keep in mind that the closer your snack is to your workout, the less time you will have to digest it and the more uncomfortably you might feel.

Big meals: If you want to eat a big meal before your workout, this is totally fine. But you should eat it 2-3 hours before your training. Otherwise the digestion of the meal can lower your performance. Look out for a balanced meal with lean protein and complex carbs.

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