What to Eat Before and After an Intense Workout

By: Danielle Fryer, RD, CSSD, CSCS                                 

What should you eat before an intense endurance workout — protein or carbohydrates?

There is a lot of conflicting misinformation out there. Not only will you hear it in casual gym conversations, you can read it in respectable publications, and hear it incorrectly from social media “influencers.” Registered dietitian nutritionists are nutrition experts all about informing you of the scientific-based evidence, and debunking the myths, fads and gimmicks. Here is what the scientific research says about fueling intense endurance training. (i.e. strength & conditioning programs, intermittent sports, and high intensity cardiovascular workouts.)

Carbohydrates are No. 1! BINGO!

Human biology 101 is clear that carbohydrates are the important fuel source for your brain and every single muscle in your body. The brain does not operate off of protein. Fifty to 60 percent of your diet should consist of carbohydrates. Carbohydrates found in their natural food state are optimal. Yet, believe it or not, with wise discernment, it’s OK to include some processed carbs too. Can I get an AMEN? Protein is for maintenance and recovery and not best utilized for energy. If you don’t eat enough carbs, your body will be forced to create carb energy (glucose), through a metabolic pathway called gluconeogenesis. Gluconeogenesis results in a generation of glucose (blood sugar) from non-carbohydrate substrates (protein). This survival, biochemical reaction, is used to avoid low levels of blood sugar (hypoglycemia). This process is not good for your liver, kidneys, exercise performance or brain functions.

Carbs are found in optimal food groups such as whole grains, starchy vegetables, non-starchy vegetables, fruit, dairy, and plant-based fats (nuts and seeds). They’re also found in refined (processed) foods that are convenient for most people, including active people on the go. These are foods like bagels, crackers, cereal, food bars and those costly meal replacement shakes we all seem to love. To put it frankly, don’t be afraid or ashamed to love your carbs! Additionally, carbohydrate-rich food groups contain micronutrients. Not only do carbs fuel for brain activity, better workouts that will in turn cause you to grow lean mass, they help combat illnesses too.

How many carbs should you eat before an intense 60- to 90-minute workout?

For optimal performance choose one of the below carb formulas, not all three. Your choice will be based on your specific meal timing needs. For example, if your workout is at 7 a.m., and you wake up at 6 a.m., choose option 1. (You don’t have time for option 2 or 3.) However, if your workout is at 5 p.m., and you don’t like to eat right before you exercise, it may serve you to eat a meal at 1 p.m., or 2 p.m. (Option 3 or 4)

  1. Eat 1g carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight, one hour before your workout.
  2. Eat 2g. of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight, two hours before your workout.
  3. Eat 3g. of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight, three hours before your workout.
  4. Eat 4g. of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight, four hours before your workout.

* For best results consume low glycemic index foods before a workout.

*To convert your body weight from pounds to kilograms, divide your weight by 2.2.

How many carbs should you eat after an intense 60- to 90-minute workout? (Restores stored carbohydrate, muscle glycogen)

  1. Eat 1g to 1.2g. of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight, within 30-60 minutes after your workout.

*Consuming carbs at frequent intervals (every 15-30 minutes) for up to 4 hours post exercise enhances muscle glycogen synthesis, restore liver glycogen, prevents hunger which impairs future performance, and provides glucose to the central nervous system. For best results consume high to moderate glycemic index foods after a workout.

Chocolate milk is an example of an effective recovery meal because it’s rich in carbohydrates and protein. If your workouts are intense, carbohydrates should be consumed within 30 minutes of finishing the workout. Replacing fluids and carbs after a workout should be a priority. Replacing protein is secondary to carbs and fluid after a workout. Protein has a larger window for metabolic uptake of one to two hours post workout. My article, “Protein is for Every Body,” reminds us that protein is also an important macronutrient that aids in growth and repair and is best distributed throughout the day. Research demonstrates that eating 15g to 30g of high-quality protein, such as eggs, whey, legumes, tuna and cottage cheese, along with adequate carbohydrates, one to three hours before and after exercise, induces a 160 percent greater increase in muscle anabolism.

In conclusion, to increase exercise performance, pay attention to the timing and adequacy of your carbs and protein. Having energy availability means the right amount of substrate energy is available when you need it for those intense workouts!

Danielle Fryer RD, CSSD, CSCS is an advocate for healthy living. Fryer is a registered dietitian nutritionist, board certified specialist in sports dietetics, certified strength and conditioning specialist and yoga teacher. She has served in fitness and nutrition leadership roles in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Alabama, and Arizona. She now lives in Scottsdale and works as the new Director of Health & Fitness at The Country Club at DC Ranch. 


*Featured mountain bike image by Bobby Brewer, Pemberton Trail

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