Pre-Workout vs. Post-Workout Meal — Which is Better for a Runner's Nutrition?

May 17, 2021

Pre-Workout vs. Post-Workout Meal — Which is Better for a Runner's Nutrition?

As an avid runner, you know that diet and nutrition are just as important as physical exercise. But performing at your best isn't just about counting calories; you have to time your meals just right.  

Every runner wonders at one point or another if they're scheduling their meals wrong. Is a pre-workout meal necessary to fuel your exercise, or will it make you feel lethargic and slow you down? Is a post-workout meal necessary to replenish your energy?

There's a lot of conflicting information out there regarding this topic, so allow us to settle it once and for all. We'll give you the rundown on pre-workout vs. post-workout meals, the different effects of each, and when one is more advantageous than the other. 

The Case for Pre-Workout Fasting

First, let's take a look at the effects of exercising without eating beforehand--or, as it's often called in the industry, fasted exercise. 

One common concern of athletes and individuals considering fasted exercise is that they won't have enough energy to fuel their performance without food in their stomachs.  

This is a valid concern, and there is a certain degree of truth to it which we'll discuss later on. However, whether fasted exercise will negatively affect your performance depends on the type of exercise you're doing. 

While those engaging in longer, endurance-based exercise may benefit from pre-workout meals, studies have shown that not eating before short-duration workouts has little to no effect on performance.

In fact, if you are primarily engaging in physical activity in shorter intervals, there are actually some benefits to not eating beforehand. This has to do with how your body responds differently to fasted and fed exercise.

During fed exercise, your body derives its energy from the glucose and carbohydrates that came from your meal. However, during fasted exercise, your body is forced to rely on its fat stores. So you actually burn fat more effectively when doing fasted exercise for short intervals, although this creates better short-term results.

When to Eat Before a Workout

While forgoing a pre-workout meal before short interval exercise is excellent, this isn't necessarily the case for longer durations. For a short workout, your body can take the energy it needs from your existing fat storage. However, when physically exerting yourself for a period of one hour or longer, this likely will not be enough.

In this case, you'll want to make sure your body is stocked up with extra glucose and carbohydrates that it can tap into when it starts getting low on energy. This will give you the endurance you need to finish lengthy exercise.

Endurance athletes, such as long-distance runners, have been taking advantage of this strategy for years. “Carbo-loading,” or eating a meal consisting primarily of carbohydrates, before a long run is a well-known and time-tested strategy for keeping an athlete's energy levels consistent over a longer period of time.

It is generally recommended to consume this pre-workout meal about an hour before you plan to exercise. Exercising too soon after eating can negatively affect your performance, but an hour should be enough time for your body to derive the benefits of your meal without being overwhelmed by your physical activity.

Eating Post-Workout

Now let's examine the other side of the coin. We know that pre-workout meals can be beneficial under certain circumstances and unnecessary under different conditions, but what about post-workout meals? Are these necessary to replenish your body after physical exertion? Or are there potential negative consequences of eating after exercising?

Scientists and nutritionists generally agree that it can always be beneficial to eat a post-workout meal or snack. This is because your body has used up a lot of fuel, be it fat storage, carbohydrates, or both, during your workout, and now it needs to be replenished. A post-workout meal can help your body to recover after strenuous physical exertion.  

It's essential to consume a post-workout meal if you did not eat before exercising. This is because, during fasted exercise, your body is exclusively drawing fuel from pre-existing fat storage. This can leave you feeling especially weak and drained of energy after a workout, and having a post-workout meal can refuel you and get you back to feeling stable.

You don't need to have something to eat the very second you've finished exercising, but you should try to consume your post-workout meal relatively soon afterward. Thirty minutes after exercise is a reasonable standard. 

What Exactly Should I Eat?

We've already discussed how carbohydrates provide the bulk of the fuel your body uses during strenuous exercise. Therefore, it stands to reason that your pre-workout and post-workout meals should consist primarily of carbohydrates. Lean proteins can also be very beneficial, so most athletes aim to combine these two groups.

The “three to one” rule is a useful best practice to ensure the meals surrounding your exercise times are mostly carbohydrate-based with a significant protein component. Popular choices include:

  • Eggs
  • Bagels
  • Granola
  • Peanut butter
  • Protein shakes
  • Fruit
  • Cereal

It's also important not to overeat before exercise. For an endurance workout, you want to eat enough to give you sufficient energy stores, but not so much that you feel too lethargic to push through.

Conclusion

A pre-workout meal isn't as necessary as a post-workout meal. Eating post-workout replenishes the body after it's burned a lot of calories and worked very hard. Eating pre-workout doesn't replenish the body, since there's no need to yet. In fact, not eating before a workout can increase short-term results.

However, we recommend eating pre-workout if you're preparing to run for a long duration. In this case, your body will need all the carbs and proteins it can get to have stamina for hours. 

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