What to eat before and after exercise


Whether you've just finished a workout or plan to do one in an hour, there are certain foods that will help fuel your body – either during recovery or exercise. 

The high-energy carbohydrate

Carbohydrates such as rolled oats, wholegrain bread, fruit, vegetables and legumes are the body’s primary source of energy. The body stores these carbohydrates in a form called glycogen, which is found mostly in our muscles, but also in the liver.

This means our bodies have enough energy stores to last us for around 90 minutes of exercise. The body can convert carbohydrates (when needed) into fat and protein for energy, but this is less efficient process than simply using carbohydrates. 

Read: Low-carb vs. high-carb – which is the best diet for type 2 diabetics?

The muscle-building protein 

Protein is well known for muscle building and repair. As a result, many athletes place great attention on their protein intake. Interestingly though, only about 5% of dietary protein is used for energy when active. Therefore, carbohydrates are the fuel of choice during a workout.

In fact, when too little carbohydrate is eaten in the diet, muscle protein may be used for energy, which leads to the unwanted breakdown of muscle tissue. Make sure you eat enough carbohydrates in your diet to spare muscle from being lost to meet energy requirements. 

Read: What is whey protein?

Should I only eat protein after a workout?

Most people focus on protein after training. However, according to the Journal of the International Society of Sports Medicine, consuming protein along with some carbohydrate is the best choice for optimal recovery. This is because the protein will help build and repair muscle damaged during training, whereas the carbohydrate tops up depleted glycogen stores so that you can be ready for the next training session. 

Interestingly, according to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), you only need a small amount of 20–25g of protein after a workout to maximise muscle building. The following foods contain 20–25g of protein: one serving of a regular protein shake, two eggs with a slice of wholegrain toast, 50g lean biltong or one cup of plain low-fat yoghurt topped with a handful of nuts.  

Read: What should I eat before and after a workout?

Does it matter when I eat my post-workout meal?

How strict you are with your post-workout meal depends on your training goals, frequency and intensity. Research has shown that our bodies are most effective at replenishing carbohydrate stores and repairing muscle within 60–90 minutes after exercise. That said, the body continues these physiological actions for the next 24 hours.

This means is that speedy refuelling (i.e. within 90 minutes) is important when you have quick turnaround between sessions, for example if you are training more than once a day. But if you are training less often such as every second day, your next regular meal or snack forms part of your recovery nutrition. In other words, your 9am snack after a morning training session or dinner after an afternoon training session will count as your post-workout meal. 

Read more: 

Eat right, sleep tight

Nutrition basics in a nutshell

What should your budding sportsman be eating?


1. Burke, L, and Deakin, D. Clinical Sports Nutrition. 4th edition. 2010. McGraw-Hill, Australia. 
2. Joint Position by the American College of Sports Medicine, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada. Nutrition and Athletic Performance. (2016). Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. pp. 543-568.
3. Potgieter., S. Sport nutrition: A review of the latest guidelines for exercise and sport nutrition from the American College of Sport Nutrition, the International Olympic Committee and the International Society for Sports Nutrition. (2013). South African Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 26(1), pp. 6-13.
4. Stearn, RL., Emmanuel HE., Volek, JD, and Casa, DJ. (2010) Effects of ingesting protein in combination with carbohydrate during exercise on endurance performance: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Journal of Strength and Conditioning, 24(8), pp. 2192-2202.
5. Williams, MH., Anderson, DE, Rawson, ES. Nutrition for health, fitness and sport. 10th edition. McGraw-Hill, Australia. 2013

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