If you are spending multiple sessions in the gym per week, you surely want to get out of it what you are putting in. Having a sound nutrition plan can help or hurt your goals. It often comes down to the right foods, at the right time, and in the right amount. With a few adjustments to your meal timing or composition, you could be well on the way to achieving your physical goals.

Back to the Basics

Before diving into the specifics of nutrient timing for your workout, let’s first review each macronutrient and it’s function.


Carbohydrates are an excellent quick energy source. Foods containing carbohydrates are broken down to glucose (sugar) to be used immediately or stored for later use in the muscle  (glycogen).

Not all carbohydrates are created equal. Complex carbohydrates refer to those that are closer to their whole food form, which typically means that they contain a higher amount of fiber, as well as vitamins and minerals. Examples of these include whole grains, beans, sweet potato, oats, quinoa, starchy vegetables, etc. Fruit and milk also contain carbohydrates. Simple or refined carbs are less preferred due to lower fiber content, fewer vitamins/minerals, and often added sugar. Examples of these include white bread and pasta, high sugar cereals, pastries, sodas, etc.


Fats function as a huge energy source, meaning that they provide many calories. They also help us absorb fat soluble vitamins like A, D, E, & K. In fact, if a fat source is not present when you eat foods containing these vitamins, you might be minimizing how much is actually absorbed. Fats also increase our satiety, or how satisfied we feel with a meal. It can slow digestion and help us feel fuller for longer.

The best sources of fat would come from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat. These are mostly from plant sources, like avocado, nuts/nut butter, olive oil, seeds etc. Omega 3 rich foods are forgotten in many Americans’ diets, but have strong antinflammatory properties. This can be a huge advantage when recovering from training.  Aim to increase omega 3 rich foods, such as salmon, tuna, walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, etc. Most health professionals still recommend a reliance on plant based sources of fats versus animal sources, which are high in saturated fat. Continue to limit the amount of butter, high fat beef, full fat dairy, bacon etc.


Protein helps the body repair damaged cells and make new ones. It plays an essential role in muscle growth and recovery. It also aids in immunity and bone health.

The most recent literature points to even protein intake throughout the day as a better strategy for muscle protein synthesis over pounding a day’s worth of protein at one meal. For example, most people eat very little protein at breakfast, some at lunch, and a lot at dinner. Consider incorporating 20-30 grams of protein at each meal to maximize this power macronutrient’s benefit.

Good examples of protein include fish, chicken, eggs, lean beef in moderation, cheese, milk, yogurt, beans, legumes, nuts/seeds, tofu, protein powders, and more.

Nutrient Timing for Activity

Scenario One: Before Work

If you are an early morning workout rockstar, you probably belong to one of two camps: those who can eat before exercise or those who absolutely cannot. The great news is that both camps can be “right.” If you are doing lower intensity activities like yoga, walking, or light jogging, you may not need anything at all. Kicking up the intensity with a HITT style workout or heavy strength training? Consider a quick acting carbohydrate, such as a piece of fruit, applesauce, or a slice of sprouted grain toast beforehand to give you immediately available energy. If your stomach is grumbling halfway through, consider adding on some nut butter or hard boiled egg. Ultimately, it comes down to how you feel during your activity. Check in with your energy levels and reassess your pre-workout nutrition as needed.

After activity is when you can capitalize on all of your #gains. Aim to have a balanced breakfast that contains a good source of carbohydrate to refuel and at least 20 grams of protein to repair. Add in a little healthy fat to enhance absorption.

Examples of Post-Workout Breakfast:

  1. Berry smoothie with protein powder or high protein yogurt, greens, and avocado or almond butter for fat. Add in fiber from chia, flax, or acacia for an extra nutrition punch.
  2. Egg or tofu scramble with roasted veggies and potato or sweet potato.
  3. Hard boiled eggs with whole grain toast topped with almond/peanut butter and berries
  4. Hot oatmeal with protein powder, cinnamon, nuts and berries (or overnight oats if you are pressed for time).
  5. Greek yogurt or cottage cheese with fruit and nuts/seeds. Skip the pre-sweetened yogurt and opt for a little honey if needed.
  6. Make ahead egg “muffins” with a slice of avocado toast.

Scenario Two: After Work

If ending your work day with a sweat session sounds like a great way to relieve stress, we’ve still got you covered. The main thing that you want to focus on is paying attention to how long it has been since the last time that you ate. If you ate lunch at 12 pm, have a workout at 5:30 pm, and won’t eat dinner until 7:30 or 8 pm, that may be too long without eating. Consider adding an afternoon snack 1-2 hours before your workout that has some source of carbohydrates and a little protein. The bonus of a little protein 1-2 hours before the workout might help with muscle repair after the workout.

Examples of Pre-Workout Snacks:

  1. Greek yogurt with fruit
  2. Apple or banana with almond butter
  3. Mixed nuts/seeds with a little dried fruit
  4. Hard boiled egg + veggies or fruit
  5. Cheese and whole grain crackers
  6. Oats, date, and nut “energy” bites
  7. Need a good bar for those busy days? RX bars are great whole food option
  8. Hummus or edamame with whole wheat pita or pretzels

One of the most common questions that I get is, “Should I have a protein shake right after my workout?” In most cases, my answer is no. If you ate a snack beforehand or will have dinner within about an hour of your workout, a protein shake is probably not needed. However, if it has been 5-6+ hours without eating, and dinner is still a few hours away, I would recommend a post workout snack with emphasis on protein and some carbs. Many people find protein powder and a little fruit to be an excellent portable option to hold them over until dinner.

When it comes to dinner, consider using the plate method to determine how much of each food group to eat. Aim for 50% of the plate from vegetables, 25% of the plate protein, and 25% of the plate from carbs. Add in a little healthy fat if your meal doesn’t already have a fat source. Are you an endurance athlete logging a lot of miles? Consider increasing the portion of carbs to 50% of the plate on your harder or longer mileage days as you need the extra energy to refuel.

There is no ONE pre/post workout plan.

As you can see, nutrient timing is incredibly individualized based on your goals, schedule, physical tolerance, and more. If you have tried many strategies but still feel like you need help dialing in your nutrition, book an appointment with me HERE.

Author: Kelsey Smith, RD

Registered Dietitian


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