Is It Better to Eat Before or After a Workout? Tips for Triathletes

Apr 30, 2024
should you eat before or after a workout

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“Should you eat before or after a workout?” For those who don’t think it matters, let’s put it this way—you can’t be successful in the sport of triathlon without proper nutrition. Regardless of the distance you’re training for, endurance sport in general places a huge demand on the body, and it cannot be sustained without the right balance of energy.

Basic Nutrition

First, let’s start with some basics. It’s important to know about the terms listed below when making choices about your nutrition, and this information will serve you well throughout your training career. Things can get complicated quite quickly, and nutrition can be overwhelming. But don’t worry, we’ll try to keep it simple and easy to understand.

If you already have a foundation of understanding for nutrition, you can skip ahead to the sections about what you should eat before or after a workout!

Macronutrients

Macronutrients are the three main nutritional components to food that your body needs in large quantities; carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. In the sport and triathlon world, you’ll often hear people refer to these as macros.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates, or carbs, are your body’s primary source of energy. They’re extremely important for brain and muscle function. When you ingest carbohydrates, your body converts them to glucose (blood sugar) which makes them readily available and provides immediate energy to your cells. Any excess glucose gets stored in your liver and muscles in the form of glycogen

Carbohydrates are further put into the categories of simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates break down fast and provide quick spikes in blood sugar (examples include honey, candy, and sweet beverages). Complex carbohydrates are harder to break down and provide more sustained energy (examples include whole fruits, whole grains, legumes, and vegetables).

Proteins

Proteins help you to build and repair tissue. They are made up of building blocks called amino acids, some of which are essential to human survival and must be obtained through the diet. Lesser known functions of proteins include their contribution to the immune system, hormonal influence, and ability to act as a source of energy when carbohydrates and fats are insufficient.

Examples of proteins include meats, dairy, fish, eggs, nuts, and seeds.

Fats

Fats are highly concentrated sources of energy that serve several important functions in the body. They help with hormone production and the absorption of certain vitamins. Also, they’re crucial components to the structure of your cells, helping each one’s membrane to maintain its architecture, flexibility, and stability.

Examples of fats include nut butters, avocados, fatty fish, olive oil, and several meats.

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Micronutrients

Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals that are essential to the diet but needed in far less quantities. Your micros contribute to several important functions throughout the body, such as regulating metabolism, muscle function, and bone health—among countless others. Eating a varied diet of whole, healthy foods generally gives one a good balance of micronutrients.

Vitamins

Examples of vitamins include vitamin A (important for vision health; found in carrots), vitamin C (powerful antioxidant; found in citrus fruits), and vitamin E (prevents clots; found in avocados).

Minerals

Examples of minerals include magnesium (muscle/nerve function; found in leafy green vegetables), potassium (maintains fluid balance/mitigates cramping; found in bananas), and zinc (helps keep your skin healthy; found in beef).

Hydration

Hydration is the balance between what fluids you lose and what fluids you take in. You lose fluids through breathing, sweating, urination and waste removal. It’s essential to replace lost fluids and maintain hydration for optimal performance of your mind and body whilst training and competing. 

Water should be your main source of hydration, however (particularly with triathletes and other endurance athletes), sports drinks can at times be beneficial with prolonged bouts of exercise to help replace electrolytes.

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What to Eat Before a Workout

The food that you eat prior to training or competition is going to have a significant impact on your performance. Ideally your pre-workout meal should be a mix of carbs, proteins and fats, with a slightly heavier emphasis on carbohydrates (complex carbohydrates, to be exact). These are going to be your body’s preferred source of energy metabolism whilst exercising. 

Eating 1-3 hours prior to your workout is generally recommended. Any sooner and you risk your digestion being disrupted by the physical exertion; this could lead to you seeing a highly undesirable and partially digested version of what you just previously consumed! Any later, and you risk not having the available energy to perform optimally in your training.

Each person will vary in their tolerance for eating/drinking times prior to training. If you’re someone who, for whatever reason, feels they need food closer to working out, try having something easily digestible like half a banana with some nut butter or a granola bar closer to working out.

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Pre-Workout Meals

Here are some sample pre-workout meals that you could try before your next training session:

Oatmeal w/Almond Butter & Fruit

  • Cooked oatmeal topped with almond butter and sliced fruit (such as apples, berries, or bananas)
  • Sprinkle cinnamon for flavour

Whole Grain Toast w/Peanut Butter & Banana

  • Two slices of whole grain toast topped with peanut butter
  • Sliced banana on top

Egg & Veggie Omelette

  • Two whole eggs or egg whites cooked into an omelette with spinach, bell peppers, onions, and tomatoes
  • Served with a slice of whole grain toast or a small portion of roasted sweet potatoes

What to Eat After a Workout

The food that you eat and water that you drink after a workout is important for replenishing your glycogen stores, hydration, restoring normal bodily functions, promoting recovery, and overall reaping the benefits of your training. There should be a heavy emphasis on proteins and carbohydrates to facilitate something called muscle protein synthesis.

Muscle protein synthesis is the process through which your muscles repair and grow in response to exercise. Working out triggers different signals in your muscles that set off a chain of biochemical reactions. This prompts your body to assemble new proteins from any available amino acids. These new proteins are what will repair and grow your muscle fibers.

Having adequate protein in your system for the body to use post-workout is important for this entire process to take place. Also, by ingesting carbohydrates post-workout, you spike your blood sugar, which helps with the uptake of protein into your muscle cells following exercise. 

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Post-Workout Meals

Here are some sample post-workout meals that you could try after your next training session:

Salmon w/Sweet Potato & Broccoli

  • Baked or grilled salmon fillet served with roasted sweet potato wedges
  • Served alongside steamed broccoli or your choice of green vegetables

Turkey Wrap w/Hummus & Veggies

  • Whole grain wrap filled with sliced turkey breast, hummus, mixed greens, sliced cucumbers, and shredded carrots
  • Served with a side of Greek yogurt mixed with diced fruit for added protein and hydration

Grilled Chicken Quinoa Bowl

  • Grilled chicken breast served over cooked quinoa
  • Mixed with roasted vegetables such as bell peppers, zucchini, and carrots
  • Drizzled with olive oil/lemon juice, and sprinkled with fresh herbs like parsley or basil

Train Pain-Free w/Dynamic Triathlete!

Nutrition is only one part of the equation—the right balance of strength training, injury prevention, stretching and mobility are all key aspects of a holistic triathlon training program. That’s exactly what we’ve designed here at Dynamic Triathlete. Join thousands of triathletes worldwide training to compete pain-free. Sign up for a free 7-day trial by clicking here.

Written by Eric Lister – Certified Personal Trainer & Corrective Exercise Specialist

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