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Pre/Post-Workout Nutrition & Supplementation Guidelines
Katie Knight, Nutritional Sciences Master's Student at Texas Tech University (TTU) &
Marleigh Hefner, Registered & Licensed Dietitian & Nutritional Sciences PhD Student at TTU
Introduction & Welcome Back
Welcome back! This is the third article of our Dietitian-Approved Series for Distance Athletes. If you haven't already, please refer to our first and second articles. They cover an introduction to nutrition for cross-country athletes and total daily recommended calories, fluid, and macronutrients. This article will cover an important component of daily nutrition considerations for distance athletes: pre- and post-workout needs. At the end of this article, we will also briefly cover distance athlete micronutrient (i.e., vitamins and minerals) requirements and discuss dietitian-approved supplementation guidelines.
As always, the recommendations provided in this article are merely a starting point and do not take into consideration unique medical conditions. Any athlete who is managing their calorie and nutrient intake should be monitored by their registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), coaches, teammates, and family for any unintended outcomes (e.g., weight loss or gain).
Click here for more articles in this series.
Recall from Article #2 that the depletion of glycogen (the body's stored form of glucose) from muscle tissue often leads to increased perceived fatigue during prolonged physical activity (1). This occurs because glucose is the preferred source of energy for both the body and brain because it is quickly and easily broken down for energy production. However, the body is only capable of storing a limited amount of glucose in the form of glycogen, and the body requires a particular range of blood glucose during daily activities and rigorous physical activity. Due to high energy demands, distance athletes are more likely than the general population to rapidly "burn" through their glycogen stores. Therefore, these runners typically require high carbohydrate consumption. To this point, consuming a carbohydrate-rich pre-workout snack can preserve glycogen stores and prevent fatigue. This is because eating carbohydrates will increase glucose levels in the blood, which can be directly taken to working muscles for energy production and will "protect" glycogen stores for use later in the race/workout. If a pre-workout snack is not consumed, the body is more quickly forced to break down glycogen to provide glucose and energy to muscles, leading to premature fatigue. The benefits-and necessity-of consuming adequate carbohydrates is a large reason why optimizing pre-workout nutrition is vital to reaching athletic potential.
Hence, the ideal pre-workout snack is high in carbohydrates, moderate in protein, low in fat, and low in fiber (1). Fat and fiber are dietary components that slow digestion, which can contribute to feeling sluggish before a workout. This is the main reason it is recommended to limit fat and fiber immediately before a workout or race. Protein is referred to as the most "satiating" nutrient, meaning it contributes to feelings of fullness, so it is generally tolerated best if consumed ~2-4 hours before a race or workout. Recommendations for pre-workout nutrition depends on the number of hours before the activity a meal or snack will be eaten. The table below is a dietitian-approved method for optimal carbohydrate, protein, and fat intake 1-4 hours before a race or workout (1). Keep in mind: There is not one perfect pre-workout meal or snack! Experimentation with combination of foods that fit these macronutrient guidelines before race day is the key to ensure success.
If we continue with our 130-lb athlete example we have used throughout this series, here would be this athlete's approximate fuel needs before a workout:
4 hours pre-workout: 1.8 g x 130 lb = 234 grams carbohydrates + 20 grams protein + 0-5 grams fat
3 hours pre-workout: 1.4 g x 130 lb = 182 grams carbohydrates + 15 grams protein + 0-5 grams fat
2 hours pre-workout: 0.9 g x 130 lb = 117 grams carbohydrates + 10 grams protein + 0-2 grams fat
1 hour pre-workout: 0.45 x 130 lb = 59 grams carbohydrates + 0 grams protein + 0 grams fat
Let's say our athlete was interested in a snack to consume 2 hours before their cross-country race. A snack that would fit their needs of ~117 grams of carbohydrate, ~10 grams protein, and ~0-2 grams fat could be 1 medium apple + 1 medium white bagel + 3 Tbsp grape jelly. This combination provides 119 grams of carbohydrate, 11.6 grams of protein, and 1.7 grams of fat. The amount of carbohydrates, protein, and fat in a meal can be determined by looking at the Nutrition Facts Label or by using a free nutrition tracking application, such as Cronometer. If you need a little more support in this area, remember you can always reach out to a registered dietitian!
Post-workout nutrition needs for distance athletes are different than pre-workout nutrition needs, particularly when it comes to protein. After a workout, the body is primed and ready to absorb nutrients for recovery purposes, so providing athletes with nutrient-dense foods is critical in the 15-30 minutes immediately following a workout or race. For post-workout nutrition recommendations, both protein and carbohydrate intake will be the focus. Adequate carbohydrate intake will help replenish glycogen stores, while protein will repair and rebuild damaged muscle tissue. In general, post-workout nutrition needs for distance athletes will comprise of a meal or snack that is high in carbohydrate, high in protein, moderate in fat, and moderate in fiber.
The typical recommendation for post-workout nutrition needs is for the distance athlete to consume approximately 0.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight plus 20 grams of protein and 30 fluid ounces of water to support rehydration (1). This should be equal to roughly a 300-calorie snack. If we again use our 130-lb athlete as an example, here is how this math would work:
15-30 minutes post-workout: 0.5 g x 130 lb = 65 g carbohydrate + 20 g protein + 30 fl oz water
A simple post-workout snack that would fit these macronutrients could include 0.5 cups of tart cherry juice (no sugar added) + 1 small banana + 1.5 cups of ultra-filtered chocolate milk + 30 fl oz of water. This combination provides 61 grams of carbohydrate, 21 grams of protein, 7.8 grams of fat, and ~380 calories. Similar to pre-workout meals/snacks, however, there is no "one size fits all" combination of foods for all distance athletes to consume after working out or racing to promote recovery. We recommend encouraging your athlete to eat foods they enjoy to meet their pre- and post-workout nutrition needs.
After the post-workout snack is consumed, the first post-workout meal should ideally be eaten roughly 2 hours after exercise. After this, a balanced meal should generally be eaten every ~4 hours.
Micronutrients & Supplementation
Micronutrients are the nutrients that the body needs in small quantities, including vitamins and minerals. The main micronutrients of interest for distance athletes are electrolytes (sodium, calcium, potassium, chloride, phosphorus, and magnesium) and B-vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, pyridoxine, biotin, folate, and cobalamin or vitamin B12). Electrolytes are important for hydration balance and supporting muscle contractions, including the heart, while B-vitamins act as co-factors or "helpers" for important enzymes in many nutrient processing pathways. Providing adequate amounts of these micronutrients will support optimal performance for distance athletes due to their high fluid and macronutrient needs requiring efficient nutrient processing. Adequate micronutrient intake is ideally supplied by the diet alone, but there are some circumstances where supplementation may be helpful.
Supplements may contain micronutrients or macronutrients, depending on the supplement's purpose. For distance athletes, electrolyte supplements, such as Pedialyte or Liquid IV, can be helpful for promoting optimal hydration during and after long runs lasting 60 minutes or more. More affordable rehydration recipes can be made at home, as well. Supplementation of a B-complex vitamin may be beneficial for distance athletes (for reasons mentioned above) and is safe to consume because these vitamins are water-soluble. Water-soluble vitamins can be excreted through urine if consumed in excess, therefore, risk of toxicity is very low. Additional potentially useful and low-risk supplements for distance athletes may include fish oil containing omega-3 to support joint health (if the athlete's fish intake is low) and protein supplementation (such as whey protein) if the athlete struggles to meet their daily protein requirements. Finally, an athlete with a heavy menstrual cycle may require iron supplementation, especially if their intake of lean red meat is low. Athletes who are iron-deficient often report symptoms of fatigue and feeling constantly cold. If your athlete is complaining of these symptoms, they should get their iron levels checked and discuss their iron supplementation needs with a doctor or registered dietitian.
Generally, supplements to avoid include any supplement containing only fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, and K). Fat-soluble vitamins are stored in the body for long periods of time and are not effectively excreted if consumed in excess, which can lead to liver damage. In addition, supplementing with a single amino acids or single micronutrient can be risky due to the inverse relationship between certain nutrients. For example, consuming too much zinc can lead to a deficiency in copper, and consuming too much of the amino acid leucine can adversely affect levels of the amino acid tryptophan.
Lastly, it is important to note that supplement labels are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration like food labels are, so it is possible for supplements to contain ingredients that are not listed on the label. We recommend always choosing over-the-counter supplements cautiously for this reason. A great resource to help you choose the highest quality supplements available is LabDoor, which is a website that ranks and scores supplement products based on their safety and third-party testing results.
Pre- and post-workout nutrition is an important component of optimizing athletic performance and potential. Timing of pre- and post-workout nutrition is just as important as the amount of carbohydrates, fat, and protein that the meal or snack contains. In general, pre-workout or pre-race snacks should be consumed 1-4 hours before the activity to preserve glycogen stores and should be high in carbohydrates, moderate in protein, and low in fat. On the other hand, post-workout or post-race snacks should be consumed within 15-30 minutes after activity and should be high in carbohydrates, high in protein, and moderate in fat to promote conditions for ideal recovery.
Correspondence: Marleigh Hefner RDN, LD (email@example.com)
Fink H and Mikesky A. 2018. Practical applications in sports nutrition. 5th ed. Burlington: Jones & Bartlett Learning.
About the Authors:
Katie Knight, Freelance Writer, Texas Tech University (TTU) Nutritional Sciences Master's Student
Katie Knight is a nutrition graduate student at Texas Tech University studying the role of a novel adenoviral protein in liver fibrosis.
She has produced scientific writing and has written blogs, papers, and other materials for several companies.
Connect with Katie: https://www.linkedin.com/in/katie-m-knight/
Marleigh Hefner, Registered & Licensed Dietitian, TTU Nutritional Sciences PhD Student
Marleigh is a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) licensed to practice in the state of Texas. She has experience as a keynote speaker at the 2022 Cross Country Coaches Association of Texas (CCAT) conference. She also works with high school cross country teams by offering nutrition workshops designed to empower athletes with the knowledge to level up their performance using the science of nutrition. Marleigh maintains her clinical skills by working per diem at an acute care facility as an RDN, as well as continuing her research endeavors for her PhD in the area of metabolic disease treatments targeting nutrition and metabolism.
Connect with Marleigh: https://www.linkedin.com/in/marleigh-brown/