Pre and post workout snacks - a nutritionist point of view

Nutrition and sport go hand in hand, both helping to keep both our body and mind healthy. A great nutrition plan without adequate physical activity won’t be as effective, and an unbalanced diet won’t support you while doing sports and keep you away from your fitness goals.


Two crucial aspects of sports nutrition are the pre-workout snack and post-workout recovery, which provide the necessary fuel to optimise training and enhance recovery. Not all foods are similar and, in this article, I want to shed some light on the best options, which are not only protein shakes and bars!

Pre-workout snacks: The fuel that ignites performance

I am not a big fan of fasted training and a big advocate of pre-workout snacks, as those are the foundation for an athlete's energy levels during exercise.

So, why should you consider a pre-workout snack?

1. To boost energy levels

A well-timed pre-workout snack can top up glycogen stores (glucose reserves the body releases when in need of energy) and provide readily available energy for your muscles. This helps prevent early fatigue and allows you to perform at your best and maximise your session.

2. Enhancing focus and mental clarity

The right combination of nutrients, which must include carbohydrates, can also improve mental alertness, concentration, and mood. This is particularly important for sports that require precision and quick decision-making, but also to prevent injury or focus on the moves of your favourite barre class!

3. Reducing muscle protein breakdown

Consuming protein before exercise helps prevent muscle breakdown and supports muscle growth and repair.

4. Reducing the risk of hypoglycemia

Low blood sugar levels can lead to dizziness, weakness, and decreased performance. A pre-workout snack helps maintain stable blood sugar levels during exercise.

An ideal pre-workout snack should contain a balance of carbohydrates and protein. Carbohydrates provide a quick source of energy, while protein supports muscle preservation. A typical ratio to aim for is 3:1 or 4:1 of carbohydrates to protein. 
Carbohydrates can be sourced from complex carbohydrates like whole grains, fruits, legumes or vegetables. Protein can come from lean sources like yoghurt, lean meat, or a plant-based option like tofu.

Sample pre-workout snack ideas:

  • Greek yoghurt with berries and a drizzle of honey.
  • A banana with almond butter.
  • Porridge with nuts and a small amount of protein powder.
  • Whole-grain toast with turkey and avocado.

Remember that timing is crucial when it comes to pre-workout snacks. Aim to consume your snack about one to two hours before exercise to allow for proper digestion. When digesting food, blood gets diverted to the digestive system. Starting your training during this process means for the body to divert blood from the digestive system to the muscles, leaving the digestive process halfway through. This could lead to nausea, bloating and a general sense of feeling unwell, which is best to avoid.

Post-workout recovery: Replenishing and repairing

After an intense workout, your body needs replenishment and recovery. This is where the post-workout meal or snack becomes crucial. The main goals of post-workout nutrition are to:

1. Replenish glycogen stores

During exercise, your body uses glycogen stores in muscles and the liver. Post-workout carbohydrates are essential to replenish these stores and prepare for future workouts.

2. Promote muscle repair and growth

Protein is critical for repairing and building muscle tissue. It helps repair the microscopic muscle damage occurring during exercise and supports muscle growth.

3. Hydration

Rehydration is essential after a workout to replace fluids lost through sweat. Electrolytes may also be necessary if you've sweated heavily.

4. Minimise muscle soreness

Proper post-workout nutrition can reduce the severity and duration of muscle soreness, helping you recover faster.

The ideal ratio of carbohydrates to protein for post-workout recovery is the same as the pre-workout snack: typically 3:1 or 4:1, with carbohydrates being the higher proportion.

Sample post-workout meal or snack ideas:

  • Grilled chicken breast with brown rice and steamed vegetables.
  • A smoothie with spinach, banana, protein powder, and almond milk.
  • Quinoa salad with chickpeas, mixed vegetables, and a lemon-tahini dressing.
  • Whole-grain pasta with a lean meat sauce and a side of mixed greens.

Timing is crucial for post-workout nutrition as well. Consume a meal or snack within one to two hours after your workout to maximise the benefits of recovery. Your post-workout snack can be an actual meal if you train after work or during your lunch break, or it can be a snack if you train in the middle of the day. It should also be matched to the intensity of your training. For instance, playing tennis for two hours has a different impact than half an hour of slow yoga, and in the first case, your snack should be bigger and higher in kcal than in the second case.

As you have noticed, I haven’t mentioned protein bars, which have become a staple for many gymgoers and people into sports in general. Protein bars are highly processed foods that might meet the carbohydrate/protein ratio mentioned above but lack many other nutrients, such as minerals and vitamins, that are equally important for nourishment. Highly processed foods are also associated with increased body weight and changes in the hippocampus, an area of the brain linked to learning and mood.

Protein powders can be a valuable tool in combination with other whole foods, such as inside a green smoothie or a porridge. Protein powder mixed with water or any other fluid won’t provide the required nourishment and falls in the category of ultra-processed food that might meet the macros and kcal you need but little else.

Whole foods are always a better choice when looking for an effective way to nourish your body and, especially in sports nutrition, increase your performance and get you closer to your goals.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Nutritionist Resource are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, W1S 1HP
Written by Lucia Stansbie, Registered Nutritional Therapist, Dip CNM, mBANT, mCNHC
London, W1S 1HP

Lucia Stansbie, BANT registered Nutritional Therapist founder of Food Power Nutrition

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