What to eat before/during/after workouts?

I did a recent interview about sports nutrition for the Canadian natural health and wellness magazine, Alive!, which asked me several questions for their Rio 2016 Olympics Special (which should run next month).

Here are the main questions and answers from that interview…

1. What foods do you eat leading up to a workout (the day before or the day of), and why do you think these foods help your athletic performance?

One of the most important considerations when choosing foods on the day before or the day of a competition is to select foods that you “know” – foods that you’ve consumed before and that you understand how they will affect you. DON’T fall into the trap of trying a new food to “boost” your performance unless you’ve used it with success in the past.

I have eaten the same “day before – day of” diet for nearly 30 years (as an elite rower and then as a professional triathlete and now as a middle-of-the-pack age-group trail runner):

Day Before:

Breakfast – 2 packs instant oatmeal with 1 scoop vanilla whey powder, handful of fruit and splash of half & half. As a usual coffee drinker – I avoid coffee and caffeine on the day before an important event (but I drink a cup before my event – see below)

Lunch – turkey or roast beef sandwich with mustard, tomatoes, pickles, lettuce, other veggies

Dinner – pasta with fish (not shellfish – high risk for food-borne illness) – green salad with vinaigrette dressing – large glass of water (or two) – one glass of red wine

Day Of:

Breakfast – 2 hours before the event to allow for proper digestion – same oatmeal as above, but with 1-2 cups of coffee (1 cream, 1 sugar in each)

Sip on water until the event starts.

After event – chocolate milk or Snickers bar with large bottle of water (see #4 below)

Since events are typically “away” from your kitchen, you need to select foods that are easily available (at a typical restaurant) and easily prepared (often in a hotel room). Each of these meals provides a balanced blend of carbohydrates (your primary source of energy for high-intensity exercise), protein, fat, and fiber (all needed for proper energy metabolism).

2. Do you eat a snack right before your workout? If so, what is it and why do you do that?

This decision is very individual – some athletes “need” to eat a pre-workout snack and others “can’t” (due to gastrointestinal distress) – so you need to experiment to see what works best for you.

If you decide that you do better with a pre-workout snack, then be sure to consume that snack either 90 minutes before or 15 min before – but NOT within that 15-90min window before exercise.

Why? Because consuming a snack within that window (say at 30-60min before exercise, like a lot of athletes do to “top off” their energy before a workout or event) will allow just enough digestion/absorption to raise blood sugar and insulin levels, which will  then “crash” soon after you start exercising (not good, because your energy levels and mental focus will also crash – leading to poor performance).

Personally, I prefer to avoid pre-workout snacks and instead eat something “during” a long run or long ride if needed for added fueling (which then also “trains” the gut to tolerate food during long efforts). My favorite long workout snack is either a PB&J sandwich or a Snickers bar – both are a great blend of carbs, protein, fat, and fiber (and yummy).

3. What do you drink before, during, and after your workouts, and how does that help your athletic performance?

Mostly water – except during very long and very hot workouts, where you need an electrolyte replacement drink. Since I am eating real food, which contains carbs for energy and electrolytes to replace those lost in sweat, I don’t use a “sports drink” during most workouts – BUT, I use a range of different electrolyte drinks during my longest workouts (2+ hours) and during hot times of the year. In those conditions, all of the e-lyte drinks are superior to water and most of the commercial drinks are equivalent in performance to each other – so choose one that tastes good to you (Gatorade, Cytomax, EFS, Gnarly, Scratch, Osmo, etc).

4. What do you eat after exercise for recovery, and why?

Chocolate milk – or sweetened cereal with milk – or sweetened yogurt with granola.

Each of these tastes great after a hard workout and each one provides a nice balance of “fast” and “slow” carbohydrates with fast and slow proteins and with the right amount of healthy fats.

The fast sugars (sucrose, glucose, and fructose) and slow sugars (maltodextrin, maltose, lactose) help to keep blood sugar levels balanced, improve glycogen storage, and balance stress hormones.

The fast proteins (whey) and slow proteins (casein) help to repair muscle damage after exercise, enhance fat-burning, and control appetite.

If I’m “away” at a race and can’t have easy access to milk/cereal/yogurt, it’s always convenient to have a post-workout or post-event treat like a Snickers bar stashed away in a gear bag. I like Snickers because they taste great and deliver 250 calories of a nice dose of carbs (33g), which is primarily what you;re looking for post workout, but balanced with some protein (4g) and fat (12g) from the peanuts.

5. Finally, do you take any supplements to boost your energy, either before a workout or after a workout? And if so, what are they and why do you like them?

Yes – I am a strong advocate of several supplements that have good evidence for effectiveness and are not banned/prohibited by any sports.

New Zealand Pine Bark Extract – sort of a “secret weapon” for me because it helps with both physical and mental performance. Very high in nutrients called “OPCs” (oligomeric proanthocyanins) that help to open blood vessels, improve blood flow to working muscles and the brain – so you feel motivated, focused, and ready to move. Research also shows that OPCs can balance stress hormones and neurotransmitters, including cortisol, epinephrine, and dopamine – leading to improvements in mental focus, concentration, and irritability.

Astaxanthin – this is a carotenoid antioxidant that has been shown to effectively improve mitochondrial function, cellular energy, and neurological function. Mitochondrial function typically fall during aging, but astaxanthin supplementation has been shown to improve endurance, enhance respiratory exchange ratio (RER, an index of fat metabolism), increase production of new mitochondria, and improve cognitive function (mental energy).

Quercetin – is a water-soluble flavonoid typically found in red wine, onions, and apples. In the body, quercetin plays a role in both improving blood flow and in elevating norepinephrine levels, both of which have been linked to increased cellular and whole-body energy levels.

Theanine – is a unique amino acid found in the leaves of green tea (Camellia sinensis). A unique aspect of theanine is that it acts as a “non-sedating relaxant” to help increase the brain’s production of alpha-waves (those associated with “relaxed alertness”). This makes theanine extremely effective for combating tension, stress, and anxiety—without inducing drowsiness. By increasing the brain’s output of alpha waves before/during a competition, theanine helps to control anxiety and increase mental focus, so you don’t get “psyched out” during an intense effort.

In terms of brands, quercetin is pretty “generic” – so any of the mainstream supplement suppliers provide a good-quality product (GNC, Vitamin Shoppe, Vitacost, etc) – BUT, for the other more specialized supplements, I use the specific branded versions on which the research has been conducted (I have also conducted specific research studies on each of these supplements):

  • New Zealand Pine Bark = Enzogenol
  • Astaxanthin = AstaZine
  • Theanine = Suntheanine


Shawn M Talbott, PhD, CNS, LDN, FACSM, FAIS, FACN
Nutritional Biochemist and Author
801-915-1170 (mobile)


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The Secret of Vigor – How to Overcome Burnout, Restore Biochemical Balance, and Reclaim Your Natural Energy
Killer at Large – Why Obesity is America’s Greatest Threat – an award-winning documentary film exploring the causes and solutions underlying the American obesity epidemic
The Cortisol Connection – Why Stress Makes You Fat and Ruins Your Health (Hunter House)
The Cortisol Connection Diet – The Breakthrough Program to Control Stress and Lose Weight (Hunter House)
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The Immune Miracle – The All-Natural Approach for Better Health, Increased Energy and Improved Mood (GLH Nutrition, 2012)
A Guide to Understanding Dietary Supplements – an Outstanding Academic Text of 2004 (Haworth Press)
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