The Best Pre- and Post-Workout Snacks for College Athletes

How many times have you typed into Google, “what are the best pre- and post-workout snacks?” At least once? Well, today I want to give you a definitive answer to that question so that you have a reputable place to come when you forget!

Athletes eat to train, not train to eat.

Why do you need to fuel before and after a workout?

Everything requires energy to work…including our bodies! When we think about exercise and performance, we have to consider that our bodies are like a car requiring fuel. 

If there isn’t enough fuel in the tank, it simply can’t go and the same goes for you!

And as a college athlete, things are even more complicated because of school work, energy levels, social pressures, food availability, etc.

When is the best time to eat?

Timing is dependent on your lifestyle and when you choose to exercise or have training scheduled in your day. If you are able to eat something 3-4 hours prior, a full meal will likely have plenty of time to be digested and provide your muscles with plenty of fuel. Depending on your level of activity and personal goals, another snack 30 minutes to an hour prior may be necessary. 

If that’s not doable, no worries! Some can handle a small, carbohydrate-rich snack just 30 minutes to an hour prior to a training sesh. If you have gut issues timing will be really important, so I would suggest aiming for closer to an hour prior. Just remember, everyone is different and it takes some trial and error to figure out what works for you!

What to focus on before and after training

Before exercise the main focus should be on easily digestible carbohydrates. Things like raisins, bananas, or applesauce that are digested quickly and efficiently. This ensures the stored form of carbohydrates within the body is maxed out. When you do this, you effectively fill up or top off the fuel tank. 

I know that this may seem counterintuitive. We’ve been conditioned to believe that if we eat less and exercise more we will magically lose weight and never suffer any consequences. But trust me, when you eat to train you are actually able to get something out of your training! That’s where the adaptations and changes can happen. 

General Guidelines for pre-workout snacks include:

  • Higher in carbohydrate to maximize the availability of blood glucose
  • Lower in fat and fiber so that digestion is rapid 
  • Moderate in protein
  • Some fluids are provided for hydration (consider cold fluids or slushies, especially hot, humid conditions)
  • It’s tolerated by the individual 

It’s important to note that the closer to training you get, the lower in fiber and fat the snack needs to be. This helps to keep your tummy settled and the fuel in the muscles so that your body can focus on the workout rather than trying to digest a bunch of food!

After exercise, the stored form of glucose is wiped out and the muscles are hungry and thirsty. The environment is especially conducive for muscle growth and repair so it’s important to consume both carbohydrates and protein. 

The four R’s of recovery nutrition are: 

  • Replace glycogen stores with carbohydrates
  • Rebuild muscle with protein
  • Rehydrate cells with fluids and electrolytes (sodium and potassium)
  • Reduce inflammation with antioxidants and rest 

Typically, the recommendation is about a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein post-exercise. So, that would look like either 30 g of carbohydrates and 15 g of protein or 45-60 g of carbohydrate and 15-20 g of protein. Psst: we are going to go over a lot of examples of what this looks like in terms of real food, so keep reading!

Rehydrating is another important factor to consider. Ideally, you would enter exercise hydrated and replace the fluids lost in sweat after. An easy way to assess hydration is to weigh yourself in as little clothing as possible before working out and then again after. Then, replace the weight lost by 125-150% (example: 1 kg body weight lost = 1.25-1.5 L fluid to drink over the next couple of hours).  

Best pre- and post-workout snacks for power/strength based workouts

Power based workouts would be those that require max effort for short periods of time. Activities such as:

  • Sprinting
  • Weight lifting 
  • Most team sports

Again, the focus prior to training or competition is largely focused on carbohydrates and getting some fluids in. Timing is important, so the closer you are to your training, think about the fat and fiber content of the foods and choose those that are lower and most easily digested. 

  • Pre workout focus: easily digestible carbs and fluids 
  • Protein: moderate 
  • Carbohydrate: 1-4 g/kg 1-4 hrs prior 
  • Fat: minimal 
  • Fluids: 5-10 mL/kg of body weight 2-4 hours prior

Timing of foods and fluids will be based on what your gut can handle, your schedule, and your goals. There is no need to eat at every interval listed below, these are suggestions based on what might work for you. For example, if you plan to train for an hour in the middle of the day, then you would want to plan to have lunch about 3 or 4 hours prior to that. You may also choose to add a small snack just before training. 

You can follow these general guidelines to help you build a fueling system that fits your needs! Don’t hesitate to reach out if you need help with this step. 

3-4 hours prior: 

  • 2 pieces of whole grain toast and 2 eggs = 30 g carbohydrate and 15 g protein 
  • Oatmeal made with 1 cup of milk, 1 tsp brown sugar and topped with fruit = 90 g carbohydrate and 8 g protein 
  • Rice bowl with 3-4 oz of protein and mixed vegetables = 45 g of carbohydrate and 30 g of protein
  • Baked potato with sour cream and chives and a side of chicken noodle soup = 30 g of carbohydrate and 15 g of protein

1-2 hours prior: 

  • Banana and 2 T peanut butter = 30 g carbohydrate, 8 g protein
  • Yogurt with berries  = 40 g carbohydrate, 8 g protein

30 minutes prior: 

  • Applesauce packet = 25 g of carbohydrate
  • Raisins = 34 g of carbohydrate
  • Fig cookies, 2 = 22 g of carbohydrate
  • Sports drink = 15-30 g of carbohydrate
  • Banana = 28 g of carbohydrate 

Post workout

Post-workout, we need to focus on replacing the carbohydrates, repairing with protein, rehydrating with fluids, and reducing inflammation with antioxidants. This is especially important if multiple games or hard training sessions will be done close together.  

Post focus: carbs, protein, fluids, antioxidants 

  • Protein: 0.3-0.4 g/kg
  • Carbohydrate: 1-1.2 g/kg within 30 min and every 2 hr for 4-6 hrs 
  • Fat: as tolerated
  • Fluids: 1.25 to 1.5 L fluid for every 1 kg BW lost

Examples: 

  • Chocolate milk or chocolate soy milk = 15 g carbohydrate, 8 g protein
  • Yogurt with berries and granola  = 40 g carbohydrate, 8 g protein
  • Protein smoothie with berries = 30-45 g of carbohydrate, 25 g protein
  • Whole grain bagel and peanut butter = 50 g carbohydrate, 10 g protein 

As you can see, you might have to add to or decrease a serving depending on your personal goals and training. This is why personalization is key! 

Best pre- and post-workout snacks for endurance exercise  

Endurance exercise lasts longer than 30 minutes and relies heavily on oxygen to produce energy. Examples include: 

  • Running
  • Cycling
  • Long-distance swimming 

Priorities prior to endurance training are making sure there is enough muscle and liver glycogen (the storage form of glucose) and enhancing the efficiency in which glucose and fatty acids are converted to fuel. 

Many endurance athletes begin their training very early in the morning, making it difficult to have a full, carbohydrate rich meal 3-4 hours prior. It’s important to recognize that after an overnight fast, liver glycogen stores will be very low because it has been used overnight to fuel the brain and keep blood sugar stable. So having a small, 200-300 calorie snack prior to training will replenish those stores and improve performance. 

Pre-Workout

Pre-workout focus: carbohydrates and fluids

  • Carbohydrate: at least 200-300 calories with 15 g of carbohydrates in the early morning; 1-4 g/kg 1-4 hours prior 
  • Protein: moderate
  • Fat: minimal 
  • Fluids:  5-10 mL/kg of body weight 2-4 hours prior 

3-4 hours prior: 

  • Waffles (2) and Greek yogurt (1 cup) = 82 g of carbohydrates, 35 g of protein
  • Eggs (2) and toast (2 slices) = 27 g of carbohydrates, 16 g of protein
  • Rice bowl = 72 g of carbohydrates, 22 g of protein

1-2 hours prior: 

  • Yogurt with berries = 40 g of carbohydrates, 8 g of protein
  • Toast (2 slices) and nut butter = 38 g of carbohydrates, 13 g of protein
  • Banana and nut butter = 30 g of carbohydrates, 8 g of protein
  • Trail mix = 38 g of carbohydrates, 14 g of protein

30 minutes prior: 

  • Banana = 28 g of carbohydrates
  • Applesauce = 25 g of carbohydrates
  • Graham crackers, 2 rectangles = 20 g of carbohydrates
  • Fig cookies, 2 = 22 g of carbohydrates

Because of the nature of endurance exercise, it’s important to consider fluids and carbohydrates during training, especially when exercise exceeds 1 hour. This will take practice, but it’s well worth your while! The recommendation is 30-60 g of carbohydrates/hr, depending on type and duration of training. 

A lot of athletes like gels, sports drinks, dried fruit, or even boiled, salted potatoes! Some things to consider with intra-exercise fueling are: 

  • Is it tolerable?
  • Is it packable?
  • How much carbohydrate does it provide?
  • Is it digested quickly?
  • How much sodium does it provide me?
  • Do I handle fructose well?

Generally, fluid intakes of 0.4 to 0.8 L/h works for many athletes, however it’s best to work with a sports dietitian to personalize the recommendation to meet your specific needs (Thomas et al., 2016). It’s important not to over hydrate as well, so let me help! 

Other tips for fueling during prolonged training include:

  • Incorporate cold fluids 
  • Add flavoring to fluids for palatability 
  • Include carbohydrates (either in the liquid, a gel, or easily accessible food like raisins)
  • Utilize a fitness belt or handheld water bottle for easy access

Post workout

Post-workout focus: carbohydrates, protein, electrolytes 

  • Carbohydrate:1-1.2 g/kg every hour for first 4 hours with first dose within 15-30 minutes 
  • Protein:0.25-0.35 g/kg within 15-30 minutes
  • Fat: as tolerated
  • Fluids: 5-10 mL/kg of body weight 2-4 hours prior

Examples: 

  • Chocolate milk or chocolate soy milk = 15 g carbohydrate, 8 g protein
  • Yogurt with berries and granola  = 40 g carbohydrate, 8 g protein
  • Protein smoothie with berries = 30-45 g of carbohydrate, 25 g protein
  • Whole grain bagel and peanut butter = 50 g carbohydrate, 10 g protein

Best pre- and post-workout savory/salty snacks

  • Nuts
  • Trail mix
  • Rice cakes and nut butter
  • Energy bites
  • Toast with avocado and hemp seeds
  • Hard boiled eggs
  • Cottage cheese
  • Whole grain wrap with vegetables 
  • Pretzels and hummus 
  • Black bean and sweet potato hash
  • Tofu scramble with salsa
  • Bolognese with pasta
  • Roasted chickpeas
  • Edamame 
  • Buddha Bowls 
  • Sesame seed bagel with cream cheese or nut butter

Best pre- and post-workout sweet snacks

  • Granola bars
  • Energy bites (with or without protein powder)
  • Yogurt with berries and granola
  • Honey stinger waffles 
  • Peanut butter and jelly sandwich
  • Chia seed pudding
  • Chocolate milk or chocolate soy milk
  • Banana or apple 
  • Graham crackers
  • Raisins 
  • Applesauce 

Best pre- and post-workout combo snacks

  • Granola bars
  • Yogurt with nuts and seeds
  • Nuts and raisins (two parts raisins, one part nuts)
  • Apple and almond butter
  • Oatmeal

Best pre- and post-workout smoothies

Pre-workout focus: carbs + fluids

Post-workout focus: carbs + protein + antioxidants 

Best pre- and post-workout vegan/vegetarian choices

With plant-forward eating rising in popularity, many are unsure unsure if they can get enough protein in to support their training. Importantly, the protein sources need to have the right amount of amino acids to stimulate the muscle for growth and repair. But with the right planning, it’s absolutely possible to be a healthy and thriving plant-based athlete.

For example, here is the protein content of common vegetarian sources: 

  • Tofu, firm, ½ cup = 19 g
  • Edamame, ½ cup = 12 g
  • Beans, ½ cup = 7 g
  • Lentils, ½ cup = 8 g
  • Soy milk, 1 cup = 7 g protein 
  • Hemp seeds, 1 oz = 8 g 
  • Egg, whole, 1 large = 6 g
  • Almonds, 1 oz = 6 g
  • Peanut butter, 2 T = 8 g 

*Leucine content being highest in soy products

I personally like to recommend those following a plant-forward diet also incorporate fatty fish and eggs, which can be especially helpful for athletes because both of these sources are high in quality protein and provide adequate amounts of essential amino acids. 

Best pre and post workout plant-based snacks 

Pre-workout: 

  • Bowls (rice or noodles) with beans, vegetables, and salmon
  • Whole grain wraps with vegetables, crispy tofu, and avocado
  • Vegan Buddha bowls 
  • Rice cakes and nut butter
  • Bars like GoMacro LaraBar
  • Homemade granola bars or trail mix 
  • Toast with smashed avocado 
  • Bagel with peanut butter 
  • Graham crackers 
  • Hard boiled eggs
  • Energy bites 
  • Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches
  • Apple or banana and nut butter 
  • Applesauce 

Post-workout: 

  • Apple and soy milk or soy cheese
  • Banana and nut butter or whole nuts
  • Chocolate soymilk
  • Graham crackers and soymilk
  • Yogurt and fruit
  • Bean and cheese tortilla wrap
  • Raisins and almonds
  • Bagel and cottage cheese or cashew cream cheese 
  • Epic salmon bar (if eating fish) and fruit
  • Smoothies made with silken tofu, soy milk, or almond milk with protein powder 

If this is still confusing for you to navigate, I would love to help you! We can collaboratively create a plan that fits into your lifestyle and helps you reach your goals. Reach out here if you would like to take your performance to the next level!

Now that you have a better understanding of what to focus on with your pre- and post-workout nutrition, let’s get to fueling!

References

Thomas, D. T., Erdman, K. A., & Burke, L. M. (2016). American College of Sports Medicine Joint Position Statement. Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 48(3), 543–568. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0000000000000852

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