Everyone has them — the perfect pre and post-workout meals. These are the foolproof, fail safe meals that always provide the perfect level of satiation, energy, and taste to power through and recover from the toughest workouts. These meals are especially important for anyone doing high intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts.
HIIT workouts can be highly demanding on the body, which is why having great pre and post-workout meals can be so important for not only performance, but recovery as well. Great pre and post-workout meals will be guided by a few different things that will vary from athlete to athlete and these include body composition goals, energy requirements, and dietary needs.
This article will highlight the importance of pre and post-HIIT workout meals with the help of Kettlebell Kitchen nutritionists, along with five meals for you to try on your own!
- Perfect Pre and Post-HIIT Workout Meals
- Calculating Pre and Post-HIIT Workout Macro Splits
- Pre and Post-HIIT Workout Meals
- Understanding Glycogen and Muscle Protein Synthesis
Perfect Pre and Post-HIIT Workout Meals
Performance and Recovery Are Key
Pre and Post-HIIT workout meals require careful curation and should contribute to two goals.
- Goal 1: These meals should provide the body with the energy and nutrients it requires to match the workout needs at hand and should provide the body with nutrients to recover properly.
Both of these goals can play a large role in ensuring HIIT workout success. Out of every workout performed in the gym, few compare to the high energy demands needed to successfully perform dynamic HIIT workouts.
Kettlebell Kitchen Nutritionist Kim Perez explains further, “HIIT is an anaerobic type of exercise, which calls for a different type of fuel source than aerobic activity. Anaerobic exercise, like HIIT, is fueled primarily by carbohydrates, while aerobic activity uses up carbs first, and then primarily runs on fat.
Therefore, fueling and recovering from HIIT requires adequate carb intake. HIIT will use glucose in the blood (which comes from intake of carb-rich foods), as well as stored carbs in the body (called “glycogen,” primarily found in the muscles). Because HIIT can deplete this stored glycogen, it’s crucial to replenish carbohydrates post workout as well. The closer to a workout one eats, the more ideal it is to choose quicker digesting, simple carbs like white rice, quick oats, banana, and dried fruit like dates and figs.
In addition to considering carb intake pre and post-HIIT workouts, Perez mentioned that quality protein is equally as important to consider.
Protein is also important because with intense exercise, muscle fibers become damaged and need to be rebuilt. Protein provides amino acids, which help repair the muscle tissue. Some good sources include high quality protein powder (like whey or grass-fed beef), hydrolyzed collagen powder, chicken, turkey, eggs, tuna, and cottage cheese or Greek yogurt (if dairy is well tolerated), she states.
- Goal 2: These meals should never make you feel nauseous or uncomfortable during or following a workout.
HIIT workouts can vary greatly, which means dietary choices will need to be altered to promote comfort throughout activity. For example, it could be counterintuitive to eat a meal high in fat that creates a high level of satiation before performing a ton of anaerobic work.
Perez offered a few tips for anyone trying to build pre and post-workout meals. “Finding what foods help you feel your best versus foods that may cause symptoms or make you feel tired and sluggish is helpful. Starting with a foundation of whole, varied foods like quality proteins, healthy fats, and lots of colorful fruits and veggies is a great start.
- Quality Proteins = Chicken, beef, turkey, fish, and eggs
- Healthy Fats = Nuts, seeds, avocado, olives, and coconut
It’s a great way to get tons of vitamins and minerals, support healthy gut function, and create balanced blood sugar,” Perez Advises.
Calculating Pre and Post-HIIT Workout Macro Splits
On top of finding foods that fit your dietary needs and preferences best, macronutrient curation should also receive attention for pre and post-HIIT workout meals. HIIT workouts include a plethora of movements and typically aim to strengthen muscle, build endurance, and improve power output all within one structured workout.
Every macronutrient in your diet provides the body with a various amount of energy. The main macronutrients include carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. All of these come with various amounts of calories and will each be metabolized and utilized by the body for energy and other usages at different rates.
Kettlebell Kitchen Nutritionist Kim Perez states, “For macro splits, a good foundation to shoot for with both pre and post-workout meals is between a 1:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein. (For example, 20g of carbs and 20g of protein). Exact amounts in grams will vary greatly depending on the person. These meals should also ideally include minimal fat, since fat slows digestion.
- Foundational Macronutrient Split: 1:1 — Carb:Protein
Macro Splits for Individual Goals
A ratio of 1:1 is a good starting point for most athletes, but that ratio will vary based on one’s goals. It’s also important to remember that body composition goals will reflect a whole day of eating and overall diet, and not just pre and post-HIIT workout meals.
If one’s goal is weight loss, then Perez provided some insight into how athletes could structure their meals throughout the day, along with pre and post-HIIT workout meals.
Perez states, “For those looking to lose weight, a lower carbohydrate intake overall is generally helpful. And in this case, pre and post workout meals may not even be necessary. I generally recommend clients aiming for weight loss prioritize 3 balanced meals and only add snacks as needed. For pre and post-workout meals, a 1:1 carb to protein ratio is a good place to start, shifting carbs down as needed. However, if an individual is highly active and also wants to lose weight, increasing carbs, especially around their workouts, can be helpful.”
Athletes trying to gain muscle will have a heavier emphasis on carb intake. “If an athlete is trying to put on muscle, then there are carb intake should generally be higher. For those looking to gain muscle, a higher carbohydrate intake is beneficial since this is an easy way to increase caloric intake. Individuals can bump up their ratio of carbs to proteins in their pre and especially post workout meals to 3:1 and possible even 4:1”, Perez explains.
For those trying to maintain their body composition, Perez added, “A moderate 2:1 ratio of carbs to protein is sufficient, but other factors do need to be taken into account like what else they eat throughout the day!”
- Weight Loss: 1:1 — Carb:Protein
- Muscle Gain: 3:1-4:1 — Carb:Protein
- Maintenance: 2:1 — Carb: Protein
Remember, these ratios are only part of the pie in constructing a diet to match your performance and body composition goals!
Pre and Post-HIIT Workout Meals
1. Paleo Chicken Nuggets With Sweet Potato Fries (KB Kitchen Meal)
- What’s In the Meal: Chicken nuggets with a cassava and warm paprika crust. Sweet potato fries and roasted apples with fennel.
- Why These Foods Matter: These are lighter, high-quality foods that come loaded with nutrients and macronutrient breakdown to meet most athlete’s needs.
- Caloric and Macronutrient Breakdown: 470 calories, 9g fat, 50g carbs, 42g protein
2. Chicken Breast, Sweet Potato, and Apple
- What’s In the Meal: 3 oz. chicken breast, 1 medium sweet potato, and 1 medium apple
- Why These Foods Matter: This meal could be considered a gold standard for the healthy eater. It contains a chicken breast, which is packed with amino acids, a sweet potato to provide the body with complex carbs, and an apple for fiber and additional carbs.
- Average Caloric and Macronutrient Breakdown: Calories 350, 3g fat, 52g carbs, 28g protein
3. Sirloin Steak, White Rice, Pineapple
- What’s In the Meal: 3 oz. sirloin steak, 1 cup white rice, ½ cup pineapple
- Why These Foods Matter: This meal packs an adequate amount of protein and comes along with a nice high serving of simple and complex carbohydrates.
- Average Caloric and Macronutrient Breakdown: Calories 500, 12g fat, 60g carbs, 28g protein
4. Turkey, Potatoes, Cauliflower
- What’s In the Meal: 4 oz. 93% lean turkey, 1 medium potato, 10 asparagus spears with BBQ sauce
- Why These Foods Matter: This is a great meal option for anyone who loves simplicity and wants to obtain ample protein, carbs, and nutrients following a tough workout.
- Average Caloric and Macronutrient Breakdown: Calories 400, 9g fat, 50g carbs, 28g protein
5. Athlete Honey Mustard Chicken With Rice (KB Kitchen Meal)
- What’s In the Meal: Oven baked chicken, radicchio-green bean salad, and white rice.
- Why These Foods Matter: This meal contains a quality protein for muscle recovery, white rice for energy, and a green bean salad loaded with vitamins.
- Caloric and Macronutrient Breakdown: Calories 520, 11g fat, 56g carbs, 45g protein
Understanding Glycogen and Muscle Protein Synthesis
As mentioned briefly above, when it comes to post-HIIT workouts — recovery is huge. These workouts vary greatly, so their recovery needs can change from athlete-to-athlete, but a main focus should always be on replenishing the body with quality foods.
In respects to recovery following HIIT workouts, there are two major components worth considering when building post-workout meals.
- Glycogen Replenishment: Glycogen is one of our skeletal muscle’s preferred sources of energy and plays a major role in promoting and supporting performance in a variety of activities.
- Protein Intake (Muscle Protein Synthesis): In short, muscle protein synthesis is how the body utilizes protein consumed to build and repair muscle.
The consideration of both glycogen replenishment and muscle protein synthesis can be great starting points when building post-workout meals. Typically, post-workout meals will include a higher content of carbohydrates and protein, which will naturally satisfy both of these asks.
Glycogen Replenishment and Carbohydrates
To replenish glycogen, an athlete is going to need to consume carbohydrates. Every carbohydrate consumed is eventually broken down into glucose, which is our body’s preferred energy source. The two most common forms of carbohydrates are simple and complex.
Simple carbohydrates include things like sugars and syrups, and are quickly digested, used for energy, and stored by the body. This is often why athletes will reach for simple carbs post-workout, as they’re used for recovery and fuel at a faster rate. There are two main types of simple carbohydrates and these include,
- Monosaccharide: Glucose, fructose
- Disaccharide: Sucrose, lactose, and corn syrup
Both forms of these simple carbohydrates will be digested quicker than complex carbs, which make them viable options for restoring glycogen stores at a faster rate post-workout.
Complex carbohydrates are long-chained sugars, and typically come along with fiber, a slower digestion rate, and nutrients. These carbohydrates will either be broken down and used for energy in the moment, or stored for later in the liver and muscles as glycogen. Some examples of complex carbohydrates would be foods like oatmeal, brown rice, and whole grains.
General Carbohydrate Rules of Thumb
- Pre-HIIT Workout Carb Consumption: If you’re further out from a workout, aim for complex carbohydrates to facilitate a longer digestion and release of energy. For pre-workout snacks, consume quicker digesting carbs.
- Post-HIIT Workout Carb Consumption: Try to consume a mix of simple and complex carbohydrate to replenish glycogen stores and facilitate recovery.
Muscle Protein Synthesis
After a long, intense workout, the muscles are craving energy and fuel to begin recovering. This is where consuming a quality protein source to stimulate muscle protein synthesis comes in. Muscle protein synthesis could simple be defined as our body’s means of utilizing protein to repair and rebuild muscle, aka promoting anabolism.
In order to facilitate muscle protein synthesis, there should be a goal to consume a quality protein full of amino acids. Amino acids are essentially the building blocks of protein, so better quality protein will have a higher amino acid content, which can relate to the availability and usage of the protein consumed.
There are 20 amino acids used within the body, and nine of them are defined as essential. Essential amino acids cannot be produced by the body and must be consumed. Of these essential amino acids, leucine and isoleucine typically receive the most attention, as they are often associated closely to the process of muscle protein synthesis. Higher leucine content in protein typically suggests a better rate of muscle protein synthesis.
How Much Protein Is Enough?
This question is much more complicated than providing one simple number, but there are few basic recommendations worth keeping in mind. We mentioned it above, but leucine is typically the most important amino acid to consider when it comes to protein consumption and muscle protein synthesis.
A study from 2012 published in the Journal of Physiology suggested that about three grams of leucine per meal was typically best for maximizing muscle protein synthesis (1). In Layman’s terms, leucine amounts will vary from food-to-food and supplement-to-supplement. Check out some guidelines below.
- Chicken Breast: 4-5 grams of leucine
- Beef Fillet (Steak): 3.5 grams of leucine
- Tuna Fillet: 3-5 grams of leucine
- Whey Protein (30g of protein):4-6 grams of leucine
- Soy Protein (30g of protein): 2-4 grams of leucine
Keep in mind, these numbers will vary and prior dietary decisions in the day can influence your body’s rate of muscle protein synthesis as well. For example, what you ate earlier in the day that’s already digesting could have influence on the body post-workout. This is why it’s typically a good idea to consume a normal portion of high quality protein post-HIIT workout. Consider it your muscle protein synthesis safety net!
The Perfect Meals
At the end of the day, perfect pre and post-HIIT workout meals will be highly individual for every athlete. If you’re lost with your diet or need direction, then enrolling a service like Kettlebell Kitchen that utilizes nutritionists can be extremely useful. These services can provide you with meal ideas and individual direction when it comes to tackling your performance and body composition goals.
1. Breen, L., & Churchward-Venne, T. (2012). Leucine: a nutrient ‘trigger’ for muscle anabolism, but what more?. The Journal Of Physiology, 590(9), 2065-2066. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.2012.230631