Jessica Nelson, RDN, CPT, writes the ultimate guide on what to eat before and after workouts.
To start, let’s get this straight…
Why Carbs Are SO Important
Carbohydrates are the primary fuel source for our bodies. As our bodies digest carbs we convert them into glucose. Glucose is stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles. It is then used for energy when blood glucose is depleted. Glycogen stores will deplete faster or slower depending on what type of exercise you are doing.
Muscle glycogen is what powers short, high intensity physical activity. This includes volleyball, basketball, tennis, sprinting, or weight lifting. Similarly, when exercise exceeds 60 to 90 minutes at a moderate intensity level, glycogen is used up.
For that reason, not providing your body with adequate carbohydrates before exercise can affect your energy output and endurance. Workouts that last several hours like hiking, long distance running, or cycling will use a mix of glucose, glycogen and fat for fuel. Lower intensity activities with a long duration such as walking will use more body fat for fuel – and less stored glycogen.
Just be sure to eat carbohydrates that are easy to digest before exercising. That means looking for sources that are lower in fiber. This includes banana, bread with honey, low-fat granola, or a sports bar.
don’t Forget Your Other Macros
While carbohydrates serve as the primary fuel source for your body, eating adequate protein and fat before exercise is just as important. Protein before exercise will give your body energy, slow down carbohydrate digestion, and serve as a secondary source of fuel. Good protein sources include lean meats, low-fat yogurt. cheeses, nuts, and peanut butter.
Fats are beneficial because they help you feel satiated, add flavor to the meal, and are fuel for longer workouts. However, eating too much fat – or greasy, fried or processed foods – may cause stomach upset. Generally, fats take longer to digest, so it is best to have fats with a meal at least a few hours ahead of time.
WhEN To Eat Before a Workout
No matter what type of exercise you are engaging in, fueling beforehand is essential. If you’re planning to workout for more than 60 minutes, a well-rounded meal two to four hours before will provide your muscles with energy, satisfy hunger, and allow for digestion to take place. You may also want to consider a high-energy snack that is easily digested 30 to 60 minutes before your workout to maximize your energy stores. I also recommend drinking water with the meal or snack.
WHAT TO EAT BEFORE A Workout
Pre-workout meals should be anywhere from 500-600 calories, provide plenty of carbohydrates, a good amount of protein (aim for 15-20g), and some fat. Be wary of high sodium or processed sugary foods which may also cause gut distress if you eat them too soon before a workout. The exactness of your macronutrient needs differ from person to person, but here are a few meal examples to get you started.
- Yogurt smoothie, fresh fruit, and low-fat granola
- Oatmeal with almonds, banana, and a glass of milk (or dairy free alternative)
- Meat and cheese sandwich with mayo, side of berries, and sports drink
- Stuffed green pepper with lean meat and brown rice, with a side of fruit salad, and an oatmeal raisin cookie
Pre-workout snacks needs to offer about 200-300 calories, and provide a moderate amount of both carbohydrates (30-45g) and protein (7-14g), and very little fat. Remember pre-workout snacks are easy on the stomach and give quick energy. Here are some examples that may work for you.
- Banana with 2 tbsp peanut butter
- Sports bar
- Healthy trail mix with dried fruit, seeds, peanuts, coconut chips, and chocolate chips
- Liquid meal supplement
- Greek yogurt with fresh fruit
- Bagel with low-fat cream cheese and hard boiled egg
When To Eat AFter A Workout
This is when we need to focus on refueling energy stores, rehydrating for fluid loss, and repairing and building muscles. Eat your recovery snack within 15-30 minutes following exercise and a meal within 2 hours. Again, nutrient timing is essential for the post recovery process. Replacing fluid loss is also a priority post-exercise and can be consumed at the same time as your snack or meal. If you find it difficult to eat immediately after exercise, a sport drink and protein bar can be helpful. Either of these can hold you over until you are ready to consume a more complex meal. A shake or smoothie made with protein powder is another option following your workout. For best results, use a protein powders within 30 to 60 minutes following any moderate or high intensity workout.
What To Eat After A Workout
Recovery snacks require high quality proteins to aid in the repair of damaged muscle tissues and stimulate new tissue growth. We also need adequate carbohydrates to replace glycogen stores and stabilize blood sugar. A quick tip for having the right ratio of protein and carbs is to think a 4:1 ratio. Ideally, we want four grams of carbohydrates for every one gram of protein. A popular example is low-fat chocolate milk. Per serving, it has 27g of carb and 8g of protein.
Together, snacks and meals need to offer around 20-40g of protein. If you’re planning to eat a meal within an hour of your workout, you will not necessarily need to replenish your body with a recovery snack before. But, opting for an electrolyte sports drink or water can be beneficial.
Here are a few post-workout meals and snacks to consider…
- Scrambled eggs with cheese, toast with avocado, and fruit
- Rice bowl with beans, cheese, avocado, tortilla chips, salsa and veggies
- Tuna salad sandwich, vegetable bean soup, and crackers
- 4 oz. grilled chicken breast, medium sweet potato, and cooked vegetables
- Snack plate! Apple, sliced cheese, crackers, low-fat lunch meat, and nuts
- Low-fat chocolate milk
- Crackers with hummus and a cheese stick
- Smoothie made with greek yogurt and frozen berries
- Graham crackers with peanut butter
- Cottage cheese and fruit
- Protein energy bite balls
Pin this handy infographic or print it for your fridge to reference often!