What to eat before your workouts for maximum perfromance and after your workouts for maximum recovery.
Want to know what to eat pre- and post-workout to make your workouts significantly more effective? In this article, I am going to explain what to eat and when to eat it to get the most out of your time in the gym.
I started out my career as a sports dietitian for high level athletes, from MLB players, to NFL stars, to Olympians. Now, I take the strategies I used to help athletes become high performers and I teach them to busy professionals and career-focused parents. Everything I’m going to talk about today has been tried and tested by the athletes I’ve worked with, but this advice isn’t for athletes.
What I’m going to be sharing is for people who are going to the gym about 3-5 times a week. You might be trying to improve performance and reach goals like fat loss and muscle gain. However, we aren’t going to cover anything related to prepping for a competition, race, or game. If you are an athlete, I recommend that you talk to a dietitian about your specific nutrition needs.
When it comes to pre-workout snacks, what you choose to eat is influenced by what type of workout you’ll be performing and the duration of it.
How long you workout for will impact how much energy you need for that workout and therefore what you eat before. A workout that is less than 45-60 minutes typically can follow the principles I will discuss below.
For workouts that are longer than 60 minutes, you may need to incorporate fueling during the workout. Since this is not common for most people (unless you’re an athlete), I won’t cover intra-workout nutrition in this article. If your workouts are less than 60 minutes, the recommendations below will apply, regardless of the type of workout.
The most important consideration when deciding what to eat pre-workout is how much time you have before your training session starts.
Starting Your Workout in 30 mins to 1 hour
If you are planning to work out in about 30 minutes to an hour, focus on easy-to-digest carbs:
These carbs will be digested quickly and used for energy right away. You typically want to avoid foods that are high in fiber, fat, and protein immediately before your workout, because these take longer to digest. As you get further from the start of your workout, you can add some protein in.
Starting Your Workout in 1-2 Hours
If your workout is starting in 1-2 hours, you can have a larger snack with both protein and carbs. Carbs will give your body energy and the protein will help increase muscle protein synthesis, which is the process your body goes through to grow and repair your muscles.
Here are 5 snack options (make sure to adjust the portion size based on your hunger levels and calorie needs):
Starting Your Workout in 2-3 Hours
If you have 2-3 hours or more before your workout, you can eat a full, balanced meal with protein, carbs, and fat. Examples of meal options include:
I’m not saying you should eat at all these times; pick what works for you, based on your schedule, hunger levels, and preferences. This may require some trial and error. For example, if you have a full meal 3 hours before your workout, some people might be able to do that workout without a snack and feel great. But, you might also choose to have a small snack closer to the start of your workout, if you’re hungry
There are 3 main goals of post-workout nutrition: Repair, Refuel, and Rehydrate, so let’s break down each of these 3 R’s.
When you exercise, it’s normal for the muscle fibers to have some minor damage. So, in order to allow your muscles to repair and grow, you need to make sure you’re eating enough protein. Protein provides the building blocks for your body to make more muscle tissue.
Your body stores carbs in the form of glycogen in the muscles and liver. When you work out, glycogen in the muscles gets used up for energy, so having some carbs post-workout helps replenish these stores.
Carbs are also important for muscle growth. When you eat carbs, it stimulates the production of insulin, which is a hormone heavily involved not only in managing your blood sugar levels, but also in many of the reactions that lead to muscle recovery and growth.
When you’re choosing carb sources, you want most of your daily carbs to come from complex sources, like whole grains, veggies, legumes, and fruit. Depending on the time of day, your post-workout snack could be one of your main meals, or a smaller snack (any of the options suggested above in the pre-workout section).
The final R of post-workout nutrition is rehydrate. When we exercise, our bodies produce heat that is released through sweat. Those fluids must be replenished, not only during your workouts, but also after. Your muscles need a hydrated environment to recover and repair.
Try to drink water consistently throughout the day, and throughout your workout. 64 oz. total in a day is a starting point, but most people will need more than that when they work out. The easiest way to get an idea of whether you’re drinking enough is to look at the color of your urine. The color to aim for is pale yellow, like lemonade. If it’s darker, make sure to get some more water.
If you’re exercising for more than an hour or in a hot climate, you may also choose to have a sports drink to replenish electrolytes. However, if you’re aiming to lose weight, look for an electrolyte drink that is low in calories (eg. 0-20 cals).
In summary, the best nutrition advice to see results from your workouts is to prioritize protein and don’t be afraid of eating carbs — they give your body the fuel it needs. If your goal is fat loss, that’s only going to happen if you create a calorie deficit, meaning you burn more calories than you consume. You don’t need to track macros to lose weight, but in my experience after working with hundreds of clients, tracking can make the process of fat loss a lot easier and more efficient. There is no single formula for a perfect workout, but these tips are based on the most recent sports science research and my 12 years of experience as a dietitian, so they can make a big impact on having the energy to push through your workouts and see results.
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