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What to Eat Before and After a Workout

9 simple rules you can follow.

What you eat before a workout is important. If you're going to put the machine that is your body through the paces, you NEED to fuel it first with proper nutrition. And did you know that what you eat after a workout is really important, too?

Yup! Re-fueling after exercise gives your body the nutrients it needs to recover from the exertion and build bigger, stronger muscles. That means being thoughtful about what you eat before and after exercising will help you maximize the benefits of all your hard work at the gym. And, no, I'm not talking about pre-workout supplements, we are not talking about supplements we are talking real, delicious meals and snacks. The kind of things you would enjoy anyway—and will enjoy even more when you know they're helping you reach your fitness goals.

As a personal trainer, currently completing my Nutrition Diploma, here are the top tips I give my clients regarding eating before and after your workout. See some bits you like? Add them to your diet/ training plan!

Let's get those gains.

What to eat before a workout:

I do my best to drill my clients about eating before we exercise because most of them think it's an option. Not eating or not eating enough before your workout can make you dizzy, lightheaded, nauseated, or lethargic. You will also be more likely to injure yourself. And even if none of these things happen to you, skipping food can negatively impact your performance during a session and reduce your gains. Yup, you read it right. REDUCE YOUR GAINS. (the horror!)

But I know that realistically everyone won't always have the time (or desire) to eat before a workout. On nights when you're scrambling to get from the office to your favourite studio for that 6:00 P.M. class, it might feel impossible to squeeze in a snack on the way. But if you plan and are active about remembering to get some nutrients in before a session, your body will thank you!

Here are some fuel up tips:

1. Carbs are good.

Carbs = energy. When we eat them, they break down into glucose, enter our muscle cells, and give us fuel to exercise at our maximum capacity. Your muscles store glucose in the form of glycogen, and dip into these reserves when you're putting them to work. Eating carbs before you exercise ensures that you'll have extra glucose on hand if you need it to replenish those glycogen stores. If you don't have enough glucose during your workout, you'll likely feel weak, tired, and tempted to call it quits and take a nap. Before a workout, it's good to eat simple carbohydrates, because they are digested fast and provide quick energy.

Examples include:

  • a granola bar

  • a piece of fruit

  • oatmeal

  • Greek yogurt (this contains carbs and protein)

  • dried fruit

  • crackers

  • a rice cake

  • a piece of toast

2. Don't forget about protein.

In addition to carbs, it's a good idea to consume a little bit of protein before your workout—especially if you are doing weight training. When we do strength training exercises, like lifting weights, we create small tears in our muscle fibers. When you rest, your body repairs those micro-tears, building up your muscles bigger and stronger than they were before—and they needs protein to do it. But that doesn't mean you want to pound a burger before a workout. Instead, go for sources of protein that are easily digestible, and don't eat too much, so you don't get an upset stomach halfway through your 5-mile run.

Examples of good sources of protein to eat before a workout include:

  • nuts

  • Greek yogurt

  • a slice of turkey

  • a hardboiled egg

  • milk or soy milk

3. Timing is everything.

The ideal time to eat is between 30 minutes to two hours before your workout. That way you're not still digesting when you hit the gym floor, and to ensure that you haven't gone and used up all those helpful calories yet. Having said that, this can be customized. You may have to experiment to see which timeframe does your body good. If you're working out first thing in the morning, you probably won't be able to eat a whole meal before you hit the gym. A small snack, mini-breakfast or smooth should suffice. If you are exercising later in the day, I recommend having a snack 30 minutes to an hour before your workout, or working out 2-3 hours after a well-balanced meal.

4. Drink up.

It's best to get your body hydrated before you even think about heading to the gym. One way to determine your overall hydration status is to check out the color of your urine first thing in the morning. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, lemonade-colored urine is a sign of appropriate hydration, while dark colored urine (think apple juice), indicates a deficit in H20.

While there is no one-size-fits-all method to determining fluid needs during exercise, a good place to start is drinking about 2 cups of water 2 to 3 hours before exercise and 1 cup of water 10 to 20 minutes before working out.

The goal here is to minimize dehydration—which can cause low energy, and muscle cramps or spasms—without drinking too much water. You should try to also stay hydrated throughout your workout. Consider drinking 1 cup of water for every 15-30 minutes of intense physical activity, especially if you are sweating profusely or are training in a heated environment. Again, this may take a bit of experimentation until you find what works best for your body.

Here are some awesome pre-workout snack & meal ideas:

  • Snack: A smoothie with 1 cup of fruit and 2 cups of vegetables or this protein-packed green smoothie recipe (drink half before the workout and half after)

  • Snack: An apple or pear with nut butter

  • Snack: Greek yogurt with granola and berries

  • Snack: Dried fruit with mixed nuts

  • Snack: A granola bar

  • Snack: Rice cakes topped with nut butter

  • Meal: Oatmeal with peanut butter and fruit

  • Meal: Baked salmon, brown rice, and roasted veggies

What to eat after a workout:

You need to eat after a workout. Period. Eating after a workout is all about replacing the calories you used up. For one, it's important to replenish the glycogen that has been depleted during your exercise. Secondly, eating protein after a workout is a must for a speedy muscle recovery, particularly after weight training. Plus, food contains electrolytes (which are minerals that your neurons need to fire properly), which you lose when you sweat.

When you don't eat after a workout, you can end up fatigued and battling low blood sugar. You're also inhibiting your body's repair process. If you routinely skip eating after a workout, it will be harder to reach your fitness goals.

1. Make sure to eat something soon.

Especially if you just worked out really hard, your body has just used up the energy it needs to function at max capacity. If you aren't able to eat a full meal right away, have a snack after your training, then a full meal a few hours later.

2. Refuel with carbs and protein.

Remember, you've blown through that glycogen and torn up your muscles. Therefore, your post-workout meal should be high in complex carbohydrates (you don't need them to break down fast like you did beforehand) and loaded with healthy protein.

Complex carbohydrates include:

  • quinoa

  • brown rice

  • nuts

  • whole wheat bread

Healthy proteins include:

  • tofu

  • beans

  • fish

3. Rehydrate ASAP.

Replenishing the fluids you lost while sweating as soon as you can is even more important than eating right away. Don't stop drinking just because you're done sweating. Getting enough water after exercise depends on many factors, namely the length and intensity of the exercise, the environmental conditions, and your individual physiology. If you want to get all scientific about determining your fluid needs post-workout (trust me, I love to go there) you'll need to bust out that smartphone calculator. Start by weighing yourself before and after exercise and recording both numbers. After your workout, drink about 500 ml of fluid for every kg of weight you've lost. Again, do what feels right for your body. And as mentioned above, use your pee as a guideline for your overall hydration status.

Here are a few post-workout snack and meal ideas I recommend:

  • Snack: 1 cup of chocolate milk

  • Snack: 1 slice of whole wheat toast with 1 tablespoon of peanut butter and ½ sliced banana

  • Snack: 2 graham crackers with a tablespoon of peanut butter

  • Snack: 1 to 2 hardboiled eggs with a slice of whole wheat toast

  • Meal: A 7-inch round whole wheat pita stuffed with grilled veggies and 2 tablespoons hummus

  • Meal: A protein-rich green smoothie

  • Meal: Veggie omelet with avocado and ½ cup of roasted potatoes

  • Meal: 4 ounces of steamed trout with a baked sweet potato and sautéed spinach

And remember that these are only guidelines.

The beauty of it all is that everyone's body is different and will have specific needs and preferences. Happy training!


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