What to Eat Before and After a Workout

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As a nutritionist and personal trainer one of the most frequent questions I get asked is “What should I eat before and after my workouts?” or “How much protein should I eat after working out?” Unfortunately the answer to these questions can become confusing.

What you eat before and after your works really does depend on your fitness level and what goal you want to achieve with your exercise routine. If for example you are planning to run a marathon in the next couple of months your eating habits will be very different from some one who enjoys running solely for it’s health benefits.

The following advice I’m going to give is for most of us who take part in exercise as a part of healthy balanced lifestyle, not for the elite athlete.

Before Exercise:
Numerous studies have concluded that consuming carbohydrates before exercise results in improved performance when compared with exercising on an empty stomach.

Many experts recommend a low GI (glycemic index) meal before exercise to supply sustained energy during your workout. Low GI foods are foods that don’t spike your blood sugar, for example whole grain bread.

Here are some examples of low GI foods:
Fruits – apples, pears, oranges, grapefruit
Vegetables – most vegetables including sweet potato
Grains and breads – whole grain pasta and breads, barley, rye
Nuts and seeds – almonds, brazil nuts, sunflower and sesame
Fish, lean meat, poultry and eggs
Cheese, yogurt, keifer

For a complete list you can visit glycemicindex.com for a list of low and high GI foods.

When is the best time to eat before exercise?
I personally recommend waiting at least 1 hour after eating to work out.

But ideally, you should eat between 2 and 4 hours before working out, this leaves enough time for your stomach to settle so you don’t feel uncomfortable, not too full and not too hungry.

However, the exact timing of your pre-exercise meal will depend on your daily schedule and the time of day you plan to exercise.

What would be an example of a pre-workout meal?

Pre-Workout Meals Ideas (2-4 hours before exercise):
Sandwich filled with chicken, cheese, egg or peanut butter and a salad
Pasta with tomato-based pasta sauce and vegetables
Chicken with rice and salad
Vegetables with noodles or rice
Whole grain cereal

Pre-Workout Snack ideas (1-2 hours before exercise):
Fresh fruit ie. apple, orange, pear
Dried fruit, dates, raisins etc.
Smoothie (try my Fruity Greens Smoothie)
Energy bar
Banana bread/muffin (try my Sugar Free Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins)
Diluted fruit juice

During Exercise:
For most activities lasting less than an hour, drinking anything other than water is unnecessary.
During Exercise (this is for long distance, endurance or high intensity training only):
Coconut water or electrolyte drink
Diluted fruit juice
Handful dried fruit
Energy gel
*Note: it’s important to begin consuming carbs before fatigue sets in. It takes at least 30 minutes for the carb to be absorbed into the bloodstream. It’s best to begin consuming carb soon after the start of your workout, certainly within the first 30 minutes.

After Exercise:
The best time to start refuelling is as soon as possible after exercise, during the first 2 hours replenishment to muscles is most rapid. Therefore, eating carbohydrates during this time speeds up recovery time. However, when you consume protein and carbohydrates together immediately after exercise they promote more efficient muscle tissue growth as well as faster refuelling of the bodies energy stores.

Many people believe that it’s protein you need most of after your workout. But if for example your exercise consisted of running for at least 1 hour at moderate intensity, you’ve burned a lot of your bodies fuel. If you only consumed protein, you are not restoring the bodies fuel tanks, remember that carbs are the fuel for the body. So, when you go running tomorrow you’ll find you won’t have as much energy and will feel fatigued much faster. You have depleted the bodies fuel and haven’t filled up.

Just like a car, you can’t get very far with an empty gas tank. Therefore, the optimal post-workout meal or drink should include protein and carbohydrates in a ratio of about 1:4.

Post-Exercise snack ideas (consumed within 2 hours after exercise):
Smoothie (try my Protein Recovery Shake)
Handful of dried fruits and nuts
Peanut butter, egg, tuna, or chicken sandwich
Homemade milkshake (chocolate almond milk with banana)
Potato with baked beans
Wholegrain cereal with almond milk

*REPOST: This article was previously published on Illuminessence

Tanya Fraser is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and personal trainer.