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What Should You Eat Before And After Working Out?

If you have been exercising consistently for any period of time, you have most likely wondered at some point about what you should be eating before and after your workout or training. While the answer will vary somewhat from one person to the next, I’m going to lay out some basic guidelines that should help you get an idea of what is generally recommended, and hopefully you can then decide which options are most suitable to you.

Does It Matter What You Eat Before You Workout?

Absolutely. What you eat is going to effect your workout or training session in one of two ways. It can either help you or it can stop you from having a productive session. If you are eating foods that are natural and full of nutrients that your body can use to fuel itself and your workout, then you will have a good workout. If however, you are eating highly processed junk foods which have little or no nutrients, that will actually deplete your body’s own supply of nutrients, then you will have a much less productive workout.

The same can be said for the timing of your pre-workout meal. If you have eaten a big meal close to your workout, then your body is going to be focused on digestion and can’t fully commit to the demands a workout places on the body. What you eat pre-workout has more to do with having a healthy diet and what your overall nutrition is like.

So What And When Should You Eat Before A Workout?

This will vary depending on your goal and what time of the day you workout, but as a general rule, you should be eating a healthy balanced meal containing some protein, carbohydrate and healthy fat before a workout. You want to keep your blood sugar even throughout the day so you can burn excess fat and avoid energy crashes and weight gain. To do this, protein should be included in each meal, choose a slow releasing carbohydrate source like oatmeal or fibre-rich vegetables, depending on the time of day, and some healthy fat to further slow the release of energy and for carrying out essential tasks within the body. So your pre workout meal should be a reflection of how you eat throughout the day.

When it comes to timing your pre-workout meal, you should be aiming to leave at least 2 hours between your last meal and when you workout. This is to allow the body enough time to digest, or at least to remove the food from the stomach, so full attention can go to performing the workout.

What Should You Eat After A Workout?

What you eat post workout is very important and more specific than what you eat pre-workout. If your workout was intense enough (it needs to be intense enough for your body to see a reason for changing and adapting) your body will have used up it’s energy stores and be looking for nutrients to rebuild and repair. This is the one time that you want rapidly absorbed foods, as they will spike your blood sugar and quickly be escorted to the cells. Remember at all other times you want the opposite effect, foods that are slowly absorbed, and keep your blood sugar even.

So what foods in particular should you be eating post workout? Protein,  and possibly carbohydrates depending on your goal and activity. If fat loss is your goal just protein may be enough. But either way it best to avoid fat. Why no fat? Fat slows down the absorption of foods, which at any other time is a good thing, but right after a workout you want the protein and carbohydrate to be absorbed as fast as possible. So to be clear, I am not recommending you follow a low-fat diet, eat healthy fats like olive oil, coconut oil, avocado and omega 3’s throughout the day, just not after working out.

After a tough workout you need to feed your body the necessary nutrients for recovery, protein and carbohydrate.

Quickly Absorbed Protein And Carbohydrate Sources

Whey protein is an excellent choice as it is a complete protein and is very easily absorbed. Whey powder is your best option as it is readily available and mixes easily with water. If you do decide to buy a whey powder, don’t get caught up in all the hype that the sports supplement companies use. Just look for a good quality whey powder that contains 20 – 30 grams of protein per scoop, and that doesn’t contain too many added ingredients.

If you are a vegetarian or vegan, there are various protein powders available that use pea protein or rice.

If you don’t like the idea of using a protein powder, it might surprise you that an inexpensive but very effective alternative is non-fat or skimmed milk. It isn’t quite as high in protein as whey powders, but it does contain good quality easily absorbed protein. Why non-fat? Again, the fat would slow down the absorption of the protein the milk contains.

Non-fat chocolate milk is a particularly good option as it also contains a small amount of sugar which is a rapidly absorbable carbohydrate. Just be sure to limit it to after a workout, and avoid consuming it throughout the day as it’s best not to drink your calories.

In Ireland the best brand I have found is “Fit For Health”, which is available in various supermarkets in 6 packs of mini cartons. It can be hard to find but it’s definitely available, just ask your local supermarket about stocking it. Avoid the strawberry and banana flavours as they contain fruit juice which you don’t want. Also avoid brands that use fructose, glucose or glucose-fructose (European name for high fructose corn syrup), as they are damaging to your health.

"Fit For Health" low-fat milk is the brand I use. Avoid the strawberry and banana flavours as they contain fruit juice, and go for the chocolate one.

Whole Food Options

Whole foods are generally absorbed at a slower rate, which may be more suitable for some, again depending on your goal. Whole food sources of protein such as boiled eggs, or lean meats such as chicken or even a small can of tuna. These may not be as convenient as whey or low-fat milk, but are still excellent choices of protein post workout.

Good whole food carbohydrate options include bananas, grapes or even oatmeal. If you have a lot of weight to lose bananas are best avoided. If however you are aiming to add muscle and build up a little, then bananas are generally fine.

How Long Should You Wait After A Workout Before Eating?

Now that you know what types of food to eat, lets look at when is the best time to eat them post-workout. It generally agreed on that as soon as you finish working out you should be refueling your body or a least within an hour of finishing your workout. This time frame is referred to as the “window of opportunity”, where eating within this time frame has been shown to speed recovery, replenish energy stores (glycogen), help to build new muscle and stop muscle wasting/loss.  After the hour you can eat a regular meal, containing healthy fat.

Whole Foods VS Powders And Liquids

There are benefits to both. As a general rule you should be aiming to consume 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight (1.5 grams if your are an athlete or aiming to build lean muscle). This can be difficult, and expensive if you are trying to build muscle and using whole foods as your only source of protein. I’m not saying you must use a protein powder or skimmed milk product to build lean muscle and recover post workout, but it can be useful. You may prefer to stick with whole foods which is fine and can still allow you to achieve your goal. As long as you stick to the basic guidelines, using liquids, powders or whole foods comes down to choice.

Hydration

You also want to make sure that you are properly hydrated before, during and after exercise. This can be achieved simply by consuming water throughout the day. Start your day with a glass of water, have a glass of water with each meal, and sip water during the day, between meals and during exercise. If you are dehydrated your body will not be able to function at peak ability.

If you have been sweating heavily during your workout you may also benefit from drinking coconut water. For full details on coconut water’s usefulness, check out my previous article Coconut Water – Nature’s Sports Recovery Drink .

Summary

Pre Workout

  • Pre workout nutrition should be made up of healthy foods that will keep your blood sugar even, which is how you want to be eating normally.
  • Eat lean proteins like organic chicken, fish, eggs, and lean cuts of beef.
  • Carbohydrate should be slow releasing.  Good options are oatmeal, quinoa, sweet potato, leafy green vegetables.
  • Eat healthy fats like coconut oil, olive oil, olives, avocado, omega 3’s, almonds, walnuts etc.
  • Leave at least 2 hours after eating before exercising.
  • Drink water.

Post Workout

  • Post workout nutrition can be made up of quickly absorbed protein and carbohydrates, such as whey powder, low/non-fat milk or vegetarian protein powders, and the simple sugars they contain.
  • Or choose whole foods post workout, such as boiled eggs, chicken breast, or a small can of tuna for you protein, and carbohydrates like a banana, some grapes, oatmeal or even a wholemeal (brown) pitta bread.
  • Avoid fats post workout.
  • Eat as soon as possible after finishing your workout, or at least within 45 minutes to 1 hour, for best results.

The jury is still out when it comes to agreeing on what is the absolute best option for pre and post workout nutrition, but what I have discussed above is what is generally agreed on, with minor tweaks depending on a individuals specific goals.

You may also be interested in my article The Truth About Protein Supplementation, from a few months back.

As always, please feel free to share your comments and any questions you may have.

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