This might be one of my most frequently asked questions that I get as a trainer and nutrition coach: “What should I eat before and after working out?”
While there is no one magical meal or snack before or after your workouts that instantly turns you into Wonder Woman, there are core nutritional nuggets of information you can use to help maximize the hard work you put into those squats, hills, and asanas.
Do keep in mind that one size does not fit all and this is not medical advice. Some people feel sick if they eat before a 6am workout, and some feel sick if they don’t, and some people have medical conditions that cause their metabolism to function differently for recovery and energy production. Optimal nutrition choices will also vary, depending on if your goals are focused on weight loss, endurance, fat loss, muscle gain, etc. A general rule of thumb is that pre-workout nutrition is more about performance, and post-workout nutrition is more about progress and recovery.
Think of it this way: the information I’m about to share is like the basic ABCs and is meant to arm you with the ability to spell your own words for what suits YOU best.
So before I share some of my favorite recipes, let’s go over some fundamentals!
Protein = your savings account
Protein breaks down into amino acids that your body uses to build healthy new muscle tissue and to transport and store nutrients in your body. Protein also requires more energy than fat or carbs to break down into amino acids (20-30% of total caloric content of that food!) to be used. It’s good to have protein available so that your body can manage the muscle damage you are creating during your workout for faster recovery and better performance.
Carbs = your quick cash and checking account
Your body uses the glucose from carbs for quick access energy. Your muscles and liver also have limited stores of glycogen (the storage form of glucose) that can be tapped into for energy for shorter duration/high-intensity exercise like sprints and power movements like kettlebell swings.
Fats = your retirement account
Stored fat in your organs is needed for longer duration exercises (think long-distance running, cycling, etc). Your body needs more energy and time to break down fat stores for energy use than protein and carbohydrates, but they are the best source of energy for longer duration, lower-intensity exercise.
Hydration / Fluid Balance
While one of the most overlooked factors, hydration is key to keeping your energy up during your workouts and for optimal recovery afterwards. Did you know that as little as 1-2% reduction in bodyweight from water loss leads to decreasing performance during activity? Especially if you’re doing a morning workout, remember that you just spent all those sleeping hours without any water intake, so make sure to rehydrate prior to exercise. Consuming electrolytes such as sodium and potassium will also help maintain fluid balance, therefore performance, during exercise and for recovery afterward.
What you will want to eat and also what your stomach will be happiest with will depend on exercise choice too. Most people don’t do well with a heavy and fat-dense meal right before a bootcamp class full of high-intensity, short interval movements. Something more easily digestible will make you happier. Conversely, for a 10-mile run, your body will likely appreciate more than just a simple banana beforehand — some energy-sustaining fats like nuts or avocado about two hours prior will better help with endurance.
If working out in 1-3 hours
Choose a general, well-rounded small meal or filling snack with a good balance of carbs, proteins, and fats, such as oatmeal with berries and nut butter, salad with protein and fats, fruit and nut butter, avocado toast with egg, greek yogurt with fruit or granola, a small nutrient-dense smoothie, or a handful of nuts with fruits and veggies.
If working out in less than 30 mins
Choose something lighter and more carb-focused for some readily available glucose in your bloodstream, like some fruit or crackers, and make sure you are hydrated. It is better to have a bit of food prior to exercise, if you can comfortably stomach it.
Your body doesn’t really live paycheck to paycheck. It primarily uses yesterday’s paycheck (aka nutrients) that it stored in the organ piggy bank for today’s living, breathing, and exercise. So what to eat after a workout is crucial to replenishing energy (glycogen) in the bank for the next day.
Your metabolic rate is also raised post-workout, but that doesn’t only mean that you’re burning calories faster — your body’s processing systems are also working at high-speed, and it is very receptive to nutrition and recovery.
That being said, the everyday person (aka non-professional athlete) need not stress about stuffing beef jerky in his or her mouth within 30 minutes of a workout to attain that “anabolic window.” Nutrient timing can be a helpful tool, but it’s more important that you’re consistently eating nutritious food and exercising regularly. Eating a healthy post-workout meal or snack within 1-2 hours is a great goal to replenish glycogen, decrease protein breakdown, and increase protein synthesis; in other words, to refuel, preserve lean muscle, reduce soreness, and help your body’s ability to build new healthy tissue.
Below are some of my favorite quick-digesting smoothies, protein energy balls, toasts, and meal ideas that are nutritious choices for post-workout eats.
For more workout inspo, check out our day with Kelsey Wells: