As a personal trainer, I get asked all the time about what to eat before and after a workout. The answer? Just like the answer to pretty much any fitness/health related question: it depends.
In this post, I will break down your best strategies to optimize performance and recovery and give you practical recommendations on what/how to eat before, during and after exercise.
If you are a regular exerciser, you probably don't need any strategies regarding your workout nutrition. By eating a healthy balanced meal 1-2 hours before and a healthy balanced meal 1-2 hours after working out. you should be good to go.
Athletes do have special nutritional needs.
An endurance athlete who trains for competition and trains many hours during the week will most likely need more carbs and overall calories. These people could benefit from having a protein and carb source during their workout.
A bodybuilder or power lifter or someone with a serious goal of muscle building could also benefit from an intra-workout meal consisting of protein and carbs, as their protein needs may be higher.
FOR EVERYONE ELSE, your focus should always be on food quality and quantity.
This applies to you if you exercise for general health and fitness and have more modest goals. You should be eating minimally processed protein, veggies, complex high quality carbs and healthy fats. Eat a sensible portion for your size and eat slowly, especially before a workout. Speaking from personal experience - don't brush that last tip off!
We hear a lot about nutrient timing - when to eat our carbs, protein, fat surrounding a workout. For most people who exercise for general health and fitness, this is not very important. Don't stress about it.
For others, it helps to have an outline and helps them to make good food choices.
Nutrient timing can be a helpful tool, but again everyone is different. Someone who has just started exercising and who sits behind a desk all day does not have the same needs as an endurance athlete so for the former, it could become a stressful distraction.
WHAT TO EAT BEFORE A WORKOUT
In the hours before training, you will want to eat something that will help give you energy, hydrate you, preserve muscle mass and speed recovery.
To keep it simple, protein and carbs are important. Go ahead and have some healthy fat too, but it is not of the same priority.
For example, 2-3 hours before working out a woman might have a serving of protein, a serving of healthy carbs, 1/2 a serving of fat and a serving of vegetables. A man might have 2 servings of protein / carbs, depending on his goals and size.
If you are eating closer to training (0-1 hour before), you will probably scale back the meal and have a smoothie or a shake (one of the few times a protein supplement is useful). This could include some fruit, a handful of spinach, a scoop of protein, a tablespoon of fat (peanut butter), and water or almond milk (or nut milk of choice).
For many people, even this may feel like too much, especially if you work out early in the day. If this is true, I advise you to try just a banana or maybe a banana with some peanut butter and see how you feel with that. Often we need to use trial and error to learn what works for us. Many people choose to train fasted, and that is fine too if that is what works for you. If so, your post-workout nutrition needs will vary a little.
No matter what, drink water!
WHAT TO EAT AFTER A WORKOUT
Your post-workout meal can help you recover, hydrate and refuel.
Protein and carbs should be prioritized because they will your body restore glycogen and increase / maintain muscle tissue. Again, have some fat too - remember we want to build balanced meals!
Timing: You don't need to run immediately to the kitchen after working out, but it is optimal to eat something within 2 hours post-workout for recovery. If your pre-workout meal was hours before or very small, it is probably best to eat sooner rather than later. If you had your pre-workout meal closer to your training, you have some more time (1-2 hours) and can still make the most of the benefits of post-workout nutrition.
As an example of what you might eat: A woman might have a serving of protein, a serving of quality carbs, a serving of veggies and 1/2 to 1 serving of fat. Again, a man or a larger woman might increase to 2 servings depending on goal and size. If you do not feel hungry, you can wait a little while, and even have a smaller meal such as a smoothie or shake.
You do not need to drink protein shakes. I wanted to add this in because we hear so often about the "importance of protein shakes," which is honestly just silly and can be very confusing when every gym has a full menu of shake options (Remember - this is just about selling and making money - not really about helping anyone nutritionally). It is important to consume protein, yes. However we should always be aiming to get our nutrients from real, unprocessed or minimally processed sources. This contributes to our overall health, not just our fitness goals.
To summarize, there is no magic formula for what to eat before or after a workout. Everyone's needs are different and everyone's body reacts differently to certain foods. By incorporating some of these suggestions, you can make the most of your workout and maximize your recovery. But don't stress if you just don't feel like eating before a workout. Nothing bad will happen. Fitness should not be stressful and neither should eating.
If these strategies fit your life and work for you - great! If not, that's great too.
The important thing is to always try to eat real unprocessed food as often as possible and enjoy your fitness and your food!