Knowing what to eat before and after a workout is important to seeing good results. You want to fuel your body with the right nutrition. Ideally, you’d like it to be the kind of food you would enjoy under any circumstances—and of course will enjoy more knowing you’re eating right to meet your fitness goals. What you eat post-workout is just as important. Giving your body the right recovery foods helps you reach your goals faster, and in a healthier way.
Eating before exercise gives you the best chance to get the most out of your training efforts. Not eating enough means your body won’t have the adequate energy it needs to sustain itself through strenuous physical activity, and can cause you to feel dizzy, lightheaded, nauseated, or suddenly lethargic mid-workout, causing you to run out of energy well before the last mile or that final rep. Because of these effects, it can also lead to injury, which can cost you precious weeks—or even months—of recovery time. Even outside of this worst-case scenario, it will definitely cut into your gains and minimize your results.
The ideal time to eat is around thirty minutes to three hours before your workout, depending on how heavy the meal (and subsequent workout) you’re planning on having. You don’t want your body’s energy to be focused on digesting a heavy or recent meal when you start training. This is a bit different for everyone, and you’ll probably learn the optimal time for you to eat pre-workout with a little trial and error. It should go without saying that hydration is key, and you want to ensure you’re drinking enough water or other replenishing beverage before, during, and after your workout.
It’s about balance. Carbs will give you energy. When eaten, they convert into glucose, enter our blood stream and muscle cells, and fuel our bodies to exercise at optimal levels. Muscles store glucose in the form of glycogen, and call on these glycogen reserves when exerted. Eating carbohydrates before a workout starts the glucose-to-glycogen conversion process, and ensures your muscles will have access to that fuel if they should need it.
You’ll know if you run out of glycogen—you'll suddenly feel weaker, tired, and may be tempted to cut your workout short. Good carbs to consume before a workout would be along the lines of granola or a well-balanced energy bar (watch for refined and hidden sugars), fruit, oatmeal, or even a few pieces of multigrain bread or toast.
Your body will also need protein—especially if you’re doing weight training, and this becomes even more important for a “heavy day” workout. Strength training creates small tears in muscle fibers, which your body repairs during downtime, building them bigger and stronger than they were pre-workout. Your body needs adequate protein to do this. Pre-workout, you’ll want to look for sources of protein that are easy to digest. Good options are nuts, Greek yogurt, turkey or lean beef, and eggs.
Post-workout, you’ll need to replenish the glycogen that you’ve depleted during exercise, which means more carbohydrates. You’ll also need plenty of protein for speedy muscle recovery, and you’ll need to replenish electrolytes (which your neurons need to function properly), which are lost to sweat. This means refueling with a mixture of complex carbohydrates and protein.
Good complex carbohydrates break down slowly, giving your body time to convert them to glucose and then glycogen, and are high in healthy protein. Good examples here include things like quinoa, brown rice, nuts, and whole wheat bread. If you’ve done weight training, you’ll want to pile on additional healthy proteins, like tofu, beans, and fish.
If you’re an athlete or workout exceptionally hard, you’ll likely need more protein, especially if you’re going after big muscle gains. Increase your protein intake accordingly, and when in doubt, consult with a dietician or a personal trainer, who have the knowledge to recommend specific meal plans for your unique needs.
Everyone's body is different and will have specific needs and preferences—you may find that your needs are a bit different, and you should listen to your body. If you’re running out of energy mid-workout, increase your carbohydrate intake before training. If you’re feeling sluggish or tired after, you may want to (again) add carbohydrate to what you’re eating, or eat more of it, to make sure your body has adequate fuel reserves for the rest of your day.
If you’re not seeing the kind of muscle gains you expect, and you’re lifting enough weight to feel a bit sore the day or so after training, you may need more protein. If you’re a competitive athlete, bear in mind that it’s always best to make any nutritional changes during training, and not on a day where you’re competing.