Foods to Eat Before and After a Workout
If you are looking to get the most out of your training, what you eat before and after a workout is just as important as the exercise itself. This is true whether you are using exercise for weight loss, simply to stay healthy, or an athlete looking to boost performance. So what are the best pre- and post- workout meals? To answer that question let’s first take a look at what happens physiologically during exercise.
While at rest, the body primarily relies on stored fat for energy. Its two prefered fuel sources are fats and carbs. Fat is more energy dense, meaning that a gram of fat can be converted into more ATP (adenosine triphosphate) than a gram of carbohydrate, but carbs (glucose) are by far the most convenient fuel source. Compared to fat, carbs can be converted into ATP quite rapidly. The metabolic pathway that converts fat into ATP is complicated and slow. Therefore, the body saves most of its carbohydrate stores for times of need, such as the demands of exercise, and relies mostly on stored fat during rest.
As soon as you begin working out, the body’s need for rapid energy increases. It no longer has the time to convert fat into fuel and, as a result, switches to breaking down stored carbohydrates — also called glycogen. During low intensity activity, your body may still be burning some fat, but the ratio of fat to carbs is flipped.
Low intensity exercise includes activities such as walking, hiking, jogging, yoga, rock climbing, and kayaking. High intensity activities (which place a higher demand on your glycogen stores) include activities such as weight lifting, sprinting, spinning/biking, high intensity interval training (HIIT), and crossfit. (Think of it this way–the more difficult it is to carry on a conversation during an activity, the greater the intensity and subsequent reliance on glycogen for fuel). Once glycogen stores are depleted, the body switches back to converting fat into ATP, but making this switch can be challenging. It’s common to experience extreme fatigue once glycogen stores have been depleted – an experience many refer to as “hitting the wall.”
The amount of time it takes for this to happen depends on how long you are working out, how intensely, and how well trained your muscles are. During high intensity exercise, the body requires large amounts of ATP in a short amount of time. This means that it relies heavily, if not exclusively, on glycogen stored in the muscles and in the liver. (Muscle glycogen provides energy exclusively to the surrounding muscle tissue. Liver glycogen is broken down to glucose that enters the bloodstream and is delivered to muscles.) Training increases your ability to store glycogen – which thereby increases your strength, speed, and endurance. An untrained muscle can store approximately 13 grams of glycogen, while a trained muscle can store about 32 grams. That’s almost three times as much glycogen!
In summary, during exercise, your body begins to more rapidly deplete both its carbohydrate and fat stores. If you work out intensely enough, it may also start to break down muscle. This is especially the case if you are engaging in some sort of strength building. During strength training, the stress on the muscle stimulates the cells in the tissue to begin the repair process, resulting in increased muscle mass and strength. From a nutritional standpoint, this means that it’s important to consume the proper ratio of carbs, fat, and protein to match the type of exercise you are doing.
Okay, so now that you have an understanding of what’s happening during exercise, let’s take a look at what to eat before and after a workout.
You don’t need much in order to be adequately fueled for a 60-minute workout. If you feel you need a snack, try to grab something 45 minutes to an hour before you start moving. This will give your body enough time to digest and convert your food into useful fuel.
Try to keep this pre-workout snack light, but include some carbs, some protein, and a small amount of fat. The carbs will help make sure your glycogen stores are fully stocked and your blood sugar levels are topped off, the protein will help support your muscles by preventing excessive muscle catabolism (breakdown) during exercise, and the fat will help you feel satiated without consuming a large quantity of food. To help you with portioning, think a palmful of carbs, ½ a palmful of protein, and ¼ palmful of fat. Below are a few great pre-workout meals. If you are training for 2 hours or more you can still use these same snacks, but may want to slightly increase the portion size, making sure to leave enough time to digest your larger snack before working out.
Simple Meals/ Snacks
Fun Recipes: Pre-Workout Meals/ Snacks
Given that most of us are not athletes training to the point of exhaustion multiple times a day, what and when you eat post-workout is more important than what you eat pre-workout. Generally speaking though, you need less to re-fuel than most people think. You just need to make sure you get in some carbs to rebuild glycogen, some protein to support muscle repair and growth, and some fat to satiate you.
If you worked out for less than 60 minutes or at a low intensity, simply use your next meal to re-fuel. If training at a high intensity, for longer than 2 hours, or lifting weights, aim to consume something small 30 minutes to 1 hour after working out. This is the window of time in which glycogen and muscle replacement happens most efficiently. Ideally, you should look to consume a 3:1 ratio of carbs to protein in order to maximize recovery. Getting enough carbs is especially important for people who exercise for long periods of time, at high intensity, or more than once a day – although the importance of this is decreased if you have 1-2 rest days in between workouts (remember recovery is all about restoring glycogen and rebuilding muscle). In order to initiate muscle repair, especially if you were lifting weights or engaging in some other muscle building activity, you should aim to consume 20-40 grams of protein post-workout.
If you like numbers, a general guideline to follow post-workout is 80 grams of carbs, 30 grams of protein, and 6 grams of fat. In regards to calories, a 60-minute workout will require about 150-200 calories post workout, while a 90-minute workout will require about 200-250 calories. Additionally, it’s preferable to consume easily digestible foods in order to promote faster nutrient absorption and utilization.
Generally speaking, the best post-workout foods are very similar to what you might snack on prior to working out. Below are a few great options:
150 – 200 calories – for 60-minute workout recovery
200-250 calories – for 90+ minute workout recovery
In addition to consuming a small snack post workout to optimize recovery, you can also use your next meal to help your body refuel. If you are an endurance athlete you will require more carbohydrates, while strength-based athletes will require more protein. Below are a few ideas for your post-workout meal.
Post-Workout Meals – Breakfast
Post-Workout Meals – Lunch/ Dinner
While getting the proper nutrients is important for post-workout recovery, it’s also important not to over-consume if your goal is weight loss or weight maintenance. This is something that women in particular need to be mindful of. Interestingly, if women burn 600 calories or more during their workout, their hunger levels will skyrocket and they will often end up consuming more than they burned. Therefore, it’s important for women in particular to be mindful that they don’t overindulge after working out. For some reason, this doesn’t typically happen with men. Science has yet to figure out exactly why, but the best guess we have is that the female body is particularly sensitive to stress since it needs to be capable of growing a child — something that places huge energy demands on the body.
Below are a few tips to help ward off hunger and to avoid consuming more calories than you burned.
Eat within 30 minutes of working out
Exercise suppresses appetite in the short term, but can leave you ravenous if you wait too long to eat. Consuming a small snack within that precious 30 minute window can prevent you from wanting to eat everything in site as soon as hunger kicks in. If you are exercising as part of a weight loss plan, try to schedule your workouts so that you can eat a meal rather than an additional snack post-workout.
Protein stimulates the release of satiety hormone PYY and prevents the release of ghrelin (your hunger hormone).
Hold onto a water bottle for the hour or two after you finish working out. This will make sure you rehydrate properly and will prevent you from mistaking thirst for hunger. Proper hydration is also a crucial part of recovery, so this one is a win win. You prevent yourself from overeating and help facilitate a quick recovery.
Avoid mentally rewarding yourself with food
It’s tempting to reward yourself for all your hard work with a treat, but avoid the mentality that “you earned it.” You will never be able to outrun your fork, and generally people far overestimate the amount of calories they burned during a workout and far underestimate the number of calories in food – especially energy dense foods like frappuccinos and french fries. During your post-workout meal, eat until you are full, but don’t use your workout as an excuse to treat yourself to a huge slice of coffee cake.
If you do find yourself looking for a little reward, perhaps treat yourself to a nice bath, a pedicure, or a low calorie treat such as unsweetened iced tea, or a MealEnder (just 15 calories). These low-calorie (or calorie-free!) options will allow you to feel rewarded without undoing all your hard work.
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MealEnders are only 15 calories per lozenge, plus they help feel satiated! They are the perfect way to have your treat and enjoy it without feeling any guilt. Plus, they won’t leave you craving more sweets after you finish.