Want to get the most out of your workout? What you eat before and after plays a role in both how hard you’re able to work as well as how fast you recover. But before you run out and buy all the pre- and post-workout supplements, know that real food works just as well, if not better.
What and how much you need to eat before or after you exercise depends on a variety of factors:
- When was the last time you ate?
- How long do you have between your meal/snack and your workout? For example early morning exercisers might only have 10-15 minutes to let food digest whereas other times of the day you might have up to an hour.
- What kind of workout are you doing? Is it high intensity (HIIT classes, spin classes, running, swimming, hard strength workout) or is it more moderate (lower impact classes like yoga, barre, pilates, walking, moderate strength workout)?
- How long is your workout — more or less than 60 minutes?
- Gender and age.
Regardless of the above, the most important nutrient to support exercise is carbohydrates. In general, before a workout, you want to eat quickly digested carbohydrates to get the energy to your muscles as fast as possible. This includes refined grains like white bread or rice, low-fiber fruit like bananas, dried fruit like dates or raisins, or low-fiber cereal. It’s best to limit any foods that are high in fiber, fat, or protein before a workout, especially when you have a short amount of time between eating and exercise or for workouts that involve running, jumping, or other activities that may lead to digestive upset. If you have at least one hour to digest your food, including small amounts of protein and fat may be helpful to give you consistent energy for exercise. This could be an apple with a small amount of peanut butter or yogurt with fruit and granola.
If you’ve eaten recently (in the last 2-3 hours), you may not even need any fuel before exercise, especially for lower intensity workouts or those that are shorter than 60-90 minutes. For longer workouts, topping off your carbohydrate stores about an hour before a workout can be helpful.
After longer, high-intensity exercise, eat a mix of carbohydrates (to replenish your lost energy stores) and protein (to help promote muscle repair) within about an hour of finishing your workout. This not only starts the recovery process, but also helps reduce getting “hangry” later in the day. However, unless you’re a professional athlete or training for an endurance race in which you are exercising for several hours a day or doing two workouts in a day, you don’t need to worry so much about the ratio of protein to carbohydrates or the exact window of eating. Backing your workouts into a mealtime such as breakfast or dinner works well for many people, and as long as you’re eating a balanced diet, you’ll get the nutrients you need.
If you don’t have a meal planned or struggle to eat after a longer, more intense workout, BeBOLD bars can actually be a perfect recovery food — they contain the right balance of protein and carbohydrates along with a little sodium to help replenish any sodium lost in sweat. Another good option is a fruit and yogurt smoothie.
Fruits and vegetables can also play an important role in exercise recovery as they provide vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that may reduce inflammation and enhance the recovery process. If they aren’t appealing immediately after a workout, just make sure you’re eating both at meals throughout the day.
Lastly, if you sweat a lot during your workout, make sure to rehydrate with plenty of water!
Bottom line: What you eat can not only enhance your workout, but also play a role in your recovery. It’s most important to consider for longer, higher-intensity workouts, and each person’s exact needs are unique. If you want to improve your nutrition for training, working with a registered dietitian can be helpful!
Sarah Gold Anzlovar, MS, RDN, LDN is a registered dietitian and the owner of Sarah Gold Nutrition, a virtual private practice and nutrition communications consulting business in the suburbs of Boston. She empowers busy moms to learn to eat to feel their best without the stress.