You may not put a ton of thought into what you're eating before and after a workout. But by getting your timing and food selection in sync with your activity, you can maximize your energy throughout the day. When working out for health and well-being, we need to think about caloric and nutrient distribution throughout the day. That is what keeps our immune system functioning well and our insulin and blood-sugar levels more even.
Here are some of the best pre- and post-workout foods to stock up on, and the best times to eat them.
Morning exercisers often make the mistake of thinking they can burn more calories by jumping out of bed and into the gym without stopping for breakfast. The problem with this thought process is that a good night’s sleep inevitably leaves your blood sugar low and your liver glycogen close to depleted. This translates into a weaker workout.
Fuel up in the morning before you hit the gym with just enough food to reap the benefits: Consume at least 25 grams (100 calories) of carbohydrates before hitting the gym and then eat a solid breakfast afterward.
Before a morning workout, eat:
- A few crackers
- ½ banana
- Orange juice
- Water (or bring this with you): Studies show that 50 percent of people walking into their morning workout are already dehydrated. Make sure you rise and shine with some fluid to maximize your efforts in the gym.
After your workout:
Eat a good post-workout breakfast. Exercise may initially inhibit appetite, but it stimulates appetite over time, especially for women. If you skip breakfast after you work out, you will be hungrier later and likely to eat more calories later in the day.
Remember to distribute calories evenly throughout the day by taking your total and dividing it up. Two-thirds of your calories should be consumed by two-thirds of your day. If you need 2,000 calories, the meal after you work out will be about 300 to 600 calories, depending upon how you use snacks.
Breakfast after your workout depends on your size and the intensity and duration of exercise, but here are some “core” healthy breakfast ideas to enjoy after a workout:
- Eggs, 2 pieces of whole-grain toast, OJ
- Oatmeal with berries and nuts, tall glass of milk
- Whole-grain waffle with cottage cheese and berries on top
If you eat a good breakfast in the morning and a snack around 10 a.m., you will be well-fueled for a midday workout. Afterward, eat a reasonable lunch at your desk. A meal that promotes recovery includes protein to help stimulate muscle growth and carbohydrate to replenish depleted muscle stores. These are good examples of starch and protein combos:
- Salad with lean protein (chicken), beans and veggies, salad dressing
- Sandwich with soup
Breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack around 4 p.m. prepares you for a hard, post-work workout.
Recognize if lunch was at noon and work ends at 6 p.m, that's six hours without fueling. By the time you are done working out and get dinner ready, you will be famished for food, so that afternoon snack is important to remaining sane. Your workout will benefit, as will your mood. Remember, this snack helps to “bridge the hunger gap” until dinner:
- Mixed fruit bowl with yogurt and a few nuts
- Low-fat or nonfat latte and a Kashi granola bar
- Banana with peanut butter
- Trail mix
After your evening workout, eat dinner. You’ve earned it! If you skip dinner, you will be hungry tomorrow. Plus, eating helps recovery. However, if you have eaten well all day, dinner need not be a pig-out, but another reasonable meal sure to keep you satisfied as well as healthy. Here are some ideas of what to eat after an evening workout:
Dinner after you work out:
- Shrimp stir-fry, brown rice
- Sweet potato, 4 oz. sliced steak, broccoli
- 1 cup penne pasta with 4 oz. chicken and spinach in oil
Avoid certain foods before a workout
These foods can interfere with your workout:
- Spicy foods
- Broccoli or beans
- High-fat foods
- High-protein foods
Even if a food is healthy, it does not mean it makes a good pre-workout snack. Spicy and gaseous foods just don’t work. High-fat and high-protein foods can hurt your workout because they take longer to digest. If you’re going for a longer cardio workout, like a bike ride or run in the heat, protein can elevate your basal temperature, adding to the heat workload.
The basic rule of thumb is: The closer to activity, the smaller the amount of food you should consume. Because of the time it takes to digest a full, mixed meal, you should eat a true “pregame” meal three to four hours before you exercise. The closer you get to your workout, the smaller the amount of food you should consume.
You can eat right up to exercise as long as you can eat some simple carbohydrate. If you eat a full mixed-meal that includes plenty of fat and protein, blood will be diverted to digestion instead of your working muscles. If you are lifting hard, some protein before, during and after may be beneficial for hypertrophy.