To get the most out of your workout, you need to fine-tune the foods you choose to eat before exercising, and then make some key choices to help with recovery after your workout. Olympic athletes know this, and that’s why you no longer see high-sugar sodas and burgers on their daily meal plan!
They’ve been replaced with simple foods that provide energy on demand, such as a peanut butter sandwich and skim milk before exercise, and tomato vegetable soup with tofu for recovery after exercise.
Pre-exercise and post-exercise nutrition is now a science, and you must take into account the duration and level of your workout. Gender is a factor; men will typically need larger portion sizes. Of course, hydration is also crucial to maximal performance and post-exercise recovery. About 16 ounces of water before a workout is a good rule of thumb, especially if you don’t drink water during your workout.
Carbohydrates Provide Energy
Best Carb Bites: Foods like oatmeal, berries, sweet potatoes, and beans are good sources of complex carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates provide the fuel or energy for your workouts. Complex carbohydrates are your best choice. Once digested, they provide the raw material (glucose) that becomes readily available in the form of blood glucose. When your blood is fully saturated with sugar, the rest is stored as easy-to-access glycogen in the muscles.
As soon as you begin to exercise, your body will access whatever sugar is in your blood stream and then it will begin to use glycogen. Once these two are exhausted, the body begins to burn fat for fuel.
Women should aim for about 20 to 30 grams of carbohydrates in a light pre-workout meal (about 80 to 120 calories), while men should target about 30 to 45 grams of carbohydrates (about 120 to 180 calories). But carbohydrates aren’t the only thing you need.
Protein Supports Weight Training & Helps to Preserve Muscle
Best Protein Bites: The most common choices are whey protein, egg protein, soy protein, whole milk protein, and casein protein.
You need to eat protein because its breakdown components, amino acids, support muscle mass and muscle growth. There’s ongoing debate about the best protein choices to eat before and after your workout. Since many athletes prefer a light shake or smoothie, whey protein powder is probably the most popular choice, followed by soy protein.
After your workout, studies have shown that low-fat chocolate milk is an excellent replenishing snack, with its balance of carbohydrates and protein. But whey protein digests faster than the casein protein in milk, which is another reason why whey protein is preferred by many athletes. You can also find mixed whey/soy protein powder, sort of “the best of two worlds” approach to post-workout nutrition.
Your local supermarket or health food store has a variety of these protein powder options, and you can also find a wide selection of nutrition bars with whey or soy protein isolate. There’s no need to drink egg yolks like Rocky Balboa, but you can eat a hard-boiled egg or cook up a few egg whites combined with vegetables.
Pre-Workout Best Bites
Your goal is to eat a snack or mini-meal about an hour before your workout. Thirty minutes before your workout is next best, in terms of timing. Aim for between 100 to 300 calories (based on gender) and eat a mix of complex carbohydrates and protein. Some good choices:
- Oatmeal and berries
- Whole grain waffle with nut butter and some banana slices
- Greek yogurt and whole grain cereal and berries
- Raw vegetables and hummus
- Baked whole grain crackers and low-fat cheese
- Cottage cheese and apple slices
- Nuts and dried fruit
- Smoothie with whey protein, fruit, low-calorie almond milk
Post-Workout Best Bites
Here’s where the conversation gets a little more complicated. If you are trying to lose weight, you may not need a specific post-workout meal or snack. You can just hydrate with water or unsweetened tea, or if necessary, with a low calorie electrolyte replacement drink, and then replenish fully at the next meal, especially if you ate a pre-workout snack.
If your workout is very strenuous, and especially if you also include heavy weight-lifting in your routine, a small post-workout snack consumed within an hour after training is probably best. Your muscles are technically “damaged, depleted, and biochemically primed for nutrition.” The post-workout snack goal is to replenish glycogen stores and shuttle protein to your muscles.
Post-workout snacks in this case can contain twice as much protein as carbohydrate (2:1 ratio). Remember that configuration if you decide to choose one of the snacks from the pre-workout list. And don’t forget to determine just how many calories are appropriate within your day’s total calorie allotment.
Additional post-workout snack choices:
- Half of a whole grain pita with shredded chicken and hummus
- Salad with beans and shredded low fat cheese
- Tuna and baked crackers
- High-protein cereal and skim milk
- Egg and egg-white omelet with vegetables
- Low-fat chocolate milk
Don’t Forget These Workout Helpers
If you’re making a smoothie, consider adding a banana or mango to help boost your pre-workout, or replenish your post-workout, potassium levels. Eating pineapple can help with muscle pain or inflammation, thanks to one of its active compounds, bromelain.
Adding ginger to a smoothie can also help limit soreness, since it too helps to reduce inflammation and mitigate pain. Making a smoothie with green tea in addition to whey protein, yogurt, and berries is a delicious post-workout snack or light meal!
About the Author
Known as The HealthGal (www.healthgal.com), contributing health expert and blogger, Amy Hendel, is a popular medical and lifestyle reporter, lifestyle expert, columnist and spokesperson. Trained as a physician assistant and nutritionist, she maintains a private practice as a health coach.
Her first book, Fat Families Thin Families (BenBella Publishers, 2008), offers a team approach to helping families cope with obesity and related health issues. The newest edition, The 4 Habits of Healthy Families, is available at bookstores and online.
Amy is a featured host of Healthination’s What’s for Lunch?, Food Rescue and Simple Smoothies. She’s been a guest on Today, Good Morning America, FOX News, The Early Show, Rachel Ray, The 700 Club, EXTRA, and national and local news and talk shows. Past producer and host of healthy home segments on HouseSmarts, Amy has also hosted Westwood One’s Good Eating Good Living, Lifetime’s Stories on the Beach, and the PBS medical talk shows HealthZone and Doctors on Call.