Whenever I’m wondering what I should eat before or after a workout I always ask my friend Annie. She’s always got so much wisdom to share when it comes to eating for fitness, so I thought she’d be the perfect person to write a post here for us all about it. She’s just qualifying as a personal trainer and is about to go off to India to do her yoga teacher training, so she’s my exercise guru! I work out with her all the time and she’s just the best.
Over the last few years, I’ve been given so many bits of advice regarding nutrition in relation to exercise. It can be really hard to get your head round it all and there seems to be so much debate and varying schools of thought that it’s tricky to work out who to listen to. I’ve found the best way to approach exercise and nutrition is through trial and error – or rather trail and success – in order to find the best thing for my own body. That being said, it can be very difficult to even find a starting point so I want to equip you with a few of the things I have learned in my own journey in order to help you make sense of it all!
The truth is, for a moderate exerciser, there is no hard or fast rule about what to eat before and after exercising. A generally healthy lifestyle that includes a balanced and nutrient rich diet will help support our bodies when we work out, as well as in our busy lives. There really isn’t one meal that you ‘should’ have – it doesn’t need to be so prescriptive and it really can be flexible to suit everything going on in our lives.
But, there are a few key guidelines that you can focus on if you are looking to adjust your diet to support your workout schedule.
Before a workout you want to aim for the following:
- Include a moderate amount of carbohydrate and protein.
- Keep it relatively low in fat – too much fat before working out can make you feel sluggish as it takes longer to digest.
- Stick with familiar foods that you know your body tolerates well.
Carbohydrates provide our muscles with glycogen, which is broken down and converted to glucose for energy, providing fuel for our bodies. Therefore a low carb diet will ultimately effect stamina and impact your training. Combining complex (e.g. oats) and simple carbohydrates (e.g. fruit) will give you an energy kick as well as providing slow release energy. For example, a smoothie with banana, berries, oats, almond milk and a scoop of hemp protein powder would be great about 1-2 hours before working out, or a bowl of porridge with fruit.
Alternatively, you may choose to do starved cardio in the morning. Generally speaking this is mainly only advisable for medium intensity cardiovascular exercise such as a light jog as apposed to anything too intensive such as HIIT, weight or resistance training. However, it is very important to listen to your own body and regardless of what you choose to eat, always drink water.
If you are exercising after work it is so important to have an afternoon snack, otherwise the chances are you will let your blood sugar levels drop too low and it will really impact your workout, leaving you feeling exhausted and unable to really go for it! Sliced apple with a little nut butter works great, or some hummus and crudités. If you need something sweet to help you through the afternoon, dates or a handful of trail mix is great fuel to see you through.
After working out, you should look to eat a nutrient-rich meal that includes protein, carbohydrates, fiber and a little fat.
- Include a little fat – monosaturated fat increases the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K so it is important not to remove all fat from your diet to avoid nutrient deficiency.
- Complex carbohydrates help to restore your glycogen levels, which are depleted during a workout. Including something like sweet potato in your post-workout meal would be a great way to do this.
- Include a good protein source – it is essential for recovery!
The biggest uncertainty seems to lie with how much protein you need – those people that exclude meat, fish and eggs from their diet will have been asked the question a hundred times I’m sure! There are a lot of protein options, both animal and plant based, and 10-20g of protein in your meal after working out should be enough for our bodies to recover well from the sort of training most of us do. This is equivalent to 40g of hemp protein, three eggs, a can of kidney beans, 200g of quinoa or a small chicken fillet. There are so many sources that you can mix together to make a nutritious meal that suits your dietary choices and ensures that you are not missing out.
These are all just guidelines that I have learned and keep in the back of my mind over the course of a normal week. Unless you are a competitive athlete, there is no need to worry too much about being specific, counting macros or skipping out on treats from time to time! The key message I want you to take away from this is to not obsess over eating for exercise – as long as you get what you need throughout the day, it doesn’t matter that much. Listen to and get to know your body. Eat to nourish and fuel your body and allow yourself to enjoy your food too. Let your own experience be your guide and develop your own routine to fit in with your goals and lifestyle. And ALWAYS make sure you give yourself enough water – before, during and after exercise!