Whether you hit the gym to lose weight, build muscle or train for your first 10K, food is the fuel that will help you reach your goals.
“Eating the right foods improves your energy, your exercise performance and your body’s ability to recover, adapt and get fitter from your workouts,” says Tara DelloIacono Thies, a registered dietitian and nutrition strategist with Clif Bar & Company.
So what are the right foods? Here’s a look at the best things to eat before, during and after your workouts:
Proper pre-workout nutrition is like filling up your car with gas before heading out on a road trip. In our body, that gas equates to glycogen, carbohydrates stored in your muscles and liver, as well as blood glucose, DelloIacono Thies says. During long-duration and high-intensity exercise, glycogen and blood glucose are your body’s primary fuel source, accounting for up to 80-plus percent of your energy production.
That explains why a 2013 review published in Sports Medicine concluded that pre-workout carb ingestion improves both endurance and high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, performances – and better performances yield better results. And in one Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise study, people who fueled up with carbs enjoyed their workouts more.
Meanwhile, getting some protein in can also prove beneficial, especially if you’re trying to build muscle, she says. While people generally think about protein in terms of post-workout recovery (more on that later), research published in The American Journal of Physiology, Endocrinology, and Metabolism found that ingesting protein before exercise is similarly effective in supplying the muscles with amino acids for repair and growth.
To fill up your tank, DelloIacono Thies recommends first focusing on whatever meal will precede your workout. “If you are working out at 4 p.m., your lunch is going to be a huge factor in determining your energy levels and performance,” she says. “Pay attention to your foundational nutrition first.”
Then, if you either plan to work out for more than an hour or you just have a large gap between your mealtimes and workouts, supplementing with a small snack that’s rich in carbs and contains a moderate amount of protein can help ensure you hit the gym feeling energized. Fruit and eggs, oatmeal, whole-wheat toast with jam and fig bars, for example, are great options. While most weekend warriors don’t need additional sports nutrition, those gearing up for long endurance exercise sessions like marathon training runs may also require a quick dose of pure carbs right before hitting the start line. That’s where energy gels and chews from companies including Gatorade, Clif, PowerBar and Honey Stinger come into play.
However, finding the right timing and food volume for you requires some trial and error. Every person’s gastric system tolerates pre-workout food differently, says board-certified sports dietitian and registered dietitian Georgie Fear. “Some people can eat right before exercising, especially if the activity is low or moderate intensity. Other people will need more time to digest in order to be comfortable during their exercise,” she says. “What to eat is also a factor: Carbohydrates from a sports drink are rapidly absorbed, while solid food like a bar or toast with peanut butter will need a bit more time. Lastly, consider how much jostling your innards are in for. Running tends to give people a harder time than cycling.”
Whatever your workout, hydration is of utmost importance. Losing even 2 percent of your body weight in water is linked to drops in workout performance and intensity, Fear says. While the amount you sweat largely determines how much water you need to drink, it’s a good rule of thumb to drink about 8 ounces of water every 15 minutes when exercising.
To personalize that number, try weighing yourself before and after your workouts. If your “after” weight is 2-plus percent lighter than your “before” weight, you need to drink more water. For instance, if you weigh 170 pounds, losing any more than 3.4 pounds during your workout is a sign of dehydration. If it looks like you’re ending your workouts dehydrated, drink more water while you work until you lose minimal if any weight during your workouts.
However, if you find yourself exercising for more than 90 minutes, whether you’re completing strength and power work with breaks between sets or straight-through aerobic work, it’s a good idea to have some carbohydrates, Fear says. That’s especially true if you’re feeling your energy wane. Both she and DelloIacono Thies recommend consuming between 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour during exercise bouts lasting more than 90 minutes. Exactly where your needs fall in that range depends on exercise intensity and personal preference, but getting enough carbohydrates (ideally split between glucose, fructose and maltodextrin) improves performance and endurance, decreases fatigue and helps prevent exercise-induced immunosuppression.
“A simple rule of thumb many of my female athletes use is one sports gel, one banana or 1 ounce of dried fruit every 45 minutes after the 90 minute mark,” Fear says. However, sports drinks like Gatorade also contain carbohydrates that count toward that 30- to 60-gram range. Avoid consuming more carbs than you actually need during your workout, as excess food intake can lead to stomach upset as well as caloric surpluses, which could work against any weight-loss efforts. Again, sports gels and chews can be vital to getting in the needed carbohydrates without also consuming protein and fat, both of which can slow digestion and contribute to stomach upset during endurance exercise.
You need to eat after long or intense workouts to optimally recover your energy stores and build muscle, but exactly how much you should eat immediately after your workout largely depends on how hungry you feel, Fear says. Post-workout nutrition can range from a full, three-course meal to a glass of chocolate milk. Research from Central Washington University shows that chocolate milk’s 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein is ideal for post-workout muscle recovery.
Another good thing about chocolate milk or even protein shakes or branded recovery drinks, for that matter, is that besides fueling your body with carbs and protein, they help improve hydration, which is typically necessary following exercise, DelloIacono Thies says.
Other whole-food recovery options include turkey sandwiches, toast topped with nut butter and a sliced banana as well as stir-fries that include a mix of protein, rice and veggies, Fear says. They all contain a healthy mix of carbohydrates for energy repletion, protein for muscle-building and healthy fats for optimum satiety and staying power.