Working out isn’t all about losing weight. In addition to slimming your waistline, research suggest that regular exercise can help reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. And staying active has also been linked to improved sleep, energy, and mood.
I’m sure it comes as no surprise that what you eat before and after your workout is extremely important. Fueling your fitness with the proper nutrition will help to maximize the benefits of all your hard work at the gym. As a registered dietitian, here are the top tips I give my patients regarding eating right for your workout.
1. Carbs are good.
Carbs = energy. When we eat them, they break down into glucose, enter our muscle cells, and give us fuel to exercise at our maximum capacity. If you’re strapped for glucose during your workout, you’ll likely feel weak, tired, and tempted to call it quits and take a nap. Before a workout, it’s good to eat simple carbohydrates, because they are digested fast and provide quick energy. Examples include: A granola bar, a piece of fruit, oatmeal, Greek yogurt (this contains carbs and protein), dried fruit, crackers, a rice cake, and a piece of toast.
2. And don’t forget about protein.
In addition to carbs, it’s a good idea to consume a little bit of protein before your workout—especially if you are doing weight training. When we exercise (i.e. lift weights), we create small tears in our muscle fibers. Protein helps those muscles heal and grow stronger, which ultimately is the goal. Examples of protein include: nuts, Greek yogurt, a slice of turkey, a hardboiled egg, and milk/soy milk.
3. Timing is everything.
The ideal time to eat is between 30 minutes to three hours before your workout. Having said that, this can be customized. You may have to experiment to see which timeframe does your body good. If you’re working out first thing in the morning, you probably won’t be able to eat a whole meal before you hit the gym. A small snack or mini-breakfast should suffice. I like to start sipping on this protein-packed green smoothie 30 minutes to an hour before I hit the gym, and finish the other half when I’m done. If you are exercising later in the day, I recommend having a 100- to 150-calorie snack 30 minutes to an hour before your workout, OR working out 2-3 hours after a well-balanced meal.
4. Drink up.
It’s best to get your body hydrated before you even think about heading to the gym. One way to determine your overall hydration status is to check out the color of your urine first thing in the morning. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, lemonade-colored urine is a sign of appropriate hydration, while dark colored urine (think apple juice), indicates a deficit in H20. While there is no-one-size-fits-all method to determining fluid needs and exercise, a good place to start is drinking about 2 cups of water 2 to 3 hours before exercise and 1 cup of water 10 to 20 minutes before working out. The goal here is to minimize dehydration without overdoing it. You should try to also stay hydrated throughout your workout. Consider drinking 1 cup of water for every 15-30 minutes of intense physical activity, especially if you are sweating profusely or are training in a heated environment. Again, this may take a bit of experimentation until you find what works best for your body.
Here are a few pre-workout snack and meal ideas I recommend:
- Snack: A smoothie with 1 cup of fruit and 2 cups of vegetables or this protein-packed green smoothie recipe (drink half before the workout and half after)
- Snack: An apple or pear with 1 tablespoon of nut butter
- Snack: ¾ cup of Greek yogurt with 1 tablespoon granola and ½ cup of berries
- Snack: 2 tablespoons of dried fruit and 1 tablespoon of raw, unsalted nuts
- Snack: 100-calorie granola bar
- Snack: 1-2 rice cakes topped with 1 tablespoon of nut butter
- Meal: Oatmeal with a tablespoon of peanut butter and ½ cup of fruit
- Meal: 4-ounces of baked salmon, ¾ cup of brown rice, with 1 cup of roasted veggies
1. Make sure to eat something…soon.
You need to eat after a workout. Period. For one, it’s important to replenish the glycogen that has been depleted during your exercise. Secondly, eating protein after a workout is a must for a speedy muscle recovery (particularly after weight training). If you aren’t able to eat a full meal right away, have a snack within 20 minutes of your training, then a full meal 3 to 4 hours later. Your post-workout meal should be high in complex carbohydrates like quinoa and brown rice, and loaded with healthy protein, like tofu, beans, or fish.
2. Don’t overcompensate.
Here’s the thing, it’s really easy to overdo it with your post-workout snacks, and end up eating or drinking more calories than you actually burned. That’s fine if you are trying to gain weight, but for folks who want to lose, this is counterproductive. Skip the energy drinks, bars, sugary smoothies, and smoothie bowls at the gym juice bar. You don’t need ‘em. Try to keep your post-workout snack under 150 calories and your post-workout meal under 500.
3. Athletes: Your protein needs may be increased.
For athletes doing intense weight training for long periods of time (45 to 90 minutes), you may require a little bit of extra protein (especially if your goal is to build muscle). You can customize your protein needs using this simple formula:
- Divide your weight by 2.2 to get kilograms
- Multiply that number multiplying by 0.4 and 0.5. to get a range of recommended protein intake
Okay so let’s do the math. If you weigh 130 pounds, divide that by 2.2 and you’ll get 59 kilograms. Then multiply that number by 0.4 and 0.5 to get a protein range. In this case, it’s 24 to 30 grams. Keep in mind that 4-ounces of chicken has 30 grams of protein, so these numbers aren’t that hard to achieve if you have a meal immediately after working out. Remember that these protein calculations are used determine protein needs for athletes doing intense resistance training for long periods of time. For those of us who do a cute (but equally tough!) 25 minutes on the treadmill and 20 minutes in the weight room, our protein needs may not be as high, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
4. Rehydrate ASAP.
Getting enough water after exercise depends on many factors, namely the length and intensity of the exercise, the environmental conditions, and your individual physiology. If you want to get all scientific about determining your fluid needs post-workout (trust me, I love to go there) you’ll need to bust out that smart-phone calculator. Start by weighing yourself before and after exercise and recording both numbers. After your workout, drink 16-ounces of fluid for every pound you’ve lost. Again, do what feels right for your body. And as mentioned above, use your pee as a guideline for your overall hydration status.
And here are a few post-workout snack and meal ideas I recommend:
- Snack: 1 cup of chocolate milk
- Snack: 1 slice of whole wheat toast with 1 tablespoon of peanut butter and ½ sliced banana
- Snack: 2 graham crackers with a tablespoon of peanut butter
- Snack: 1 to 2 hardboiled eggs with a slice of whole wheat toast
- Meal: 1, 7-inch round whole wheat pita stuffed with grilled veggies and 2 tablespoons hummus
- Meal: A protein-rich green smoothie
- Meal: Veggie omelet with avocado and ½ cup of roasted potatoes
- Meal: 4-ounces of steamed trout with a baked sweet potato and sautéed spinach
And remember that these are only guidelines.
The beauty of it all is that everyone’s body is different and will have specific needs and preferences. I should also note that it’s probably not a good idea to experiment with any nutritional changes on a game or race day. Limit any diet tweaks to training. Happy training!