What to Eat Before & After a Workout
As a sports nutritionist I work with clients who earn a living working up a sweat. But whether you’re a pro or you get your adrenaline pumping before or after your 9 to 5, there’s a science to what you should eat before and after to maximize your workout and recover from the wear and tear it puts on your body. Here are five rules of thumb to keep in mind:
Keep your tummy happy
Choose pre-workout meals or snacks that are easy to digest and won’t cause bloating or irritate your stomach. In other words, a spicy bean burrito isn’t the best choice. If your food’s not digested before or during your workout, the fuel will be trapped in your stomach and won’t be available to your muscles, and providing fuel is the main goal of a pre-exercise meal. Also, undigested food can feel like a brick sitting in your stomach, leading to cramps and sluggishness.
Keep it simple
The best pre-activity foods are those relatively low in protein, fat, and fiber. These three substances delay the emptying of the stomach and keep you fuller longer. That’s great if you’ll be sitting at a desk for the next several hours, but not so great if you’ll be in high activity mode. So, a good pre-workout snack might be something like a bowl of low fiber whole grain cereal (like puffed brown rice or unsweetened organic corn flakes) with organic skim or soy milk and a mini banana about an hour before.
It’s important to drink fluids before, during, and after your workout. If you’re sweating heavily or exercising for more than 60 minutes, reach for a sports drink rather than plain water to keep you well hydrated and fueled and replace the electrolytes lost in sweat. If you’re working out for an hour or less in a climate controlled gym plain H2O should be fine.
Time it right
After a really tough workout, you should try to eat a “recovery” meal within 30 minutes if possible. Training puts wear and tear on your joints, muscles, and bones, and your body “uses up” nutrients during exercise; so this meal is all about putting back what you’ve lost and providing the raw materials needed for repair and healing.
Balance is key
A post-workout meal isn’t just about protein. It should include a lean protein source (for muscle repair) along with a whole grain (to replete glycogen, the carbohydrate stored in muscle tissue, which serves as a primary fuel source during exercise), plenty of produce (to replenish nutrients), and a healthy fat source (for healing and circulation), and of course more fluid (to rehydrate). A great example of a post-workout meal is stir-fry made with chicken, shrimp or edamame, whole grain rice, and a variety of colorful veggies topped with sliced almonds. For a simple stir-fry sauce packed with antioxidants whisk together two tablespoons brown rice vinegar with a splash of 100% orange juice and a dash each of fresh grated ginger and crushed red pepper.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.