Nutrient Timing: What and When to eat Before and After Exercise

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Pre-and post-workout fuel is crucial for hitting those fitness goals and staying on track. Without food in your stomach, it's tough to get through an hour-long workout. Not only might your workout suffer, but your body could too. Without the proper food, your body could start to break down muscle instead of fat (BAD! No! We do not want this!). Most of us want to optimize fat burning, right? And we want to improve our performance and prevent muscle damage, right? In order to do this we must properly eat before and after exercise. Bottom line: Muscle burns fat. Muscle needs food and rest to grow. The more muscle we have, the more fat we burn on day-to-day basis (thank you, metabolism!). Without the proper pre and post-workout nutrition, our muscles can't repair themselves and won't grow. That means less muscle, and more fat. No thank you! Your body just got you through an awesome workout, reward it with foods that will nourish it!

Carbohydrates are stored in our muscles as glycogen, and glycogen is used by our body for energy! Therefore, carbs=more glycogen=better, longer, more intense workouts. When we run out of glycogen stores, our body starts breaking down muscle for fuel. So we need to make sure our glycogen stores are full to capacity when we begin exercising! This is why carbohydrates, or a mixture of carbohydrates and protein, is ideal pre-workout. 

What to eat if you have 2-3 hours before a workout:
Ideally, it is best to eat a full meal, complete with carbohydrates, protein and fat 2-3 hours before exercising. Planning your week in advance can help with meal planning and times in order to be adequately fueled for your workout (i.e. if you know you are going to the gym right after work, save your big lunch for 2 hours before you leave and snack earlier in the day). 
Turkey and cheese sandwich on whole wheat bread or wrap, with salad
3-4oz chicken breast, 1 cup rice and zucchini
Omelet with veggies, ham and 2 pieces of toast with 1/4 avocado
Turkey burger with light cheese on whole wheat bread, with salad
1 egg on english muffin with light cheese, with cream of wheat mixed with 1/2 scoop protein

What to eat when you don't have much time before a workout (30-45 mins):
Something high in carbohydrates. 
Eating 2-3 hours in advance can be difficult at times, and not everyone has the convenience of planning. Lets say you're working out early in the morning, and you wake up 30 minutes before "go time". It is absolutely okay to eat 30-45 minutes before a workout! But the closer you eat to workout time, the smaller and simpler your meal should be in order to avoid an upset stomach. Try these easily digestible foods:
Oatmeal (overnight oats! pre-long run favorite)
Cream of wheat
2 slices toast with avocado
2 slices toast with peanut butter
2 slices toast with butter (my favorite before short morning runs!)
2 plain rice cakes with Laughing Cow cheese wedge and 2-3 oz turkey breast
Sweet potato
Banana with peanut butter
Apple with peanut butter
Yogurt with fruit and granola
BCAA's (Branched Chain Amino Acids) are also great to have pre-workout in order to promote protein synthesis (muscle gain), prevent muscle damage and increase and sustain energy throughout a workout. L-Glutamine is an EAA (essential amino acid) that I just recently started taking before/during/post workout for the above reasons and also for immunity (flu season).

Protein has been the poster child for post-workout fuel for years and years. And its true! Protein is essential to rebuild the muscle we break down during our workout, it promotes muscle hypertrophy (growth) and prevents muscle hypertrophy (breakdown). We definitely do need protein after a workout in order to properly recover. BUT, remember those glycogens stores I was talking about earlier? How carbohydrates are stored in the body and used for energy? After a good workout, we should have reduced our glycogen stores. That means we need to replenish them! How do we do that? With CARBS! ♥

Ideally, we want to refuel within the first 30-45 minutes post-workout, with a meal consisting of 15-30 grams protein and 20-40g carbs. These are very vague numbers, because it really depends on your workout intensity. Example: an 8 mile run vs a 30 minute HIIT workout vs 1.5-2 hour weightlifting session. These all require different refuels (long run= higher end of carbs and mid protein, 30 min HIIT session=lower end of both protein and carbs, long weightlifting session=higher end of protein and carbs). My advice is to listen to your body. Find what works best for you and stick with it! 

What to eat if you can have a full meal 30 mins post-workout (breakfast/lunch/dinner):
This is the "perfect scenario". When you come home from the gym and have some prepped meals ready to go! Or can whip something up quick. Basically, 4-5 oz lean protein, 1 serving carbohydrate (varies, i.e. zoodles vs sweet potato vs rice), and veggies. 
4-5oz chicken breast, rice, green beans
4-5oz ground turkey burger, whole wheat bun, salad
4-5oz fish, sweet potatoes, broccoli
Omelet with 1 egg, 1/2c egg whites. 2-3oz ham, veggies with whole wheat toast
Oatmeal or Cream of Wheat with whey protein

What to eat if you're in a pinch post-workout (post-workout "snacks"):
For the "awkward in between time" while you're getting dinner/lunch ready, or you know you will be eating a full meal within 1-2 hours. This happens to me ALL the time. I get home from the gym, hungry, and have to prepare dinner that will take about an hour to cook.
Whey protein shake with milk 
1 cup plain (1 serving) FF Greek yogurt with half scoop protein and granola or fruit
Protein bar (aim for low fat, 15-20g protein, 15-30g carbs, and low sugar)
2-4 oz turkey lunch meat with light cheese on  whole wheat/whole grain/protein wrap 
2 rice cakes with 2-4 oz turkey rolled up with cheese
1/2 cup (1 serving) cottage cheese with fruit

Again, the amount of food you eat after a workout depends on the amount of energy you expend during your workout. Listen to your body and eat for your means. 

"But, what about fat??"
I didn't mention fat, specifically, in the pre and post-workout fuel categories. This is NOT because fat is bad pre or post workout. It could slow down the absorption of your meal if eaten post workout, but it shouldn't effect protein synthesis. You should limit the amount of fat eaten post workout, but don't feel like you have to completely eliminate it to reap the benefits of the protein and carbohydrates in your post-workout meal. The importance of fat in our diet is a topic for another blog post!

I hope you learned something about the importance of fueling and refueling your body for maximize results and workouts! If you have questions about what you should be eating pre and post workout for your goals, leave a comment or fill out the contact form! I'm happy to help. 


Read more about the science behind pre and post-workout fueling and refueling, here.

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  1. Fitness starts at home. What you eat is what you will look, just as what you sow is what you reap. Eat good food: eat fruits, vegetables, healthy grains, and don't go for sweet and trite food.