By Courtney Ferreira, MS, RD, LDN
You’ve probably heard it before: “You can’t out train a bad diet” and “Abs are made in the kitchen.” Redundant? Perhaps. True? Definitely.
Consistent time in the gym and dedication to a workout routine are not the only solution to your physique and strength goals. What you put into your mouth also matters -- perhaps even more so than the workouts themselves.
Exercise should complement your diet, not make up for it.
Figuring out what to eat and when to eat it is not easy, and conflicting suggestions are thrown at us everyday. Today I want to share my tips for pre- and post-workout nutrition to help take the guesswork out of your day and to energize you through your toughest workouts.
You want to be sure you have the energy to get through your workout without feeling weighed down. If you are planning a moderate to intense workout, you should be sure to fuel up. Your main focus should be a good carbohydrate source such as fresh fruit (my preference), crackers, or whole grain or sprouted bread.
Supporting the carbohydrate with some protein will help slow down the release of the energy into your body and prevent carb crash. A good choice is peanut butter or other nut butter, a few slices of deli meat, or beef jerky.
Related: The best time to eat carbohydrates
Here are my top 3 pre-workout tips:
1. If you are hungry, eat. Most of us workout before dinner. If it’s been a few hours since you last ate, it would be a good idea to fuel up. If you attempt a tough workout on an empty stomach in an effort to wait until dinner time (or breakfast time), you will be exhausted. Have something portable with you to eat before you leave work or on your way to the gym.
2. Keep it small. Eat just enough to quiet your hunger, but don’t stuff yourself. Eating too much can give you a stomachache or other gastrointestinal distress mid-workout.
3. Keep it simple. Seriously, this does not need to be complicated. Eat something you easily digest. No trainer, dietitian, or random person on the internet knows your body better than you. Plain Greek yogurt with fruit may be a good choice for your workout buddy, but it might leave you bloated. Don’t reinvent the wheel.
Here are some examples of pre-workout snacks:
- Yogurt or milk
- Berries or other fruit
- Apple slices or banana with peanut butter
- Portable nut butter packets
- Beef jerky
- Granola bar or protein bar (minimal ingredients such as Larabar, KIND bar, or Nature Valley protein bar)
- 100% whey protein with milk or water
- Deli meat roll ups with crackers
- Dried fruit
- Cooked sweet potato or winter squash with almond butter
[Extra tidbit: Don’t underestimate the power of your breakfast and lunch. If you are working out in the evening and you find yourself absolutely starving beforehand, there is a good chance you didn’t eat enough earlier in the day. Having protein, fat, and carbohydrates at breakfast and lunch prepares you for your workout later on.]
Post-workout nutrition is extra important. You should eat 30-60 minutes after an intense workout, particularly if you are focusing on strength and mass gains. Even if your workouts are less vigorous it is important to be prepared. Dizziness and nausea are not fun and are a good indication that your body is low on energy. Keep something on hand just in case. This can be a granola bar or a blender bottle with protein powder inside ready to be mixed.
If you are working out before dinner then dinner is your best post-workout choice. It should have adequate protein, such as chicken, beef, seafood, pork and even canned salmon or tuna. You should definitely have carbohydrates, but they should make up no more than half of your plate. Good sources include winter squash, potatoes (especially sweet potatoes), corn, and rice or quinoa with green veggies cooked in. A healthy fat source such as olive oil, avocado, or butter will help to balance out the meal.
Hopefully these tips help clarify pre-and post-workout meals. Remember, listening to your body is always the most important part of navigating your nutrition. You don’t need two extra meals just because you exercise.
Related: Eating when you aren’t hungry
Get to know your hunger cues and how your body responds to various workouts. Trial and error is inevitable, as we are all different. Remember to focus on eating real foods whenever you can. You don’t need heavily processed foods to get the energy and nutrients that you need.
About the Author
Courtney Ferreira is a licensed, registered dietitian with a Masters of Science in Human Nutrition. She has a diverse fitness background, including experience personal training. As a registered dietitian her passion is for self-knowledge and real food. Her goal is to help others reach their optimal level of wellness, free of restrictive dieting, and full of flavor. Visit Courtney’s website to learn more about what to eat before and after exercise.