It's 10:00pm and you're about to jump into bed. You're working out tomorrow morning. You want to feel strong and kick a little butt. Maybe you're going for a long run or maybe you've got your leggings and sport bra laid out for a leg-toning barre class. Regardless, at some point between now and tomorrow morning, you may wonder what the heck should I eat before and after my workout?
It's a good question. A really good question! But don't overthink it.
I would say most of the people I talk to answer this question wrong. However - unlike most things in this world - the correct answer is incredibly uncomplicated.
It's easy! Well, pretty easy once you understand what your body actually does with all that food before, during and after your workouts.
Before and After Workouts: What to Eat
Whether you don't really love working out or you're an everyday athlete who can run marathons in your sleep, nutrition is always important. Paying attention to what you eat should be a high priority - regardless of the amount of sweat dripping off your body.
The bottom line is to always eat real food. It's not that hard. Yes, the type of macronutrients do matter (and I'll cover that below), but knowing when to eat around your workout can make the difference between the greatest workout of your life and a sweat-infused hour of torture that seems to never end.
In all seriousness, when you eat plays a very big part in:
- energy levels
- fat burn (if that's important to you)
Just below I'm going to go through a few of the best food choices you should eat to answer the question around what you should eat, but I'm also going to go through when you should eat. If you can master this in line with your workouts, you'll feel great when you're exercising, you'll have more energy and you'll recovery faster. Win. Win. Win.
Rules are rigid - and I really don't like to set rules when it comes to eating, but as it pertains to your workouts...let's just call this advice "healthy structure".
When to Eat Before a Workout*
When we eat food, our digestive system requires a lot of energy from the rest of our body to break it down. In fact, when our belly is full of food, it calls on oxygen-rich blood to help digest it.
If all that oxygen-rich blood is in your gut, it's not as plentiful in the big muscles of your arms, legs and back - all of which are crucial to exercise.
This is part of the reason why, regardless of what your workout is, the amount of food that's actively being digested in your gut, makes a difference.
The 2 to 3 Hour Rule
One of the biggest mistakes healthy people make with their workouts is carbing up before exercising.
Take a break from eating for two to three hours before a workout to ensure you have all that oxygen-rich blood available to your body. This is also about how long it takes to digest food in your gut - depending on how much you actually eat. The bigger the meal, the longer the break.
Now, let's be real. If you have a bite of a banana or a square of chocolate before you workout, you are probably not going to throw things off, but don't eat a burger or something heavy before any sort of training.
Even though I'm not a big calorie counter, I usually recommend capping meal sizes around the 350 - 400 calorie mark. This is usually a decent size breakfast, a salad or protein smoothie.
If you're really hungry before a workout and hunger pangs become a distraction, or if you feel lightheaded, dizzy or anything that is a sign you should eat, definitely eat something small.
The Early Morning Exerciser
Most people don't need to eat before working out if they exercise early in the morning.
If you are up and at 'em sometime between 5am and 7am, you probably don't need to eat before your workout. Unless you have a medical condition (diabetes, seizure disorders, etc), your liver has plenty of sugar stocked up to help keep you going for 90 minutes of exercise.
If you're interested in burning fat, then this is the tip for you.
Think of your liver as a gas tank. It holds all the glycogen, we refer to as sugar, for your body to use. When you wake up in the morning, you should have about 90 minutes left in the tank.
For now, think of sugar as calories. After you burn through the calories in your liver, your body preferentially turns to fat and starts burning that instead.
I'm absolutely not saying to workout for hours on end without eating (not at all). I'm merely saying that if you're a healthy person, your body should have enough energy to push you through a good workout, up to 90 minutes.
After that, and especially if you're an endurance athlete (like a marathon runner or triathlete), plan on refueling.
What About Long Workouts?
You only need to refuel after a workout if it's been 90 minutes or longer.
If you workout for more than 90 minutes, then you need to refuel. In most cases, even if you clock your workouts at two hours, that's probably including locker room time, stretch time and maybe even some talk time.
Long workouts are usually for people who train for something. As mentioned above, running and triathlon are a couple examples. But if you're doing something - anything - that requires a physical commitment that's pretty long - plan ahead by making sure you have the proper nutrition with you.
If you don't refuel after 90 minutes, not only will the remainder of your workout suffer, but so will your recovery and subsequently ensuing workouts or training sessions. You don't want to feel like crap the day after a workout, so plan smart.
*I want to mention that all of this applies to people who don't have a metabolic condition, like diabetes. If you have diabetes or are taking a medication that throws off your blood sugar levels, your priorities may be different, so talk to your doctor if you have any questions.
All of this talk about when to eat brings me to the question What should I eat?. Here goes.
What to Eat Before a Workout
Eating unprocessed foods with fewer ingredients supplies your body with fresher nutrients it can use for energy and a healthy metabolism.
What you eat also plays a role in how well your workout will go - and definitely how you'll feel the next day.
First things first, if you're working out to lose weight, you've got to rethink this a little bit. I hope most of you are working out to get strong, build muscle tone, improve endurance, feel happier, be healthier,,.and all that good stuff. I say all of this, because most of the time, abs are made in the kitchen, not in the gym.
Just a recap from the When You Should Eat Section:
- Wrap up eating two to three hours before you eat
- Cap pre-workout meals around 350-400 calories
- The close to a workout, the less you should eat
- There is no need to eat just before a very early workout
- If you workout longer than 90 minutes, you should refuel (eat or drink something)
Given those points, whether you're an afternoon, mid-morning or evening exerciser, the foods you eat in the hours before a workout need to be fairly easy to digest. Carbs tend to breakdown the quickest, followed by protein, then fat.
Remember, we're talking about what to eat before, during and after a workout to get the best results. This isn't exclusively about weight loss, but eating the right amount of the right food can help you achieve that goal.
Pre-Workout Snack and Meal Ideas
If you do eat before a workout, aim for something that digests easy enough and won't upset your stomach.
I've made a bunch of suggestions below. Keep in mind, dairy and nuts don't always digest the best for some people. If you notice any bloating after eating one of these meals or snacks, you may have a problem either with that particular brand of food or with the food itself. Regular bloating is never a good sign!
- 1/2 C. oatmeal (old fashioned, not instant) with blueberries or chopped apple, organic milk or coconut milk, a tablespoon of almond nut butter and cinnamon
- Sprouted grain English muffin (like Ezekiel) with a couple hard-boiled eggs
- Banana + nut butter
- Turkey Sandwich on sprouted grain bread (like Ezekiel), mustard and tomato.
- Carrots and celery + hummus
- Scrambled egg burrito (in a tortilla). Add sea salt or mustard for flavor)
- Handful of homemade trail mix (almonds, raisins or dried cherries, coconut flakes and a little sea salt)
- Cottage cheese + rice crackers
- RX Bar (my fave in-a-pinch bar)
Immediately After a Workout
Protein makes the biggest difference shortly after working out, not before.
About 15 to 45 minutes after a hard workout, your body is at its peak point for protein re-uptake! Usually, this is after a very vigorous cardio workout where you're pushing your body to the point of exhaustion, or after a heavy lifting training session.
This could also be the meal after a workout, too. It doesn't necessary need to be incredibly hard. But if you wrap up your workout around a meal time, you're in luck! A protein-packed meal with some healthy carbs and fat will be great for your body.
After a hard workout, our muscles are trying to recover from tiny micro tears. This is also the reason you feel sore after a really hard workout or after hitting the gym for the first time in a long time. Regardless, those micro tears need to recovery and can do so best after a workout when you eat protein! After all, protein and muscle go hand in hand.
Here are a few examples of those times of meals or snacks:
- My Power Smoothie: 1/2 avocado, 2 scoops of Orgain, 1/2 c frozen berries, water (I love this, but if you're kinda 'meh on avocado then add chia seeds or coconut milk
- 2 to 3-egg omelet, made in olive or coconut oil with plenty of fresh or frozen vegetables
- Lettuce-wrapped turkey burger with 1/2 sweet potato drizzled with coconut oil and sea salt
- Grilled chicken breast salad
- Spaghetti squash bolognese
- Just about anything following the Apple plan in The Belly Burn Plan
Note: If you ate before your workout and you're just going into the gym for a 45-minute class, or just went out for a run for a few miles, you don't need to eat anything special afterward. Just wait for your next meal and keep drinking water!
What About Energy Drinks?
Avoid sugary energy drinks. Even the organic ones. They're a mess, and unless you really need the sugar, most people don't need them for everyday workouts.
Unless you've been working/training for a very long time, you probably have no need for the additional electrolytes, mostly because your body probably still have plenty in storage.
Even the low sugar or sugar free energy drinks are a hotbed of artificial sweeteners and artificial colors. These are anti-nutrients and do more harm than good.
If you really want something to drink after a workout, try 50/50 real lemonade + water or real orange juice + water. Add a dash of sea salt if you want that electrolyte flavor feel.
What about you? What do you eat or drink before, during or after a workout? Does it work for your body, or do you want to make some changes?
If you have any questions, don't hesitate to leave a comment below. I'd love to hear from you.
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