Whether your goal is to lose weight, gain muscle, or perform at your best, what you eat and when you eat is critically important. Being deliberate about your nutrition will help you get the most out of your workouts and reach your goals faster. Exercise nutrition mainly falls into 2 categories: energy and recovery.
Food consumed before and during a workout is aimed at providing energy—giving your body the calories necessary to complete the workout. Food consumed after a workout should be focused on recovery. Among other things, exercise creates microscopic tears in your muscle fibers. Your body responds to this stress by repairing the damaged tissue and building it up even stronger than before. This cycle of damage and recovery is what improves your body composition and physical fitness. So for you to maximize your results, your body needs the right kind of energy to get through the workout and the nutrients to repair and recover afterward.
In most cases, you won’t need to strategically schedule food intake before your workout. If you’ve eaten a well-balanced meal within 6 hours of starting your workout, you should have plenty of fuel to get you through the training session. If it’s been more than 6 hours since your last meal or if you’re exercising first thing in the morning, follow these guidelines:
1-2 hours before your workout, have a snack composed primarily of healthy carbohydrates.
- Aim for 200-400 calories—depending on how intense your workout will be.
- Limit the fats and proteins.
- These take a long time to digest, causing your body to divert blood and oxygen to your digestive tract during your workout rather than your muscles.
- Examples of good pre-workout snacks:
- Apple and a granola bar
- Small bowl of oatmeal
Unless you’re participating in intense exercise for longer than 90 minutes, you shouldn’t need to take in any calories during your workout. However, if you’re tackling a long training session, follow these guidelines:
Consume 50-100 calories every half hour past the 90-minute mark.
- Reach for carbohydrates that will give you the energy to finish your workout.
- Choose something small and convenient that won’t upset your stomach.
- Example: Small piece of fruit such as a banana or clementine.
This is the most important meal of the day. Your post-workout meal replenishes your muscles’ energy stores and gives your body the necessary nutritional building blocks to repair itself. Follow these eating guidelines after your workout:
Within 1 hour of your workout, eat a full meal. This is when your muscles are ready to suck up any nutrients you eat and use them for energy and recovery, rather than storing the calories as excess fat. This meal should contain:
1. High proportion of protein
Shoot for 20-40g, depending on your body weight.
2. High amounts of micronutrients
These are the vitamins and minerals important for all kinds of bodily processes. Fresh veggies are your best source for micronutrients.
3. Some carbohydrates
Slower-absorbing carbs like beans, sweet potatoes, and whole grains.
4. Some fats
Good fats like those found in nuts, coconut oil, olive oil, and avocados.
5. No sugar or processed starches
Besides being calorie-dense and nutrient-void, processed carbohydrates like sugar and wheat flour are inflammatory foods. This inflammation happens on a cellular level and can hinder your recovery.
Really, this is what most of your meals should look like, but it is especially important after exercise. If you aren’t able to eat a meal within 1 hour of finishing your workout, at least reach for a simple protein supplement (such as whey protein or pea protein powder). This will provide the protein necessary for muscle growth and other tissue repair.