“What is the best food to eat before and after a workout?”…
…is one of the most frequently asked questions amongst “paleo-eating-worker-outers.”
I find it challenging, if not impossible, to give a simple answer, if for no other reason than we are all different! We are different in how certain foods make us feel before we take on a high-intensity workout, and we each enter the gym, or garage, with different goals in mind. Personally, I have no problem eating a big breakfast 45 minutes before I hit a WOD (workout of the day). But, you may lose your scrambled eggs, avocado and bacon an hour and a half later in the middle of a box jump, pull-up and push press triplet. Your goal may be long-term health and wellness, while the person next to you may be trying to earn a spot to the CrossFit Games.
Regardless, this is a good topic for discussion and hopefully you’ll find a tip or two to apply to your own situation after reading this post or hearing what others have to share!
Before you make too many changes surrounding your workout fuel, I must encourage you to make sure your overall nutrition is pretty sound! If you still find yourself stopping at the 7-Eleven for a bag of chips and a Big-Gulp everyday, you have more pressing nutrition habits to work on than your pre- and post-workout meals. Once you feel good about where you’re at and the food choices you are making 90% of the time, then you may want to visit the nitty gritty details.
Let’s start with what to eat before exercise. I think there are…
3 key factors influencing your pre-workout status:
3. and Eating a variety of well-balanced, quality meals, consistently
In my humble opinion, one of the best things you can do for yourself as far as making sure your body is well-fueled for your training is to eat high-quality, nutrient-dense meals, regularly. What you put into your body immediately before you workout is going to have very little impact compared to what you put in on a regular basis. In addition, your pre-exercise snack won’t make up for dehydration and lack of sleep. With that said, if you are hydrated, rested and eating well in general, here are a few things to consider.
You don’t necessarily need to take in energy right beforehand to have energy during a workout. This is especially true for high-intensity, short-duration workouts. You already have a lot of stored energy in your body in the form of glycogen (stored sugar) and fat. For a longer duration workout, you’ll need a different approach, which you can read about in my guide on what to eat before a soccer game.
What you do need is some sort of signal that allows the body to tap into those stored forms for use. Protein and fat are good food sources to do just this. If you consume carbohydrate (or too much of it) right before a workout, your body will use that as it’s quick energy source instead of tapping into your stored forms. Turnover of glycogen and the use of fat are ideal for many of us.
The window for pre-workout food timing varies based on the individual, but should generally fall 15 minutes to an 1 hour and 15 minutes prior to exercise. It certainly doesn’t have to be a lot of food, but rather a signal. If you typically train early in the morning and tend to skip eating before you workout, try grabbing a slice of turkey or a hard boiled egg on the way to the gym. See if you notice any difference in how you feel after a week. Tweak and adjust.
You do want to pick a protein/fat source that is easily digestible for you. Experimentation is important here.
Some examples include:
- hard boiled eggs
- rolled lunch meat (quality) and a small handful of nuts
- a few slices of chicken breast and avocado
- quality beef jerky
When it comes to post-workout nutrition there are multiple factors to consider. Many people today are looking to take advantage of this unique physiological moment and capitalize on the hard work they’ve put into a good workout. Recovery is said to begin within the first 30 minutes following your last pull-up, sprint or squat. The greater your goals, or desire for peak performance, the more important this refueling window may be. Your systems are thirsty, your muscles are hungry, and your body’s ready to begin repair. But, WHAT should you eat at this “critical” moment?
That may largely depend on your goals, current health status and the type of workout you’ve just completed. If improved health and feeling good is your goal, than your overall nutrition is probably more important than the half-hour post-workout window. If your aiming to be the next “Fittest Man on Earth,” than dialing in your post-workout fuel may be far more necessary.
Let’s consider recovery in general. I would say the …
3 key factors for post-workout nutrition include:
2. Glycogen replenishment
3. and Muscle repair and rebuilding
Whether you are just starting an exercise regimen or you are an elite athlete, hydration is important – both before and after workout! Period. The general rule of thumb for post-workout fluid intake is 16 oz of water for every pound lost. The majority of us don’t weigh ourselves before and after exercise, and for the average person I think it’s safe to simply recommend, “drink a decent amount of water after you workout and maintain good fluid consumption throughout the day.” If your workouts are real intense, the weather is hot, and/or you eat very “clean” (consume very little salt), you may want to consider adding a pinch of salt, an electrolyte tablet or some coconut water to your post-workout water bottle. Adequate electrolytes help ensure that you are absorbing the water you put in rather than having it run right through you.
As far as glycogen replenishment and muscle repair/growth, it has been shown that immediately following a workout, muscle cells are sponge-like (ready to absorb) and very sensitive to the “anabolic” hormone, insulin. This is why the post-workout window is considered a “unique physiological state”. If carbohydrate (glucose) and protein (amino acids) are available for the body to use, insulin can quickly facilitate muscle glycogen and muscle protein synthesis. This means little fat will be stored and the body can begin the process of refueling, repairing and rebuilding. If taken advantage of, the outcome could result in increased speed, strength and faster recovery.
Let’s consider specifics…
The debate goes on – supplement or whole food? Protein supplements (usually in the form of a powder) are digested and absorbed faster (allowing you to take advantage of this quick window). And let’s not forget their convenience! Bring some powder with you to the gym and add water at the end of your workout. But, many of these products are of poor quality, not well absorbed and have additives and artificial sweeteners in them that may do you more harm than good.
Well, then what about a steak or chicken breast? Or better yet, wild salmon with it’s natural source of omega-3‘s (anti-inflammatory fats)? While these choices may be ideal for our overall diet, they have their limits post-workout. Most people don’t feel like eating a piece of steak 15 minutes after an intense workout. One reason for this could be due to which part of our nervous system is “on call” at this time. The sympathetic nervous system takes over during the so called “fight-or-flight” response to secrete adrenaline, increase oxygen intake, and prep the body for survival – similar to an intense workout. What becomes far less important is digestion! In fact the sympathetic nervous system inhibits peristalsis (or the movement of food through our digestive tract).
So while whole food may be superior, you may have to wait until your body returns to a less stressful state, allowing your parasympathetic nervous system to take back over. Maybe that means that liquid nutrition is best in this situation, or maybe it means that by finding helpful techniques (relaxation methods) we can better prep our system to digest whole foods within the optimal window. This is also an example of where individual differences may play a big role.
If you do opt for a protein supplement, try to find a quality product with as few ingredients (aside from the actual amino acids) and additives as possible. Branched-chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, valine) are continuing to receive a lot of attention as strong stimulators of muscle growth and repair. They are naturally found in animal proteins, but are often added to protein supplements and appear to work best shortly after a workout. Here are a few protein supplements to look into:
On the other hand, including carbohydrate post-workout depends on the type of activity, your own health and your goals. If you are someone who is trying to lose weight or work on an existing health condition (such as diabetes) you may want to use this post-workout window to improve your insulin sensitivity and avoid eating carbohydrate immediately following exercise. Some believe that a post-workout “fast” gives the body an opportunity to tap into it’s own storage (fat) for replenishment.
If you are a high-level athlete, who’s training intensely and is at a desired level of body “leanness”, you may want to create an insulin spike that works in your favor (for muscle refueling and building); thus consuming a higher glycemic carbohydrate after workout. This inclusion of a fast-acting carb may be most appropriate following a met-con, or endurance type workout verses a pure strength day. Max lifts don’t deplete glycogen stores the way a heart-pounder does.
The best carbohydrate sources following a workout are quality starches and possibly low-fructose containing fruits. The problem with fructose is that it is dealt with (metabolized) by the liver and fills the liver glycogen stores before moving on to fat storage. The goal for post-workout carb consumption is to refill muscle glycogen stores, not liver. Starchier choices (yams, sweet potatoes, acorn squash, butternut squash, and pumpkin) are quality carbs that are still quickly digesting, but very low in fructose; making them good options for the post-workout refueling window. Think about this before you reach for an apple or orange after exercise.
We haven’t discussed fat as a post-workout fuel because fats tend to slow digestion and may therefore prevent you from taking advantage of this very brief time frame we’ve been talking about. Quality fats are vital to our health and necessary in our diet, but this doesn’t appear to be the best time for them.
Here are a few post-workout snack ideas (protein and carb combos):
- Sliced steak and sweet potato
- Chicken and butternut squash
- Hard boiled egg and acorn squash
In summary, remember to consider the type of workout, your digestive tolerability, your goals, and your overall nutrition when thinking about your needs. It often helps to keep a log of what you eat and how you feel. We are each a little different and it may take some time to figure out what works best for you.
What are your favorite pre- and post-workout foods? What works for you? Please share in the comments section below!
Additional Reading and Resources: