Fueling your body before and after a workout is a key component in maximizing the effects of said workout. After all, who wants to work hard and see subpar results? Nobody. That’s like, the whole opposite of the entire point. You already bought your cute workout clothes and dragged your ass to the gym, and (hopefully) actually like, tried to put in ~werk~ and didn’t just half-ass it. But what you do at the gym isn’t the only thing that factors into your weight loss or other fitness goals—what you eat before and after your workout can kind of make or break your efforts as well. What should you eat before your workout? Should you eat at all? And after your workout, what should you eat so your muscles can recover, but you don’t undo all the progress you just made? These are the types of questions I get from my clients a lot. I’m going to help you break down what to eat before and after your workout so you can get the most benefits and not completely sabotage your efforts.
Okay, so I generally fall into two camps here for pre-workout nutrition. If it is early in the morning, like a 5am-6am workout, I understand not eating pre-workout. What’s more, if the workout consists of a morning jog or mainly endurance cardio (the treadmill, elliptical, Stair Master, etc.) it is totally fine to not eat before.
HOWEVER. If you’re about to go lift weights or do HIIT training, a completely empty stomach could potentially make you dizzy and interfere with your ability to do as much as you want to in the gym (and also be dangerous). The reason for this is when you’re running on completely empty, the body has already depleted its glycogen store (which is used for quick energy—it’s a reason athletes carb-load prior to a game). This is where I am an advocate of waking up earlier (yeah, I know, I know) so you can actually try to eat something before.
Now, if you’re an afternoon/evening gym rat, then I’m sincerely hoping you’re not working out still fasted from the night before. A mix of protein and carbohydrates will give you the proper nutrition you need to work out. Stay away from anything with a lot of fat content, because fat takes longer to digest than carbohydrates and protein, so it’ll kinda just sit there for a while and cause cramps while you work out. A good example of a pre-workout snack is a bowl of berries, a piece of toast, and two eggs. That’s a pretty optimal meal anyway, but it’s not too big to mess with you during the workout if you have to go right to the gym after eating.
What I find works best for me is having a proper meal about two hours before I workout. I’m a PM-er, so I workout later in the day after lunch. My lunch could be anything from lentil pasta arrabbiata and chicken breast to ground turkey salad. I give myself time to digest after, then I find I’m able to really go hard in the gym.
Also, it’s pretty common sense, but fuel more for a more strenuous workout. So you’re definitely going to want to eat more before a leg workout (larger muscle groups = more sweaty, more tiring—I have an article coming on this later) than for an arms/abs workout (smaller muscle groups).
The reason post-workout nutrition, to me, is more important than pre-workout nutrition is because the body requires replenishment after being depleted of energy. Now, amino acids (or protein) play a super key role here because you want the proteins to help your muscle fibers heal and kickstart your recovery process.
You don’t really NEED to rush to get in your protein and carbs within 30 minutes after your workout, like many fitness gurus will tell you (this is what they call the “anabolic window”). You’re definitely going to want to eat after, but honestly…I live in LA, that drive home from the gym could already take up the whole 30 minutes, honey. Trust me when I say those 30 minutes are not the end-all and be-all. You just want to make sure you’re getting enough protein throughout the day; rushing to get it in right after a work out won’t make much of a difference.
The best kind of post-workout nutrition should really be a full meal if you have the time for it. Anything with a complete protein source (chicken breast, fish, etc.) and complex carbohydrates (brown rice, pasta, beans are all good options) will help your body recover from the workout. If you’re kind of in a time crunch, then a protein shake will do. Depending on how filling your shake is, you might need proper fuel as well.
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