How to properly fuel our body before and after a workout?
Suggesting what food to eat before and after exercise is not an easy task as there are so many types of workouts that vary in their intensity, length and purpose. Furthermore, each and every person is different. Some people must eat prior to their workout to get their energy up, while others can't eat at all before exercising. In addition, people have different goals, for example, some people are trying to lose weight whilst others aim to keep fit and healthy. The following recommendations are mostly for people with normal bodyweight who exercise regularly.
What you eat before and after a workout can have a profound influence on your workout efficiency. Without optimal nutrition, our body will not gain the most out of the training, and will not recover properly.
When we exercise, the muscle tissue goes through significant metabolic changes. Firstly, the blood volume that flows to the muscles increases. Secondly the hormonal state in the body changes, and some hormone levels such as adrenalin and cortisol are elevated. As a result, the body will enter a catabolic (breakdown muscles) state during the workout and anabolic (building muscles) state immediately afterwards. Proper meals before and after exercising will help us make the most from the anabolic state post workout.
What should we eat before a workout?
The purpose of the meal prior to a workout is mainly to provide enough energy to the body. This will help maintain high energy levels throughout the workout and will help to increase blood flow to the muscles.
Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for our activity. They are stored in small amounts inside the muscles and are available to use as the workout commences. Fats on the other hand, are stored in our fatty tissue. Our bodies have the ability to create energy from fats as well. However, the process of breaking down fats and creating energy for our muscles, is a complex process that takes longer and consumes lots of oxygen.
If your routine is to exercise early in the morning, you will benefit from consuming some carbs for dinner the night before, especially those that breakdown slower in our bodies, such as brown rice, quinoa, sweet potato, soba noodles and rye bread. If you need to eat something just before you exercise in the morning, you might want to have 1-2 dates or a banana, 10 minutes prior to your training.
Alternatively, if you normally exercise in the evening, then you will benefit from having carbs at lunch time. If you feel you need something to eat just before exercising then choose dates or a banana or even a high quality energy bar.
Eating those simple carbs prior to a workout will minimise the amount of glycogen used during exercise and therefore extend the ability to perform better for a longer time. High levels of glycogen and insulin create a hormonal environment that enables anabolism, which is what we want to achieve after workout.
Recently more and more studies emphasise the importance of consuming protein prior to exercise. Some would say it is even more important than consuming them after the workout. The idea is that we want to increase the flow of blood to the muscles, which is occurring during workout. Eating proteins as part of the meal prior to workout will increase the availability of amino acids to the muscles and will also increase the absorption of amino acids after the workout. That protein shake before a workout is more beneficial to our muscles in opposed to afterwards.
Food to avoid before workout
It is best to avoid foods that are high in fibre. It might make you feeling uncomfortable during a workout, and, it is recommended that you avoid very salty or spicy food that might leave you thirsty and dehydrated, also, avoid very fatty food that might make you feel very heavy and full.
The 3-4 hours prior to a workout meal
This meal should include some proteins and complex carbohydrates that breakdown slowly and maintain our blood sugar level on a moderate scale, so that we feel balanced, full and exuberant for longer period, without experiencing major ups and downs in our moods and energy levels.
Good meals for instance would be:
- Oat meal with berries and 1 tsp almond butter.
- Protein shake - 1/2 scoop + banana and water / almond milk.
- Rye crackers with hummus (1-2tsp).
- Grilled chicken sandwich and fresh vegetables.
- Cooked lentils (1/2 cup) with some brown rice (1/2 cup) and a salad - a good vegan option.
A small snack 10 minutes before you start exercising:
- Dates 1-2
- Energy bar (small)
What should we eat after a workout?
To help our body recuperate from the workout, we need to change the metabolic state from catabolic to anabolic. By eating the right types of food we can influence the hormonal balance of the body and allow the desired changes to occur. A fresh supply of carbs, proteins and some fats post workout will help the body renew the damaged tissues and fill up its energy stores.
When we finish our exercise, we have a "window of opportunity" to eat carbs and store them in our muscles as glycogen. When we train next, this storage will be used to create instant energy for our muscles.
People who exercise on a regular basis, will store the carbs where they are needed, in the muscles. Their body will not store them in the fatty cells, which normally happens in people that are not as active.
In order to restore glycogen storage after the workout you will need to consume approximately 0.7-1.0g carbs per kilo.
During our workout the proteins in our muscles breakdown. In order to help our body recuperate from the workout and prepare it for the next workout session we need to nourish it with some proteins as fast as possible. In fact, we have a "window of opportunity" of one or two hours, from the time we finished our workout, to eat some proteins.
The recommended protein intake per day is 1.6-1.8g per 1 kilo. Remember that our body can't store amino acids properly, which is why we need to eat proteins every 3-4 hours.
Furthermore, it is imperative to know that not all the proteins are digested at the same pace.
The ones that break down in the fastest way are casein protein powders, whey protein powders, soy protein powders and low fat dairy products (Max 3% fat).
- Next are the white cheeses, cottage cheese, eggs, soy products and canned tuna.
- The slow ones are the chicken, meat, fish, and fatty cheeses.
A good post workout meal should include the proteins that break down faster, so that they could be utilised properly for building muscles.
On top of that, as we know carbs need the insulin hormone to enter the cells, but did you know that proteins would benefit from the presence of some insulin in the blood? Insulin presence will increase the ability of proteins to enter the muscle cells. So a good post workout meal will include proteins and carbs. Without carbs the insulin will not be secreted from the pancreas.
Good combinations for a post workout meal are:
1. Cottage cheese and an apple.
2. Protein shake (1 scoop) with Almond milk some berries and chia seeds.
3. Tuna sandwich and salad.
4. Yogurt with berries and some chia seeds and pumpkin seeds.
5. Vegetable salad, eggs, cheese and whole meal bread.
6. Stir fry vegetables with tofu and brown rice.
7. Vegetable soup with some quinoa and chickpeas.
The importance of staying hydrated
Hydration Drinking and keeping your body hydrated is extremely important on the cellular level. Dehydration can prevent muscle growth. Basically you need to drink a minimum of 1ml for every calorie you are consuming.CaffeineCaffeine is found in coffee and other energy drinks. Studies show that if you have caffeine prior to exercising, it will help burn more fat during your workout. Since it takes time for the caffeine to absorb into our blood stream, it’s good to have it 1 hour before the workout. If you prefer coffee with milk then it is better to have it even 1.5 hours before your workout. There is use in having coffee during or a few minutes before your workout. Please keep in mind that coffee will leave you dehydrated so you need to drink more water after having coffee. SummaryOur nutritional choices before and after a workout are crucial if we want to maximise our ability to recuperate from the workout, prepare our body for the next training and building muscles. Prior to a workout we need to include some carbs to minimise glycogen loss and suppress catabolic process. At the same time, it is better if it does not include too much fats. Some of the hormones that our body produces during a workout suppress our appetite. Even though you might not feel hungry after the workout, it is imperative you eat, even just a small meal, but with the right nutrients. The post workout meal needs to include carbs and proteins that are easy to digest.Hydration, of course, is a key factor in all of the above processes. Make sure you drink enough water before during and after workout.
About the author
Noa has been practicing as a Clinical Nutritionist for the last ten years. Her specialties include weight loss, Celiac disease, digestive system problems and metabolic diseases.
Noa understands that no human being resembles another. She believes that each one of us is created differently and has different needs. She recognises that the best way to get long term results is by creating a personalised program for each individual client.