“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” – Anais Nin
We all want to experience growth from our efforts, but is it really worth the extra effort to plan nutrition around your workouts? Fear not fitness friends, I have crawled into the blackhole that is the internet and weeded through its bevy of contrariant information to find the truth! Or at least the most current, reputable evidence available on the ever-evolving topic of nutrition. Here’s what I found in a nutshell.
If you follow a consistent, nutrient-dense diet (think 80/20 – because we all deserve that glass of wine or chocolate dessert every now and again), hydrate yourself (at least half your body weight in pounds to ounces of water), and get plenty of sleep, it isn’t quite as crucial what you eat before and after workouts. However, research indicates that it can play a positive and definitive role in improving your results.
Think of exercise nutrition as fertilizing a plant. The plant will grow just fine without it, but the fertilizer gives it an extra boost.
If you are perfectly content with your diet and exercise schedule then continue doing just what you’re doing. You know your body best and you’ve found what works for you. *I am giving you a virtual high-five*
For those who have more advanced fitness goals (marathons, bodybuilding etc.), workout in a fasted state (no food) in the morning or exercise multiple times per day, the nutrition around your workouts will be more important. If you fall into this category or just want to know more, continue with me. I did my best to break the abundance of information down into digestible bite size chunks.
So what do we need to fuel exercise?
I know, I know you’ve heard horrible things about carbs and therefore have trained yourself to avoid them at all costs. Not all carbs are bad, in fact they get a pretty bad rap. Now before you go bury yourself in a buttery croissant the size of your face, let me elaborate.
Carbohydrates are our body’s preferred source of energy. Your digestive system changes carbohydrates into glucose (blood sugar). Your body uses this sugar for energy for your cells, tissues and organs (which means fuel for activity).
There are two types of carbohydrates:
Simple (e.g. fructose, chocolate energy bar etc.)
Complex (e.g. whole grains, sweet potatoes etc.)
Each have a different affect on your blood sugar. Simple carbs are absorbed very quickly and provide great energy bursts for athletes participating in high endurance activities like running a marathon or cycling in events like Reach the Beach (join us on team Honest Fit Fixx!). Simple carbs aren’t ideal for shorter, high-intensity workouts because they metabolize quickly and can leave you tapped of energy too soon. Opting for unprocessed, complex carbs that are medium to low on the glycemic index will cause a more gradual, steady rise in your blood sugar to help you avoid hitting that mid-workout I-can’t-move-another-muscle WALL.
We’ve probably all heard at one point or another that protein helps build muscle. We associate protein with strength. It is arguably the most applauded macronutrient. The body rarely burns protein for fuel (only in situations of starvation). The benefit of eating a small portion of protein around a workout can help promote muscle adaptation during your recovery.
It does this by:
- Aiding in the repair of exercise-induced damage to muscle fibers (that’s right – they tear. Try not to think about it too much).
- Promoting the synthesis of new proteins that are involved in energy production. (that’s good!)
- Facilitating the replenishment of depleted energy (remember all that glucose you used?).
*Consuming healthy fats pre-exercise can also benefit high endurance activities (like long runs or bike rides) but let’s tackle that in another article.
How can a pre-workout meal help?
- Reduces muscle glycogen depletion
- Reduces muscle protein breakdown
- Reduces post workout cortisol levels (cortisol is the stress hormone)
Nutshell version: It can give you the additional energy you need for an optimal performance during your workout.
How can a post workout meal help?
- Replenishes muscle glycogen that was depleted
- Reduces muscle protein breakdown
- Increases muscle protein synthesis
- Reduces muscle soreness and fatigue
- Greatly enhances overall recovery
- Reduces cortisol levels
Nutshell version: It can increase your muscle gain and help you recover more quickly.
Studies indicate that a fairly fail-safe recommendation is a combination of high-quality carbohydrates and proteins, with a ratio of 3:1 or 4:1 carbs to protein, both before and after exercise. A good rule of thumb is to try to eat within 90 mins around a typical 45-90 minute workout. Keep your portion size in line with the intensity and duration of your exercise. Someone weighing around 150 lbs would want to consume roughly 28-35 grams.
Now let’s get to the meat of the issue (no pun intended). What are some good pre-workout snacks?
Whole grain toast with nut butter and banana – This covers your carb and protein needs and the banana also has tons of potassium which aids in muscle and nerve function.
Apple slices with almond butter – Super quick and easy, just dip your apple slices in almond butter (or your favorite nut butter – if you have one).
Steel-cut oats with blueberries and almond slices – The oats will facilitate a steady release of carbohydrates into your bloodstream which will supply you with consistent energy. The almonds will help you replenish and recover and the berries are full of antioxidants which neutralize and remove damaging free radicals from the bloodstream.
Protein smoothie – Smoothies are rapidly digested and can be easily made the night before. You can make it with a banana, avocado, frozen berries, spinach, and kale. Add yogurt, nut butter or protein powder for a kick of protein. Substitute whatever you want – choose your own adventure kids!
Sweet potato or squash with some turkey slices – Pre-cook your sweet potato or squash in a slow cooker or oven and you can refrigerate portions for the week. Eat it warm or cold with a sprinkle of cinnamon (cinnamon can actually aid in regulating your blood sugar!). Wrap it in your turkey like a happy little burrito!
What’s that? You have zero time and need some grab-n-go options?
Coffee – Caffeine from black coffee stimulates adrenaline and can be a great option if you prefer not eating before morning workouts. Throw in your favorite milk if you like (e.g. cow, almond, soy, coconut).
Larabars – A great option when you have to go the more processed food route, these bars are made of 100% real food and they will give you the quick boost you need.
Single-serving nut butter packets – Another great option (e.g. Wild Friends Protein Vanilla Almond Butter) is a little bit of protein right in your pocket.
Jerky – A great brand is Epic bars (or bites). Rich in protein, no sneaky ingredients and they are ridiculously tasty. You can also make your own jerky! Remember this post?
Banana – It really is nature’s power bar. Quickly digested for quick energy and chock-full of potassium.
Dates – A quick, natural energy boost to fuel activity. Did you know they have potassium too? You can’t steal all the thunder banana!
Trail mix – A handful of trail mix is another great option. Things like flax seeds and walnuts have Omega-3 fats that are healthy for your heart. Look for high-quality, unsalted mixes with dried fruit and protein-packed nuts. Better yet make your own with all your favorite ingredients!
Greek yogurt with fruit – They whey/casein combo in greek yogurt means you’re getting a mix of fast and slow digesting proteins which provide muscle building amino acids during your workout. It also contains live bacteria which promotes digestive health. Also fruit = carbs.
What about post workout?
Any of the above options (except perhaps the coffee) would be great for post workout as well! A few other options are:
Chicken and veggies – (or swap it for Salmon and brown rice/quinoa) These are simple to throw together as well as great meals to re-fuel and recover.
Eggs and hash browns – A great protein and carb combo and eggs are good for your brain! Add your favorite sautéed veggies to the potatoes. You can also hard-boil your eggs and keep them in the fridge for an even quicker snack.
Mix and match the foods you prefer. Learn more about what foods are rich in which macronutrients and vitamins. Experiment and discover which foods fuel you best and which foods your body doesn’t respond well to. Once you figure out what’s best for you personally, you can run with it (quite literally).
So let’s bring it back around.
That was a lot of information my cardio compadres, so here is your final recap. Know that you can definitely benefit from a little pre and post workout carb/protein combo. The science is real. If you want that extra je ne sais quoi then add that metaphorical fertilizer. If not, you can feel secure knowing that as long as you’re eating well-balanced, nutrient-dense meals, getting adequate rest and drinking plenty of water, your body should be able to supply you with the energy you need for your typical daily workout. Keep up the great work and keep doing you!
Written by Loni Huston-Eizenga