It’s funny how when it comes to eating before or after exercise, food all of a sudden seems to take on a magical quality.

Get that protein shake in as soon as you leave the gym or your muscles won’t grow! Heck, start drinking it while you’re still there! Drink that Gatorade or else you’ll cramp!

Ok, let me just say…food affects you every time you eat it.

But, it is true that well-informed timing of your nutrient intake around your workouts can make a difference in your performance, recovery time, and results.

First, I want to preface this whole post by saying that I am gearing this towards those who are exercising for general health or maybe achieve PRs. If you are an athlete at a high level of training, you would likely benefit from more specific guidance.

Now speaking to the rest of you, the following advice can apply to the occasional gym-goer, but I would definitely recommend you take notes if you are training for an endurance event such as a half or full marathon or you are body building (I’m looking at you, cross-fitters).

Ok, let’s dive in.

Goals: Hydrate, Provide Sustained Energy, Prevent GI Distress

Focus: Mostly Carbohydrates, Some Protein

Your last meal or snack before a workout should be easy to digest but still not get broken down too quickly. The further out you’re eating from your workout, the less you have to worry about digestibility. In fact, if you ate a balanced meal (included protein and carbohydrates) 2-3 hours ago, you are likely good to go. But if your gym class starts in less than 60-90 minutes and it’s been awhile since you last ate or it’s 6am (you crazy person) then you’ve got to be smart about your food. Avoid foods that are high in fat or fiber, because these take longer to digest and are more likely to cause…ahem…gastrointestinal distress.

I recommend you focus on a mix of simple and complex carbohydrates (watch my Facebook live to learn about the difference!) with some protein. This combination can enhance your performance, especially for prolonged exercise (ie long runs) and HIIT. The simple carbs get you gassed up (ok not literally…bad verbiage there) for the beginning of your workout and the complex carbs will give you a sustained sourced of energy. Here are some examples based on how long you’ve got to digest:

1-4 hours Before Workout

-Nut butter and honey drizzle on whole wheat bread

-Fruit and yogurt smoothie

-Banana with nut butter

-Oatmeal with fruit and nuts

-Lean meat or chicken sandwich (high fat may cause tummy probs)

-Energy bar (Clif, Rxbar, Perfect Bar, Everbar, etc)

<1 hour Before Workout

-1/2-1 banana

-1/8-1/4 cup nuts

-A few crackers

-Piece of fruit or handful of berries

-Applesauce

What I Do:

My personal favorite pre-workout foods are bananas and nuts. I know it works for me…so I keep coming back. After a lot of trial and error, I finally learned that working out on an empty stomach makes me lightheaded and affects my energy levels the rest of the day as well. If I wake up and have <30 minutes before a workout, a few nuts or 1/4 frozen banana with literally even just a teaspoon of peanut butter does it. My goal here is to find something that will prevent my stomach from growling and me from passing out, without making me have to make an emergency pit stop. (This is an example of practical eating, where I’m not necessarily eating from hunger, but because I won’t have access to food when I need it. For more on how this fits with intuitive eating, let’s chat!)

Goals: Maintain hydration, Provide Immediate Energy, Prevent GI distress

Focus: Hydration and Simple carbohydrates

Munching on something in the middle of a workout is really a nonissue unless you’re exercising for more than an hour. And even then, if you’re exercising for less than 2 hours all you may need is a sports drink…or water and a few gels or gummies. But long distance runners and other endurance athletes can benefit greatly from getting in ~30-45g carbohydrates and a few grams protein every hour. The key is to fuel early and often. If you wait until your mouth is dry or you’re feeling lightheaded, it’s too late. Start sipping water or a electrolyte drink within the first 15 minutes of a long workout and then add in small bites of your preferred mid-workout snack 30-45 minutes in.

Examples of mid-workout snacks:

Fresh fruit (banana is usually best tolerated and easiest to consume on the go)

Dried fruit (raisins, mango, dates, etc)

Fruit/veggie puree pouch

Pretzels

Rice cakes

Bites of granola or energy bar

Bites of a jam or honey sandwich

What I Do:

In my past experience as a low-key long distance runner, I found that distances of 5 miles or greater required hydration mid-run. On runs longer than 6-7 miles I also nibbled a gummy every ~10 minutes starting about half an hour in. Electrolyte replacement drinks never sat well in my stomach during a run. (I’m talking in the past tense because I’m taking a break from distance running at the moment and not sure yet if I’m going back…)

Goals: Recover, Rehydrate, Refuel, Build/Preserve Muscles

Focus: High Biological Value Protein and Carbohydrates

Ahhhh…you’re all done and you can stop worrying about whether something you eat will present the need to exit your body at an inopportune moment. Before you use your last drop of energy to sprint to the blender, let me put your mind at ease. That “window of optimum protein absorption” people reference is much wider than you think. You actually have about 2 whole hours to get in a high quality meal and still take advantage of your muscles’ increased fuel uptake. In fact, 24 hours after a workout, your muscles’ protein synthesis is in high gear. Even if hypertrophy (fancy word for gettin’ swoll) isn’t your goal, feeding those muscles will help you get stronger, make your performance improve, and set you up for success at your next workout…especially if it’s happening sooner than later (for instance if you go to a workout class after work and then plan to get up and run in the morning).

Now what’s that high biological value stuff I’m talking about as the focus for post-workout fuel? A high biological value protein means it is complete, or has all of the essential amino acids. Foods that come from animals are complete proteins. Soy and quinoa are pretty good runners up, since they contain all of the essential amino acids as well, but not quite as much lysine as whey protein, for instance. This may surprise you but…you really don’t need that much. 15-25 g protein (providing ~10g of the essential amino acids) will do it. If you have more than that at one time, you may not absorb all of it. You’re better off spreading your protein throughout the day. 

Here are some good examples of a post-workout snacks:

Whole wheat pita chips and hummus

Whole wheat crackers with nut butter

Glass of milk and a banana with peanut butter

Greek yogurt with berries and cereal

Dried fruit and nut trail mix

Here are some examples of good post-workout meals:

Eggs and toast

Smoothie with milk, fruit, and something green (spinach, kale, etc)

Vegetable omelette with whole wheat toast and apple slices

Peanut butter banana whole wheat sandwich

Turkey and spinach wrap and a piece of fruit

Burrito Bowl

Stir-fried veggies and tofu over quinoa

Grilled fish/chicken/steak and sweet potatoes roasted along with other veggies (broccoli, carrots, etc)

What I do:

The last thing I want to do when I’m sweat-soaked is cook up a meal. If I’m famished or had a long workout, I might have the same snack I ate before the workout (a few nuts, fruit and nut butter, etc.) and then take the time to shower and get cleaned up before heading into the kitchen.

So in summary, for a morning workout you may just need a bite of something before and then breakfast after. If you’re exercising after work, having a snack an hour before you leave might be a good idea and then just eat dinner as you normally would. It doesn’t need to be complicated. Let me know in the comments if you have any questions!