Your workout routine is complicated enough on its own. Whether you’ve gone through the perils of program design and built something custom-made for your body or spent many hours mulling over which pre-existing template is right for you, you’ve probably put a good deal of thought into how you exercise. The last thing you need is to spend even more mental energy figuring out how to optimize your nutrition.
Trying to figure out what to eat when working out can be a challenge. To have great workouts, it is important to fuel your body, before, during, and after training. With so many different options out there, it can be quite overwhelming to figure out what you should be eating.
This guide will help you navigate some of those options so that you can maximize the results of all your hard work in the gym.
- What to Eat Pre-Workout
- What to Eat During Your Workout
- What to Eat After Your Workout
- Common Workout Nutrition Myths
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What to Eat Pre-Workout
What you eat before working out can be very important — in the right context. The foods you eat before training will provide a direct fuel source that your body uses while exercising. The goal of pre-workout nutrition is to make you feel energized without being overly full or sluggish. What you should actually eat before training is going to depend on two major factors:
- How much time you have before your training session.
- The type of training you’re doing in the gym.
You want to make sure your pre-workout meal has at least some carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are very important for training because they are the main fuel source your body draws from during anaerobic activities like lifting weights. You should strive to give your body enough carbohydrates to fuel the strenuous workout you’re about to undergo.
Before training, protein should be kept at low to moderate levels, because protein takes longer to digest and is ideally not used as a fuel source during training. That said, a little bit of protein before training can result in a greater net protein balance overall.
Although fats are a very important part of a healthy diet, fats should also be kept to a minimum before training because of their slow digestion and lesser importance during some types of exercise. What you eat prior to training depends heavily on how far out from your session you are, so take note of the differences here.
30 Minutes or Less Before
If you’re less than an hour away from your workout, you’ll want to focus primarily on carbohydrate-heavy foods that digest smoothly and provide you with a quick burst of energy going into your training session. Usually, the best option in this area will be simple, high-Glycemic Index (GI) carbs. Some viable examples include:
Bananas are a great source of carbohydrates that digest well for just about everyone. They are loaded with important training-related micronutrients such as potassium and vitamin B-6.
Unsweetened applesauce can be a good quick source of carbohydrates that digests well and is tasty. Applesauce is a good source of potassium, vitamin A, and vitamin C to boot.
Making a homemade fruit smoothie can be a convenient and effective way to give your body some extra fuel before training. The key here is to not make the smoothie so heavy that you experience an upset stomach, bloating, or any other unwanted side effect while training.
1-2 Hours Before
If you have a bit more time before working out, what you should eat should probably change. If you’re one or two hours out, you will want to focus on getting in a high-quality source of carbohydrates to fuel your workout and low to moderate protein. Since you have more time, you should focus on more complex carbohydrates and high-quality protein sources. Some of your options could be:
Oatmeal is a good complex carbohydrate that contains high amounts of soluble fiber which can improve gut health and lower cholesterol.
It also can give you a steady rise of glucose to fuel your workouts due to its fiber content and complex carbohydrate count. Although not necessary, adding your favorite protein powder to your oatmeal can help you meet your total daily protein goals while also adding some flavor to the oats.
If you’re running low on protein powder, you can add some peanut butter to up the protein content and to add some healthy fats.
Whole Grain Bread Sandwich
Whole grain bread can be jam packed with nutrients such as carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Making a sandwich with your favorite lean deli cut meats and some veggies can be a nutritious pre-workout meal that fits all the criteria of a good pre-workout meal.
Peanut Butter on a Whole Wheat Bagel
Peanut butter provides healthy fats along with some protein. Whole grain bagels are high in carbohydrates and will give your body the fuel it needs to crush your upcoming workout.
3-4 Hours Before
If you’re several hours away from your workout, you have lots of flexibility regarding your dietary choices. As long as you focus on eating a well-balanced meal made up of several major food groups, you’ll be in good shape.
The goal of a meal several hours out should be getting your body all the important nutrients it needs throughout the day. As long as it contains a majority of these things, the specific foods you ingest are totally up to you:
- Lean Protein Source
- Complex Carbohydrate
- Fat Source
What to Eat During Your Workout
Intra-workout nutrition — or what you consume while you’re actually working out — varies in importance depending on what kind of training you’re into. Generally, unless you are training for longer than about 2 hours continuously, you may not need to eat anything during your training session.
This applies to majority of folks who like to lift weights. Even if your powerlifting or weightlifting workouts do last longer than two full hours, a large portion of that time in the gym is dedicated to resting between intense sets. The science also supports this — a standard lifting-focused workout should only deplete your muscles’ glycogen levels by about 40%. (1)
However, if you are a more endurance-focused athlete, or are a bodybuilder deep into a weight cut, you may very well want to consider consuming some fuel while training. In such cases, you can try these options during your session:
- A sports drink
- Carbohydrate powders or mixers
- Fruit snacks
Anything that you can mix into your shaker bottle or snack on without any prep will do wonders for your energy levels.
What to Eat After Your Workout
What you eat after your workout can have a great long-term impact on the gains you ultimately receive. Post-workout, the importance of nutrition is going to shift from carbohydrates to protein.
Yes, carbohydrates are still important and can be a part of a solid post workout meal to help replenish glycogen, but the bigger factor here is kickstarting muscle protein synthesis by ingesting a high-quality protein source.
Ideally, you want a complete protein source that digests well. Along with this, you want to strive for a meal that will provide you about 20 to 40 grams of protein at minimum. Some great protein-packed options post-workout might be:
Chicken and Rice
Four ounces of chicken breast provides about 35 grams of high-quality protein and, when paired with white or brown rice and some vegetables, can make for a nutritious and effective post-workout meal.
Steak and Sweet Potatoes
Depending on the type of steak you get, the protein content will vary, but striving for about four to six ounces of a low-fat cut of meat and pairing it with a solid complex carbohydrate like sweet potatoes or some vegetables will do the trick every time.
Protein Shake and Fruit
Whether you add both of these components to your blender or have each of them separately, the convenience of having a high-quality protein powder like whey and pairing it with a healthy fruit source is an unbeatable post-workout meal.
Common Workout Nutrition Myths
Plenty of unfortunate myths and mysticism has plagued the sports nutrition scene. If you’ve been confused in the past about whether or not you need to eat before or during your workouts, don’t fret. Here are some common nutrition-related myths, firmly busted.
The Anabolic Window
You may have heard of the “anabolic window” — the golden opportunity for muscle growth that, if you miss it, basically invalidates all the hard work you put in in the gym. As ridiculous as this sounds, plenty of athletes may have fallen prey to this myth and rushed home after every training session with the only goal in mind being to slam down a protein shake.
It is well known that you need to consume protein to begin the muscle-building process. However, when that protein is consumed is of lesser importance than you may think. You can still build muscle if you delay eating protein for longer than 30 minutes. (2)
With that being said, since there is no real downside to consuming protein relatively shortly after working out, the anabolic window may ironically be a decent strategy to maintain adherence to your diet.
Immediate Glycogen Replenishment
A single lifting workout only partially depletes the energy stores in your muscles. For this reason, it is not necessary to immediately replenish your glycogen stores post workout, since there is likely to be plenty left over. Along with this, when you eat any meal that contains carbohydrates, you will likely be replenishing some of that glycogen content lost along the way.
As long as you ingest some carbohydrate between workout sessions, there’s no need to tear open a packet of Pop Tarts as soon as you leave the gym in a futile attempt to refuel your “empty” muscles.
Assuming you will be having a carbohydrate containing meal before your next training session, immediately trying to slam down a bunch of carbs is probably unnecessary.
Fasted Training & Muscle Growth
Old-school bodybuilding dogma leans heavily into the importance of eating frequently. Very frequently, in fact. You may be under the impression that your muscles are liable to shrivel up and fall off your bones if you don’t put a meal down every hour on the dot. Fortunately, this position doesn’t hold up to scientific scrutiny. As it turns out, your body is quite resilient.
However, what happens if you skip breakfast (or lunch) and train fasted? While this isn’t inherently detrimental, you might be playing with fire if your intra or post-workout nutrition isn’t on point. The rate of muscle protein breakdown is dramatically accelerated if you train in a fasted state, (3) but you can mitigate this effect by ensuring that you get some calories in shortly after a fasted resistance training workout.
The Whole Plate
When it comes to eating around your workouts, having too many options can be overwhelming. The most important thing to remember is that eating itself before you train is generally more important than getting the composition of every meal down to an exact science.
Strive to get in a good amount of carbohydrates prior to working out. If your workout lasts longer than two hours, consider eating some easily-digested carbohydrates and stay hydrated.
Post-workout, eat some type of high-quality protein source and then consume a well-balanced diet throughout the day that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein sources, and healthy fats. Doing so will ensure that you reap all the gains from your hard training sessions and will make grueling leg workouts all the more worthwhile!
1. Knuiman, P., Hopman, M. T., & Mensink, M. (2015). Glycogen availability and skeletal muscle adaptations with endurance and resistance exercise. Nutr Metab (Lond), 12, 59.
2. McGlory, C., Devries, M. C., & Phillips, S. M. (2017). Skeletal muscle and resistance exercise training; the role of protein synthesis in recovery and remodeling. J Appl Physiol (1985), 122(3), 541-548.
3. Aragon, A. A., & Schoenfeld, B. J. (2013). Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window?. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 10(1)
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