If you’re putting in loads of physical effort to reach your fitness goals but are missing the nutrition aspect of your work-outs, you may not be getting the biggest bang for your buck!
Nutrition and meal timing plays a large role in muscle building but also recovery and replenishing your energy stores. Eating carbohydrates will rebuild glycogen stores (where you get energy!) and is important for people who exercise often. The other macronutrient needed for getting the most out of your workout is adequate protein intake. While protein may be an obvious choice because of how it repairs and rebuilds damaged muscles and tissues, it is especially important for maximizing glycogen synthesis paired with carbohydrates.
But knowing what, when, or even IF to eat through different stages of your workouts may be equally important for meeting fitness goals!
(As always it’s important to stay hydrated through every stage of fitness. For the importance of hydration and fitness, see my Hydration, Hydration, Hydration! article.)
Before Exercise Eating before exercise is a great way to fuel up your glycogen and protein stores, much like you would a gas tank before a long road trip. Ensuring your body is ready for action may be the difference between success and setback when meeting fitness goals. Not only is eating before a workout an important part of meeting fitness goals but what you’re eating and when can make a big difference too! Eating 2-3 hours before a workout is ideal as it will give your body time to digest properly. If morning workouts your jam, aim for smaller and easier to digest meals, like a piece of fruit, 1 hour beforehand. But what a pre-workout meal looks like will depend on the type of training you’re embarking on. • Endurance An endurance athlete preparing for a long run will need more carbs than someone getting ready for a 45-minute gym session. Choosing small meals consisting of low glycemic carbohydrates and small amounts of lean protein will help top up glycogen stores and will play a key role in building and repairing tissue and muscles. This combination will be best for sustained energy and balanced blood sugar during a longer workout. Fats and fibre should be kept to a minimum to prevent potential bloating or digestive discomfort during exercise as these can take longer to digest. The general starting point is approximately .25-0.5 grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight but can be customized depending on your preferences or needs.
Pre-Exercise Endurance Meal Ideas: • Oatmeal with Maple Syrup, Almond Butter, and Banana • Whole Grain Toast / Rice Cakes with Nut Butter + Fruit Preserves • Smoothie made with almond milk, Protein Powder and Mixed Berries + Banana • Organic Greek Yogurt with Berries
• Resistance Weight training on an empty stomach may cause your body to use protein as fuel, which means the body will be at a protein deficit, leaving less for building and repairing muscles after exercise. For short quick bursts of energy like weight lifting or HIIT, keeping on top of your protein stores in addition to your glycogen stores will help you stay energized without the risk of muscle wasting. A general rule of thumb for resistance training before a workout is approximately 2-3 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight.
Pre-Exercise Resistance Meal Ideas:
• Egg Whites and Whole Grain Bread
• Chicken and Yams
• Oatmeal with Maple Syrup, Almond Butter, and Banana
• Whole Grain Toast with Nut Butter
During Exercise Whether you’re an athlete that trains for hours on end or you have a 3 day a week routine the most important thing you can do for your body is to keep it hydrated during a workout. Taking small sips throughout your workout will keep your hydration levels balanced. (For indicators and tips for adequate hydration see Meal Garden’s Hydration, Hydration, Hydration! article.) Typically, eating is not necessary during a workout and the meals you eat before and after your workout will help ‘fuel your tank’. If you're exercising for longer periods (1+ hour), having a quick-digesting carbohydrate and some electrolytes on hand will help replenish energy:
1+ Hour Exercise Snack Ideas:
• Fresh or Dried Fruit
After Exercise Eating carbohydrates with the addition of protein after a workout is the best way to replenish the body’s glycogen stores. How MUCH glycogen was used during a workout greatly depends on the activity and energy output. Endurance training will utilize much more glycogen than say, resistance training. To get the most out of your workouts, your post-workout meal should consist of 3:1 or 4:1 carbohydrates to protein ratio.
Knowing what we know now about the effect of carbohydrates and glycogen stores, if you are exercising for a prolonged period of time (1+ hrs) it is safe to assume you’ll require a higher carbohydrate to protein ratio post-workout. Increasing your carbohydrates ratio to 4:1 (Carbs:Protein) will help replenish your glycogen stores and keep you energized throughout the day and for future workouts.
Post-Exercise 4:1 Meal Ideas:
• Bowl of Granola with Almond Milk
• Spinach and Salmon Salad with Whole Grain Baguette.
•Wild Rice Pasta with Diced Tomatoes.
• Raisin bread with Cottage Cheese or Organic Silken Tofu and sliced Bananas
• Canned Salmon on Pita with Romaine Lettuce and Roasted Red Peppers
• Resistance Research shows that a ratio of 3:1 carbohydrate to protein is a great general guide to follow for post-workout meals as you won’t be tapping into your energy stores with shorter bursts of activity.
Post-Exercise 3:1 Meal Ideas:
• Smoothie with High-Quality Protein Isolate, Banana, Almond Milk, Frozen Berries + Spinach
• Grilled Chicken on Whole Grain or Rice Tortilla with Hummus + Cucumbers
• Quinoa with Black Beans, Diced Grilled Tofu, Chopped Kale + Olive Oil
• Sweet Potato Toast and Scrambled Egg + Avocado
Finding What Works BEST For You! No matter what your preferences for fitness, finding the best food and meal timings that work around your lifestyle and routine is ultimately the most important part of your goals. Not only will it help you find a manageable routine, but you’ll also discover what helps fuel your energy optimally. Being able to stick to a plan that works is the biggest part of success in any fitness journey!