You’ve had a tough workout. You gave it your all – and them some. So you’re thinking, why not follow it up with a richly deserved treat? Maybe a store-bought smoothie (check out how to make a weight loss smoothie), a cupcake or some other delicious reward. Unfortunately, this can cancel out everything you’re striving for. If your goal is weight loss, there’s little point giving it your best in your workouts, if you don’t give it your best with what you eat. Of course treats (and cheat meals) are allowed. But save them for meals out with friends or a (very occasional) rainy Sunday on the sofa binge-watching your favorite show with a tub of ice cream. Don’t equate working out with food treats. Keep the workout rewards to the non-edible kind. Don’t even look at the junk food or sugary concoctions when you head out of the gym. So back off the 500-calorie white chocolate crème frappuccino and read on.
What you eat in the hours leading up to and immediately after your workout can have a profound effect on your performance and your recovery from exercise. That’s why it really pays to pay attention to what you eat at these times.
Follow these simple tips on what to eat pre and post-workout.
1. Pre-workout meal
When: 2 hours before exercise
This meal is vital for ensuring you have plenty of energy for your workout. Although some people can train without having eaten much beforehand, it’s not ideal if you’re looking for maximum performance. It is true that there’s evidence exercising on an empty stomach may burn more fat, but new research suggests that this might only be true in men.
What to eat: Your pre-workout meal should consist of low glycemic/slow-releasing carbohydrates such as brown rice plus lean protein and some healthy fats. This provides a slow and steady release of energy, while ensuring that complete gastric emptying has occurred by the time you start your workout. Workout stomach cramps are a real bummer. So experiment with the exact timing of this meal and move it forward or back according to your ability to digest food.
2. Pre-workout snack
When: 15 to 30 minutes before exercise
If you were unable to eat a proper pre-workout meal two hours before exercise or have a gruelling workout planned, you can top up your energy levels by eating or drinking a fast-acting, high-glycemic pre-workout smoothie, drink or snack just before starting your workout. This is a good strategy for early morning exercisers.
What to eat: A ripe banana, smoothie or sports drink are ideally suited for this window of opportunity. Fluids may be best if you are running or swimming, but food is probably fine if you are doing resistance training or riding a bike.
3. Workout snack
When: during exercise
If your workout is less than 60 minutes in duration or your workout is low intensity, you’ll probably only need water (or try some infused water for more variety) during your workout. Anything else is simply excess calories you just don’t need. If, however, you are going to be training long and hard, an isotonic sports drink may be useful as it will ensure your energy levels remain stable and prevent an energy crash. On very long workouts, you may actually need to take some food with you to keep you going.
What to eat: Here, easily digested carbs is the name of the game. Dried fruit, bananas, or energy bars are all good choices for very long endurance workouts.
4. Post-workout snack
When: immediately after exercise
On completion of your workout, your muscles are like wrung-out sponges and are desperate to be re-nourished – especially after weight training, interval training, or endurance training lasting 45 minutes or more. Insulin sensitivity is at its highest and most – if not all – food consumed at this time will be shunted directly into your muscles to replace what you have used during your workout. Fast acting carbs and protein consumed immediately after exercise will help ensure your muscles get exactly what they need to kick start the recovery process, replenish energy stores and ensure you are good to go and fully refuelled when you next head out for a workout. That translates into improved recovery, reduced muscle soreness, stronger muscles, and better performance.
If your goal is weight loss and you’re watching your calorie intake, you can skip the post-workout snack and just have a post-workout meal.
What to eat: Although real food is a viable option, one of the most efficient ways to get your calories in at this time is in the form of sports drinks, protein shakes or homemade healthy smoothies. Shoot for a 2:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein and try to consume it either during or immediately after your cool-down.
5. Post-workout meal
When: within 2 hours after exercise
The mechanisms responsible for shunting nutrients into your cells to facilitate post-exercise recovery are active for a couple of hours after your workout has finished. That means that your first proper post-exercise meal should be the biggest meal of your day. Your body will make use of most of the nutritional content of this meal to repair and recover from the preceding workout. And before you get carried away. That doesn’t mean chowing down on a burger and fries. Remembering the first “law” of nutrition – you are what you eat – you should make this, and every other meal you eat, as healthy as possible.
What to eat: Plenty of fresh vegetables, lean protein and healthy fats plus some unrefined complex carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes, wholemeal pasta or brown rice is the order of the day.
What you eat can have a huge impact on how you perform and the results you’ll reap from your workouts. Pay attention to what you eat and when, and you’ll get the best results possible from your training.