We all know eating healthy and exercising go hand in hand, but timing those variables can certainly feel complicated. You might be consistently working out, but if you aren’t consistently fueling your efforts and recovering from them, you likely won’t see the results you want.
There’s so much information about when, what and how to eat for exercise and it can be confusing to know where to start. In this article, I’ll streamline the most important pieces of the puzzle so you can start feeling and seeing results.
Laying the Foundation
First things first, if you aren’t eating enough throughout the day, you can time your pre and post workout meals perfectly and still not see or feel results. You have to eat enough food throughout the day to optimize results and keep your body from using your hard-earned muscle as fuel! Eating three meals a day, spaced approximately 4 hours apart is ideal. Include a protein, healthy fat and fiber source at every meal to stabilize blood sugar and keep you feeling satisfied, focused and grounded between meals.
Why does performance nutrition matter?
Eating enough of the right foods at the right time is important for many reasons. Appropriate meal timing can help:
Optimize performance-- strength and endurance.
Keep you focused during and after exercise.
Support recovery so you can stay consistent with your workouts.
Give you energy so you don’t feel like you’ve been hit by a bus afterwards.
Keep your body from dipping into energy reserves from your liver or muscles.
Maintain steady blood sugar.
Curb cravings later in the day.
When and what you eat before exercise are the most important factors to consider. For a long time, the guidance was to eat carbs 30 minutes before your workout and protein immediately after. Although there’s truth in that wisdom, it turns out our bodies are a little more flexible than that! Let’s break down what and when to eat to maximize your workouts.
What to Eat Before Exercise
The goal is to fuel your body to optimize the workout. Easy to digest carbs that are low in fiber and fat give your brain and muscles quick energy for a workout and maintain your blood sugar. Usually, we harp on keeping your blood sugar from getting too high, but in this case, we don’t want it to get too low. If it dips too low during exercise, it’s likely to leave you feeling ravenous and result in a spike later on. Eat a carb-y snack approximately 30 to 60 minutes before your workout. Everyone’s ability to tolerate protein and fat before a workout differs, so play around with what works for you.
Foods to try:
Banana + nut butter
Whole fruit- apple, orange, pear, melon, etc. (dried fruit is harder to digest before a workout)
Bars- my favorites are Picky Bars, Thunderbird, GoMacro, Lara Bars
Pretzels or crackers
Toast with nut butter + honey
Small fruit smoothie
What to Eat During Exercise
In workouts less than 60-90 minutes, the focus is on maintaining fluid and electrolyte balance to keep you feeling energized and strong. Sip water throughout your workout and consider adding a splash of coconut water or orange juice and a pinch of salt for an electrolyte boost.
During strenuous exercise lasting longer than 60-90 minutes, it’s important to replenish fluid, electrolytes and carbs. Day to day workouts don’t often tip into this category, but if you run, bike, swim, or hike, you may occasionally workout longer than 60-90 minutes and require fuel to avoid using energy reserves. If you regularly exercise for longer durations, we should talk further to ensure you’re fueling your efforts well!
What to Eat After Exercise
The focus after exercise is to efficiently recover so you reap the benefits of your hard work. Plan to eat within two hours of your workout to rebuild and repair muscle and aim for at least 15-20 grams of protein. It can be easier to time your workouts before a meal or try protein shakes, smoothies, meat sticks, boiled eggs or greek yogurt for super quick post-workout snacks.
Don’t forget to replace lost fluids! Drink half your bodyweight in ounces of water a day. For example, a 150 pound person should drink at least 75 ounces of water a day. If you had a particularly sweaty workout, you’ll need to drink even more.
It can be hard to squeeze a workout into a busy day. Trying to time meals around exercise can be an added stressor, but it doesn’t need to be super complicated! Use these guidelines to loosely time your intake around exercise.
If you’ve eaten a meal within 3 hours of exercise and aren’t hungry, you’re probably okay for a workout lasting 60 minutes or less.
If you have eaten within 3 hours but you’re hungry, EAT!
If you haven’t eaten for 3 hours, consume a carb-rich snack to fuel your workout.
Early morning exercisers tend to skip a pre-workout snack and opt for eating breakfast right after. If that’s working for you, great! I would encourage you to try a small, carb-rich snack like half a bar, a piece of toast, or a banana and notice how you feel doing this. If it makes no difference, then you can bag it. My hunch is you’ll feel stronger, more energized and satiated for the rest of the day. As always, have a protein-rich meal as soon as possible after working out.
For those of you who exercise after work, a carb-based snack between lunch and dinner will most likely be necessary. If you’re an after-dinner exerciser, you might not need as much protein if you’ve eaten a good 25-30 grams with dinner, but a snack is still a good idea.
Don’t let nutrition be a limiting factor in your performance!
You shouldn’t spend the rest of the day feeling completely wiped out. In fact, workouts should feel energizing and leave you feeling focused and engaged. If you feel vaguely like you’ve been run over by a bus or you’re dragging yourself through workouts, make sure you’re eating enough throughout the day and fueling your workouts well.
Need more support?
If you’re looking for specific advice, reach out to our team for individualized guidance. If you need some workout inspiration, try Mission Rise for effective weekly routines you can do from the comfort of your home! If you're local to State College - try Ki'netik Fitness for personal training and group fitness classes.