Munching on an apple and peanut butter? Energy bar? Coconut water? Nothing? Whatever your workout preference, be it a Spinning class, yoga, or Zumba, it’s essential that your body be primed for each specific pursuit. But what, exactly, should you eat before, after, and during a workout?
“What you eat while training is dictated by the condition you’re in and the type of training you are performing,” explains certified nutritionist and fitness expert Robert Ferguson. He suggests eating 20 to 40 minutes prior to working out in order to best optimize your performance. “You want to consume an adequate amount of protein to help with lean muscle repair and building. Scientific evidence demonstrates that people who consume 10 grams of protein before an intense workout are less likely to lose lean muscle tissue than those who don’t.”
And let’s not forget about carbs. “Carbohydrates are the number one fuel for the body,” says Kosta Kokolis, licensed physical therapist and co-founder of Bodhizone. “Not only are they essential for brain and spinal cord function, but they also supply the body with the energy needed to perform.”
“It's vital to have a combination of simple as well as complex carbs so that energy is released in a smooth and steady manner throughout the workout,” agrees Dr. Robert Glatter, attending physician in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “Eating fresh fruit with whole wheat toast and peanut butter, for example, will supply you with both types of carbohydrates. The complex carbs in the wheat bread help you to sustain the workout, while the fruit gives you an added boost of energy. The protein and glucose in the peanut butter add additional fuel for the workout.”
It goes with saying that hydration is key when exercising. “Hydrating during physical activity is crucial, because water leaves your body quickly when exercising,” explains Kokolis. “Your body loses water not only by sweating but also by breathing. Both of these increase dramatically with exercise. Hence, your body will need more water than usual. The American College of Sports Medicine states that 250 milliliters of water are needed for every 20 minutes, which is about two or three big sips from your water bottle.”
After a workout, it's important to focus on recovery; you’ll need food that is rich in nutrients. Ferguson recommends eating a meal within 60 minutes of concluding the workout. “Research shows the faster you get your meal, the better this will replenish low blood sugar after a workout,” says Kokolis. “Eating lean proteins and carbohydrates that are slow to digest will help you to optimize recovery while providing necessary fuel and stabilizing your blood sugar.”
Dr. Glatter suggests lean proteins (chicken, fresh fish, or tofu) and mixed steamed vegetables drizzled with olive oil or an omelette with vegetables and avocado. “The eggs are an excellent source of protein, and they help in muscle recovery as well as growth,” he says. “Avocado contains monounsaturated healthy fats along with fiber. Just like olive oil, the avocados allow your body to better absorb fat soluble compounds and nutrients such as vitamins A, D, E, and K, which are contained in the vegetables. The vitamins also function as antioxidants, further improving your health.”
To help you make the most of your workout, we asked fitness experts to share their healthy eating recommendations.
“An hour and a half before you work out, eat a light meal or snack with a combination of carbs and proteins — a small bowl of oatmeal with raisins and walnuts, for example. Then, drink coffee 15 to 30 minutes before your workout to rev up your heart rate. In the 45 minutes after your work out, try a healthy protein shake with berries, hemp or whey protein, almond milk, and ice, or a healthy salad with chicken, veggies, extra-virgin olive oil, and lemon juice.”
- Anna Kaiser, celebrity trainer and founder of AKT InMotion
“Bootcamp is a very intense cardio and weight workout. I have to be careful what I eat before, or I end up feeling nauseous. Pre-workout, I grab half a banana and a cup of coffee. The combination of the natural sugar and caffeine give me the kick I need for an intense workout. Then I come home and have a green smoothie: coconut water, ice, the other half of banana, two scoops of my favorite protein powder, one tablespoon flax or chia seeds, cinnamon, turmeric, and two handfuls of greens (I rotate between collards, chard, kale, and spinach). This smoothie offers a balance of protein, healthy carbs, fiber, and essential fatty acids.”
- Tracee Gluhaich, personal trainer