Did you know that the foods you eat before and after you exercise can affect your energy levels and the effectiveness of your workout? Eating the right foods will give you energy, help you burn more calories and provide your body with the nutrients it needs to build muscle in order to speed up recovery.

You may burn the same amount of fat during your workout whether you eat or not; however, many people do not realize working out on an empty stomach can cause muscle loss. When you are hungry, your body goes into starvation/survival mode. If this happens, your body will begin turning your muscles into protein to supply the body with energy. You can avoid this by eating an hour before you exercise.

The best foods to eat before you exercise are complex carbohydrates, heart-healthy fats, and lean proteins. The carbohydrates supply immediate energy whereas healthy fats provide long-term energy throughout your entire workout. The body uses fats to increase muscle mass. Finally, your body needs protein to build muscle and make new blood cells, which are responsible for carrying oxygen and nutrients to your muscles.

  1. The Importance of Staying Hydrated: When you exercise, it is easy to become dehydrated. Therefore, it is essential that you drink at least 16 ounces of fluids two hours before you exercise. Many people wonder whether it is better to drink plain water or a sports drink. Usually, water is sufficient; however, if you will be exercising in extreme heat or for extended periods of time (longer than an hour), you may benefit from a low sugar sports drink.
  2. Cardio Workouts: Cardio routines burn a lot of calories and get your heart pumping. Ideally, a pre-workout meal is low in sugar and fat, moderate in protein and high in carbohydrates. This meal should be consumed an hour to an hour and a half before you exercise. This timeframe allows your meal to be digested so it can provide you with the energy you need. One pre-workout meal that many people often turn to is a smoothie, containing berries, bananas and almond milk. After your workout, you will need to replenish your energy levels and nutrients. Choosing a snack will help your muscles recover and reduce soreness. Immediately following your workout, drink a cup of chocolate milk or another beverage that contains protein and electrolytes, such as a protein shake made with coconut water. For best results, your post-workout snack should be consumed within an hour of exercising.
  3. Strength Training Workouts : You need to eat a balanced meal of carbohydrates and proteins at least an hour before your workout if you will be strength training. The carbohydrates help prevent fatigue and muscle breakdown, while the protein helps with muscle growth and repair. One great pre-workout meal is a peanut butter and banana sandwich on whole wheat bread. When you are strength training, your muscles will undergo a lot of stress. Consuming protein after your workout, will provide your body with the amino acids it needs to repair and build lean muscle. One of the easiest ways to get this essential protein is to enjoy a protein bar.
  4. Pre-Workout Snacks: You want a pre-workout meal that supplies both complex . These will help provide you with energy and amino acids your body needs to build muscle and get the most out of your workout. Try some of the following pre-workout meals to increase your energy levels and build muscle.
    • Rice and Beans: Combine a half a cup of black beans and a half a cup of brown rice for a great pre-workout meal that supplies both protein and carbohydrates.
    • Sweet Potato and Broccoli: Eating a sweet potato with a cup of steamed broccoli tossed in olive oil will provide you with the nutrients your body needs.
    • Apples and Walnuts: A quarter cup of apples and a quarter of a cup of walnuts will keep your energy levels up throughout your workout.
    • Berry Filled Oatmeal: This snack is especially beneficial for early morning workouts. Simply combine a half cup of cooked oatmeal with a cup of fresh berries for a delicious pre-workout meal.
    • Crackers and Hummus: Spread 3 tablespoons of hummus on ten multigrain crackers for a snack that will provide the protein and carbohydrates you need for an effective workout.
  5. Post Workout Snacks: After a workout, your body needs fuel to restore your energy, heal your muscles and prevent soreness. After your workout, eat a protein and carbohydrate-rich snack within one hour to maximize the effectiveness of your exercise routine. Pack one of these snacks to enjoy immediately following your workout.
    • Protein Shakes: You will see a lot of athletes grabbing a protein shake after they work out because it is so effective in reducing soreness and improving the effectiveness of a workout. Combine a tablespoon of hemp seed, almond milk, a half a banana and a scoop of protein powder to create a delicious shake.
    • Peanut Butter Sandwich: If you are short on time, you can make a peanut butter sandwich to enjoy after your workout. Spread 2 tablespoons of peanut butter on 2 slices of multi-grain bread. For a sweet treat, add a teaspoon of agave nectar.
    • Quinoa, Fruit and Nuts:  Enjoy a cup of quinoa topped with 1 cup of blackberries and a 1/4 cup of pecans for a delicious post-workout snack.
    •  Bean Burrito: A burrito filled with half cup of beans, half cup of brown rice, 2 tablespoons of guacamole and 2 tablespoons of salsa will restore your energy and help with recovery following a workout.
    • Tofu and Vegetables: Tofu is a great choice for those who are looking to build lean muscle. Enjoy half a cup of tofu and a cup of steamed vegetables after your workout.

To summarize, you need to eat a couple of hours before you exercise and within one hour after you exercise to supply your body with the nutrients it needs. Additionally, drink plenty of water before, during and immediately following your workout to remain hydrated. You will be rewarded with a healthy and fit body if you follow the pre-workout and post-workout guidelines we have discussed.

About Elizabeth McMillan

Elizabeth McMillan, MS, CNS is a board certified nutritionist at Rose Wellness Center in Northern Virginia.  She specializes in science-based nutrition therapy that focuses on preventive health and optimizing one’s wellness.  Elizabeth places a strong emphasis on the relationship between our food choices, lifestyle, and integrative wellness.