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What to Eat Before and After a Workout

What to Eat Before and After a Workout

Whether you are working out to lose weight, build muscle or maintain your stamina, the importance of diet cannot be overstated. What you put into your body before and after the gym directly impacts the effectiveness of your workout (especially as we get older).

In other words, diet and exercise go hand in hand, and there is no point in pumping iron for two or three hours several days a week, or hitting that treadmill for an hour after work Monday through Friday, unless you are being careful about what you eat. In fact, poor food choices, or even irregular meal times, can go a long way to undermining all your hard work on the gym floor.

Want to get the most from your workouts and ensure the leanest body with the most muscle mass? Then take a close look at our pre- and post-workout meal guidelines. Some of the foods here are common sense, while others may surprise you.

What to Eat Before Your Workout

It’s amazing how many gym rabbits skip meals before pumping iron. Wrong! The scary truth is that working out on an empty stomach can actually cause you to lose muscle, since your body will draw the fuel it needs to keep going from the muscle you already have. So, no meal-skipping before the gym!

Now that we got that out of the way, what should you eat?

A good pre-workout meal comes down to this straightforward need: what foods are the best way to fuel you up with the energy you will need while ensuring that your body is primed to build muscle while burning the maximum number of calories?

The best pre-workout foods contain a nice combination of complex and simple carbohydrates to make sure that the release of energy during your routine is slow and steady with no energy spiking or crashing. Along with the right mix of carbs, you of course will need some protein.  

These foods will give you all the energy you need while helping your body to stay fit and build (or maintain) lean muscle.

If you like to keep your meal light before the gym, a half a cup of brown rice with some black beans will digest easily, fuel you up and give you a nice amount of protein. Or try a small sweet potato with some steamed broccoli. It’s quick and simple to make and easy to scarf down. Banana in almond butter is also terrific! It provides a decent amount of carbs and a good amount of protein. Plus, the potassium-rich banana will help replenish the potassium you sweat out at the gym.

Other smart, healthy light choices include multi-grain crackers with hummus, apples and walnuts, Greek yogurt with fresh fruit or berries and cottage cheese and fruit.

How about a sandwich before your workout? Try a whole-grain turkey wrap with vegetables. Or take that old standby, peanut butter and jelly, and spread some on whole wheat toast or a whole wheat English muffin, and your pre-workout needs will be satisfied quite nicely. Not to mention your taste buds! But do be careful with the sugar content in your P&J; check the label carefully. And avoid any food that lists high fructose corn syrup as one of its ingredients.

A two-egg omelet with vegetables and low-fat cheese is a great choice if you have a larger appetite. If you really like to fill up before working out, oatmeal with fruit is your best friend. Hot oatmeal will satisfy your tummy while gradually releasing sugar into your bloodstream to ensure steady energy. The fruit will give you an extra kick of energy while also helping to keep you hydrated. 6-oz of grilled chicken with sweet potato and some greens, like broccoli, will satisfy even those with the biggest pre-workout appetites.

What to Eat After Your WorkOut

Okay, now you’ve learned the importance of eating before working out and have a good idea of what those foods should be. So let’s talk about post-workout foods.

Essentially, after working out, you want to eat to stay energized, build lean muscle, lose weight and restore the all-important glycogen that was depleted from your muscles. This requires the right balance of muscle-building protein along with carbohydrates. The key here is to eat as soon as you can following your workout, with 30 minutes to an hour after the gym being the optimum window to maximize the benefits of your meal.

If you want to keep it light following the gym, but still ensure the right balance of protein, carbs and nutrients, go for a post-workout protein shake, with a scoop of protein powder and banana. The emphasis after working out is on the protein, so consider throwing in some hemp seeds.

A protein-rich salad is another great option. A grilled-chicken breast salad is an excellent choice, as is one with salmon or tuna. If you’re vegetarian, no need to worry. Try a salad with roasted chickpeas and steamed vegetables. How about a bowl of quinoa with berries and pecans?

A vegetable stir-fry with tofu is another terrific, protein-rich vegetarian option. Also, tuna salad on whole wheat bread. Here’s a spicy and surprising vegetarian option: curry sweet potatoes with broccoli and cashews. Brown rice is a healthy source of carbohydrates and energy. Why not have a bowl of brown rice with shrimp, tuna or chicken? Or an egg rice bowl?

Have a bigger appetite than the above can fill? A three-egg omelet with spinach and vegetables will fill you up and hit all your post-workout needs. Like a big meal after lifting and sweating it out at the gym? No problem! Grilled chicken breast and a baked sweet potato coming right up! Or salmon with sweet potato. Believe it or not, a burrito with beans, brown rice, guacamole and salsa is also a smart post-workout meal. So is a black bean avocado enchilada.

If you like your meat red, beef with squash or greens will hit your protein needs quite nicely and give you a good amount of carbs and calories while still keeping your meal low in fat. And don’t be afraid of beef (or turkey) meatballs!  Throw some baked meatballs in a salad or have them with a side of greens. And guess what? If you watch the portions, spaghetti with meat sauce also works just fine.

All of the above meals will replenish your depleted glycogen, help you rebuild muscle in the leanest way possible and ensure you take in the right amount of carbs and calories. And as you can see, there is no need to be overly restrictive with your diet. There are myriad ways to eat healthy, keep your diet diverse and rewarding, and easily come up with the right meal choices.

A few other quick tips: eating four or five smaller meals a day is better than two huge meals (as so many of us do). Protein bars and trail mix can be fine pre- or post-workout snack options – but look at the label closely. Many of these products are loaded with sugar.

Eat well, stay active, and live healthy!

Frances Masters

Frances Masters is a BACP accredited psychotherapist with over 30,000 client hours of experience. Follow her @fusioncoachuk, or visit The Integrated Coaching Academy for details about up coming training.