What to eat before or after the gym

Pre- and Post-Workout Nutrition

Many of my client’s workout.  Some really enjoy it and others do it because they know they need to.  I exercise begrudgingly.  It’s not something I enjoy but I know it needs to be done.

A common question I get is what should you eat before a workout and what should you eat after a workout.  There is a lot of conflicting information on this (isn’t there for everything though?).  So, I’ll discuss nutrients that are important before and after working out (and the why of course), a quick discussion on macros, and some thoughts on fasted workouts.

Hopefully, this will clear some of the confusion.  Let’s get to it, shall we?

What to eat before the gym

When we work out, it’s important to be properly fueled before we work out, unless you plan on working out fasted (more on this in a minute).  The purpose of consuming a pre-workout meal or snack is purely energy.  We want to ensure that we have the energy to power through the workout.  Because, it won’t feel productive if we know we aren’t giving it our all.

A good pre-workout snack is going to consist of a fast burning carb anywhere from 45-60 minutes before your workout.  The exact amount will vary from individual’s needs, but you don’t want to sit down to a bowl of brown rice beforehand.  Timing is important though.  We want most, if not all, of this snack to be broken down and working its energy producing magic before we start working out. 

When we workout, our muscles pull blood from our digestive tract, which halts digestion and absorption of nutrients.  Eating and then immediately working out will fill your belly but not help produce more energy to get through the workout. 

Aside from a fast burning carb, it’s okay to have a little bit of protein and a little bit of fat.  But don’t go overboard…you’ll want to save those for your post-workout meal or snack.

Do you need to eat before working out?

The short answer is no.  The long answer…perhaps.  The purpose of eating before hitting the gym is to ensure that you have an influx of nutrients and energy to get you through the workout.  But, whether you need to eat really depends on the time of day you’re working out.

If you’re working out first thing in the morning, there’s a good chance you don’t actually need to consume food before you go.  We call this a fasted workout.  When we workout in a fasted state, we utilize the storage form of carbs (glycogen) to give us the energy we need to get through the workout.  If we’ve been fasting overnight and have already depleted those stores (as most will have), you’ll start turning over fat for fuel instead of carbs. 

There hasn’t been a ton of studies on this yet.  It’s not a new concept but it is starting to gain traction with the popularity of intermittent fasting.  However, this study did find a fasted workout to be beneficial in those with insulin resistance or Type 2 Diabetes. 

Just ensure that if you choose to workout fasted, you consume a proper post-workout snack or meal afterwards (more on this below).  Do not continue to fast after working out.

If you’re working out after you’ve already broken your fast, you may want to have a pre-workout snack to boost your energy levels to help get you through that workout a bit better.    We’ll go over some examples later on.

What to eat after the gym

Many of us immediately think protein when we think about what to consume after working out.  I touched on protein requirements, powders, and absorbability last month.  You can read that blog here.  Eating after your workout is pretty important not only for overall improvement but also for proper muscle repair and recovery.  What’s needed is much more than just protein. 

Carbs are important.  During a workout, we deplete our storage form of carbs (glycogen).  Now we need to replenish those stores so we have plenty of energy to continue throughout the day and through the next workout.  However, junk food is not the answer.  We need good quality carbs that our body can store AND won’t cause us to negate the workout we just completed (i.e. whole grain vs cupcakes). 

Post-workout protein intake should be around 20g within a few hours of exercising to maximize muscle growth and recovery.  The accurate calculation is 0.2 to 0.4 g/kg of body weight then multiplied by the number of hours working out.  For me, 20g is about spot on.  I really don’t recommend going over 20g in one sitting because after that, the science is conflicted on how much our body can utilize at one time.  For every study that says your body can absorb 30g or more, there’s another that says less than 20g is optimal.  So, 20g seems to be the average that we are going with at this time. 

Post-workout carb intake also depends on weight but should be around 60g within a few hours of exercising.  The accurate calculation is 1.2g/kg of body weight but they found 0.8 g/kg of body weight then multiplied by the number of hours working out was just as effective.  For me, that’s about 50g of carbs post workout.  This is really a guide though.  People will require differing carb levels based on their goals.  If you’re focusing on low carb intake (less than 100g daily), your post workout carb intake will be lower.  However, I recommend you take in some to help with muscle recovery and energy store replenishment. 

Nutrients required for muscle recovery

Now, aside from protein and carbs, we need some other nutrients as well.  Many of these aren’t readily thought of when we think post-exercise nutrition. 

Calcium:  This mineral is important for bone health but it’s also important for proper contraction and growth of muscles.  Since it is a mineral, we lose it through our sweat.  Foods high in calcium are dark, leafy greens, sardines with the bones, dairy, tofu, fortified nut milks, broccoli, and edamame.

Magnesium: Also a mineral important for bone health, it plays a role in energy production, protein synthesis, and muscle contraction and relaxation.  We lose this mineral when we sweat and when we are stressed.  Food sources of magnesium are greens, nuts/seeds, black beans, and avocados. 

Vitamin C:  A water soluble vitamin that is important for immune function and tissue regeneration/growth.  Vitamin C promotes collagen production as well.  This is needed for healthy muscles, skin, and joints.  Foods high in vitamin C are kale, bell peppers, kiwi, oranges, broccoli, and Brussel sprouts.

Zinc:  Another mineral, is important for energy production in the body, immune health, and protein and DNA synthesis.  Because it’s a mineral, we lose it through sweat.  And like magnesium, we burn through it when stressed.  Food sources of zinc include red meat, kidney beans, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, and spinach. 

A great post-workout meal will include proteins, carbs, healthy fats (of course), and a healthy dose of these nutrients we don’t necessarily associate with muscle repair and recovery.

Pre-Workout Snack Options
  • Banana w/ small handful of nuts
  • Banana w/ 1 tbsp nut butter
  • 1-2 rice cakes w/ nut butter
  • Fruit smoothies
  • Apple w/ nut butter and raisins
  • Plain greek yogurt w/ fruit
  • Carrots and hummus
Post-Workout Snack Options
  • Quinoa w/ legumes and vegetables
  • Protein smoothie
  • Ezekiel toast w/ nut butter, pumpkin seeds, and banana
  • Tofu scramble w/ veggies and brown rice
  • 4 oz chicken w/ brown rice and veggies
  • Ezekiel tortilla w/ hummus, veggies, and salmon

Hydration

I don’t want to get too into hydration because I could talk about this topic for ages.  Important points are:

  • Drink 20oz or so before hitting the gym
  • Water consumed while working out doesn’t count towards your daily intake
  • Divide your weight in half and change lbs to oz…that’s about what you should be drinking in a day
  • Dehydration can cause muscle cramps, impaired digestion, and more nutrient utilization
  • Overhydrating can cause electrolyte imbalance

And that’s that.  There’s a lot more to pre-and post-workout nutrition than just a protein shake.  In order to really maximize your workouts, you need to maximize your nutrients. 

Leave a comment below and let me know which tidbit of information was most surprising to you!

References:

Beelen, Milou, et al. “Nutritional Strategies to Promote Postexercise Recovery.” International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, vol. 20, no. 6, 2010, pp. 515–532., doi:10.1123/ijsnem.20.6.515.

Hansen, Dominique, et al. “Impact of Endurance Exercise Training in the Fasted State on Muscle Biochemistry and Metabolism in Healthy Subjects: Can These Effects Be of Particular Clinical Benefit to Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus and Insulin-Resistant Patients?” Sports Medicine, vol. 47, no. 3, 2016, pp. 415–428., doi:10.1007/s40279-016-0594-x.

Sunny Brigham, MS, CNS

I'm Sunny! I'm a board-certified clinical nutritionist with an MS in Clinical Nutrition. I help individuals reduce fatigue, eliminate bloat, and lose weight by healing the digestive tract and balancing hormones. I provide individual and group nutrition consultations nationwide. Join my closed Facebook group today! https://www.facebook.com/groups/140571826548289/

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